The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings 26-9 in their 2017 home opener in the franchise’s first game in the Steel City without Dan Rooney. Defeating any NFL opponent by a two-touchdown margin represents an important achievement.
But the overall outcome doesn’t change the fact that rustiness remains for the 2017 Steelers to shake off. Nonetheless, a week after their Above the Line but Below Par win over the Browns, the Steelers leave the Vikings game with one decidedly positive take away: The difference makers came from new faces and/or names we haven’t heard in a while.
Referee Eddie Morelli for MVP Anyone?
Steelers Nation entered the 2017 season with the expectation that the Black and Gold would dominate, particularly on offense with the return of the four Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
A quick look at the statistics suggest the Steelers did just that:
- They finished the game with a 14-point advantage
- Pittsburgh dominated time of possession, 34:22 to 25:38
- The Steelers closed the day with an almost 100 total yard advantage over the Vikings
- Danny Smith’s special teams came up with another big play
All of those are positives indeed, but the truth is that twin pass interference penalties fueled the Steelers only two touchdown drives. The Steelers reached the Red Zone on two other occasions, but were forced to settle for Chis Boswell field goals both times, and the rest of the afternoon’s scoring for Pittsburgh came off of longer attempts made by Boswell.
- Capitalizing on inopportune penalties is as important as executing on any the other fundamentals of football.
The Steelers did that, to their credit. But as the second half progressed, and Minnesota’s secondary stopped making such costly downfield gaffes, it was hard to escape feeling that, where it not for those two first half penalties, we would have been watching another afternoon where the Steelers need Chris Boswell to save the day as he did on the road against the Bengals and in the playoffs against the Chiefs.
- That was understandable, perhaps even excusable last season when Ben Roethlisberger was throwing to his numbers 4, 5 and 6 wide receivers.
But 2017 was supposed to be different. Thus far, it has not been. It is easy to point the finger at Le’Veon Bell’s hold out, and he clearly hasn’t gotten back into the groove he was in a year ago. But to be fair to Bell, the Steelers run blocking hasn’t been as sharp as it was during the latter half of 2016.
Steelers Defense Rises to Occasion Against Vikings
While far from flawless, the play of the Steelers defense was far more consistent. To be certain, the Steelers didn’t have to face the hot hand of Sam Bradford, but Keith Butler has no choice over who unit plays, they can only respond.
And against Case Keenum, Butler’s boys responded in the affirmative:
- T.J. Watt defended a pass, helping force a punt
- Bud Dupree disrupted by getting his first sack of the season and defending another pass
- Vince Williams helped end another drive late in the game with a sack
- Cam Heyward and Artie Burns also dropped ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage
- The Steelers held the Vikings to 0-3 on fourth down conversion attempts
To be clear, this wasn’t the type of Steel Curtain or Blitzburgh dominating performance of yesteryear. The Vikings did make it look a little too easy on their one scoring drive. But to be fair, save for that Minnesota touchdown series, the Steelers defense essentially shut down the Vikings ground attack.
Key Positive Take Away? New Faces Step up for Steelers
Two games into the 2017 season sees the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at 2-0, but both “Above the line” performances leave the feeling that the men in Black and Gold left a little something on the field, particularly on offense. That was true in the Steeles win over the Browns, and its is still true after their home win against the Vikings.
- But the Steelers made some important strides this weekend.
A week ago, the story of the Steelers offense was the Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown rampage through the Brown’s secondary (with assists from Jesse James in the Red Zone.) This week the Vikings managed to keep Brown contained at least until Ben Roethlisberger found a way to get Brown the ball in the second half.
- But the Steelers showed that when that happens, Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Byrant can and will make teams pay.
They did so twice, and both times the drives ended in touchdowns for the Steelers. And if the Steelers 50/50 performance in the Red Zone left a little to be desired, for the second straight week Todd Haley showed that he can still score touchdowns with his secondary weapons, with this week’s strike coming JuJu Smith-Schuster.
- Against the Vikings, the Steelers defense told a similar, if not quite as dramatic story.
Did anyone notice the absence of Stephon Tuitt? No, and that’s because Tyson Alualu has stepped in and delivered. Likewise, everyone assumed that should something happen to T.J. Watt, James Harrison would step in. Word is that Watt suffered a groin injury, but it wasn’t Deebo off the bench, but Anthony Chickillo who came in on the right side.
- Be honest, when the Vikings mounted their final shot at contesting the game’s outcome, you begged to see James Harrison in the game, didn’t you?
Yours truly certainly did. But the Steelers stuck with Anthony Chickillo and while Chickillo might not have made any Splash plays, the Steelers defense held the Vikings, and won the day.
Bill Cowher used to argue that the NFL season is akin to a 16-round fight. That’s an apt analogy (perhaps too apt given what we now know about CTE) except that, at least in September and October, there’s no such thing as a knockout punch.
The Steelers started 2017 2-0, they’ve done it without suffering any major injuries and they’ve gotten contributions from both familiar and new faces. Two games into the season, you can’t ask for much more than that.