The mood in the building for this week’s Thursday night combatants comes from two very different places. Following an embarrassing 41-10 loss in Week 12 and coach Mike Tomlin’s fiery declaration that it was look-in-the-mirror time for his team, the Steelers delivered an inspiring divisional win against the AFC North-leading Ravens. The outcome couldn’t have been more impactful for a 6-5-1 Steelers team embroiled in an AFC wild-card chase that’s looking ultra-competitive. At the other extreme, the Vikings lost to the previously winless Lions to put themselves in a very precarious position where the postseason is concerned. As losses go, this one was unequivocally devastating. In a hunt for seven conference playoff spots, there are now 11 other NFC teams with a record as good or better than Minnesota’s 5-7 mark. If last week was the Steelers’ turn at the mirror, this week is the Vikings’.
Here are four things to watch for Thursday night when Minnesota hosts Pittsburgh:
1. Witness Kirk Cousins at his best. In careening toward playoff elimination, the Vikings are in danger of spoiling what might turn out to be the best season of Cousins’ career. Start with his TD-INT ratio of 8.33-1, which is the best in the NFL (25 touchdown passes, three interceptions). He’s truly put on a clinic in the area of ball security, adding just two lost fumbles to his three interceptions despite ranking fifth in the NFL in pass attempts (446). His passer rating of 106.3 is within close reach of his career-best of 107.4, and his career-high of 35 TD passes is threatened by his 2021 pace as well. Enjoy it while you can -- if Minnesota doesn’t turn its season around very quickly, the curtain will fall on Cousins’ campaign after five more games.
2. Is Pittsburgh’s rushing attack primed for improvement? The Steelers running game, lackluster again this season, showed some signs of life in a late, clutch drive last week. The table is now set for a continuance against a generous Vikings run defense that ranks 29th in the league at 131.5 yards per game. The Vikings' defensive front is hurting right now, with several linebackers (Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Blake Lynch) either limited or unavailable in a shortened practice week. It might do wonders for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s effectiveness if the Pittsburgh offensive line could spring rookie Najee Harris for a big game -- he’s had just two 100-yard days all season. If Minnesota’s run stoppers pass the test early in the game, don’t be surprised if Tomlin keeps issuing pop quizzes.
3. The Justin Jefferson show rolls on. Cousins’ connection with his star receiver has been as unstoppable as Rodgers-to-Adams, Stafford-to-Kupp or any other QB-WR duo in the league. With running back Dalvin Cook questionable to play against the Steelers due to a shoulder injury, Jefferson is the weapon through whom the Vikings' offense must flow. He’s averaging 100.8 yards per game on the year, and could feast against a Steelers secondary that’s struggled at cornerback. Veteran Steelers cornerback Joe Haden will be unavailable with a foot injury that’s sidelined him for the past three games, which leaves the door open all the wider for Jefferson.
4. The Steelers need to heat up the pocket on Cousins. Pittsburgh’s pass rush, and the red-hot T.J. Watt in particular, faces quite a challenge here. Minnesota’s pass protection allows sacks on just 4% of pass attempts, the second-best rate in the NFL behind the Buccaneers’ protection of Tom Brady. Watt leads the NFL with 16 sacks after notching 3.5 last week, and almost exclusively rushes at the offense’s right edge. That will match him against Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill on a frequent basis; O’Neill’s pass-blocking grade of 78.8, per Pro Football Focus, ranks 15th among NFL offensive tackles. Meanwhile, the Vikings will have to contend with Cameron Heyward inside, who is playing at an elite level this season.