The GM’s Keys for the Vikings to beat the Steelers on Thursday night

Dec 5, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Myles Dorn (46) knocks the football out of the hand of Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) causing a fumble during the second half at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

Going into last weekend, the Vikings were expected to win in Detroit and gain momentum before facing a Steelers team reeling after getting crushed by the Bengals and predicted to fall to the Ravens.

Call it role reversal as now Minnesota is the team coming off a bad loss and Pittsburgh comes to town feeling great after a last second victory over a division rival.

Both teams are in the playoff hunt and need a win in this national TV matchup. The 5-7 Vikings trail Washington and San Francisco by one game in the NFC wild card race while the Steelers are a half-game out of an AFC wild card spot and still have a shot at the AFC North title.

Mike Zimmer is hoping to get some of his key defensive starters back this week. Corner Patrick Peterson has been activated off the Covid list and linebacker Eric Kendricks (biceps injury) also has returned to practice. Both were sorely missed in Detroit, especially on the Lions’ game-winning drive.

Anthony Barr (knee/hamstring) also is on track to return which should aid the defense but it’s unlikely Dalvin Cook (shoulder) will play (although he practiced on a limited basis Tuesday) and it’s not looking promising for Adam Thielen and Christian Darrisaw to recover from their ankle injuries on a short week. The Steelers have fewer key players on their injury report but starting corner Joe Haden was out last week with a foot injury and did not practice on Tuesday.

“Our backs are to the wall,” Zimmer said. “We’re all disappointed but we’re going to keep fighting.”

Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Steelers:

1. Running game is key: Minnesota’s passing offense is No. 7 in the NFL but Pittsburgh leads the league with 37 sacks and ranks No. 27 against the run. The offensive line needs to step up especially in short yardage and goal line situations and strong running is needed from Alexander Mattison and Kene Nwangwu if Cook remains out.

2. Keep going to J.J. off play action: Justin Jefferson has been on fire the last three weeks and he’s No. 2 in the league with 1,209 receiving yards. With Thielen likely out, Jefferson will command lots of Steeler attention but Kirk Cousins still needs to get him the ball. Tyler Conklin and K.J. Osborn were targeted often after Thielen hurt his ankle and they should be a big part of the game plan too.

The Vikings have been going more to play action lately with good success and that will be important against the active Steelers pass rush. Again, running the ball well is critical to make play action effective.

3. Pass protect and chip: T.J. Watt was a game-wreaker against Baltimore with 3.5 sacks to bring his league-leading total to 16. Minnesota must chip on Watt with tight ends and running backs to help the tackles. Cam Heyward (6.5 sacks) is another Steeler pass rusher who must be handled.

4. Better 2-point conversion play calls: Try some play action throws to your best receiver Jefferson or to Conklin who catches the ball well in traffic instead of pounding your backs into the middle of the defense after those calls got stuffed twice by Detroit.

5. Stop the run and pressure Big Ben: The Steelers have a quality back in first rounder Najee Harris but he’s only averaging 3.6 yards per carry due to an offensive line that is not up to usual Steeler standards in the run game and also has allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 25 times. The Steelers surely will test the Vikings No. 29 run D and Minnesota must limit Harris’ production.

The Steelers have leaned on the passing game this season with Big Ben throwing to an excellent receiving corps led by Diontae Johnson (76 catches, 914 yards, 6 TDs), Chase Claypool (16.9 average yards per reception) and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth (43 catches, 6 TDs).

The Vikings can’t repeat the non-aggressive approach that was costly in Detroit in terms of little blitzing and playing soft coverage. With Peterson back, Zimmer should feel better about his corner situation and send more timely blitzes against a suspect O-line. And whoever plays opposite Peterson—Bashaud Breeland or Cam Dantzler—must play consistently better and Mackensie Alexander must be solid in the slot.

6. Finish the first half better, defense…and while you’re at it, finish the second half better too: It’s now a ridiculous 72 points that the Vikings have allowed in the last two minutes of the first half. Perhaps the best way to stop this is for the offense to have a long drive to close the first half. This stat has to improve and the Minnesota D must get critical stops at the end of games. They did force two Detroit turnovers in the fourth quarter which was positive. But then they collapsed on the most important drive at game’s end.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger completed 9 of 10 passes for 129 yards and 2 TDs in the fourth quarter against Baltimore so watch out, Vikings D, and better yet have the offense run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal as happened three weeks ago against Green Bay.

Jeff’s Prediction: The Steelers, like the Vikings, have a lot of talented players on both sides of the ball but have had an up-and-down season. The short week with a Thursday night game is challenging for both teams as they come off close division games and it’s tougher for the road team.

The Vikings need to get off to a good start to get their frustrated fans loudly into the game to make it difficult for Roethlisberger to audible (which he does well according to Zimmer).

Over the past eight games, the Vikings have gone two wins, two losses, two wins, two losses so now they’re due for two wins. With that pattern in mind, a home crowd and Pittsburgh traveling on a short week after playing a physical game (as is always the case with Steelers-Ravens), I’ll take the Vikings (though not with great confidence) in a high scoring game—34-31 Minnesota.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. What a crazy game at Buffalo in their snow/wind game on Monday night. Bill Belichick showed again why he’s perhaps the best NFL coach of all time. He ordered up a run-heavy game plan with only three passing plays by Mac Jones and trusted his always in the right spot defensive players as the Pats took control of the AFC East with the 14-10 win.

2. There are several great matchups this weekend. Buffalo at Tampa Bay and L.A. Rams at Arizona should be exciting but the games of most interest to the Vikings are Dallas at Washington, San Francisco at Cincinnati and Chicago at Green Bay. If the Vikings beat the Steelers and Washington and San Francisco fall, then Minnesota will be tied for the sixth and seventh playoff spots in the NFC. They’d also like to see the Bears not pull the upset at Lambeau and think they’re still alive heading into their Monday night home game the following week against the Vikings.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl