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Thursday Night Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings

Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings


Line: Vikings -3, Total: 43.5 


End of ANOTHER Era? 

A major theme throughout the NFL and STAT Stack this season has been various eras coming to an end. Last week we discussed Ben Roethlisberger, who predictably went out and led the Steelers to a victory over heated rival, Baltimore. As soon as we announce someone is done, they come back with vigor. So, let’s see if we can do it again this week! 

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is the seventh-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, as we wrote about previously. But calls for his job amongst Vikings fans have really started to intensify, especially over the past two weeks. Minnesota had two more blown-lead losses, as they have blown more leads than any team in the NFL. They are the only team who has held a lead of at least 6 points in every game this season, yet they have 7 losses. In those defeats, the Vikings have blown a six-point lead (Lions), four seven-point leads (Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, and 49ers), a 13-point lead (Cardinals) and a 14-point lead (Ravens). 

That’s bad for a head coach, but something that’s worse is that Zimmer’s defense (remember he was hired as a defensive guru) has been TERRIBLE in the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarters. They have allowed an NFL-worst 101 points in the final two minutes of either half (the next closest team is Seattle with 83). In the last 20 NFL seasons, the most points allowed in the final two minutes of a half is 107 – a record that these Vikings set just last season. Over the past 28 games, they have allowed 208 points during those waning moments, an average of 7.4 points per game. The last-minute TD given up to Detroit was the fourth game-tying or go-ahead touchdown scored by a Vikings opponent in the final two minutes of the game this season. 

Prior to the 2021 campaign, Zimmer’s squad had reached the postseason in alternating years, never making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons but never missing in back-to-back seasons, either. However, Minnesota failed to reach the postseason in 2020 and is in danger of suffering the same fate in 2021; the loss against Detroit dropped its chances of reaching the playoffs to 28%, according to FiveThirtyEight. A win over the Steelers on Thursday night would increase the odds to 36%, but a loss would drop the team down to 13%. This is a big game for the Vikings and expect the fans in U.S. Bank Stadium to let the team and Zimmer know if they can’t come through. 


Home/Road Splits 

Thursday Night games are notoriously difficult for the road teams and the Steelers have been one of the prime examples of that phenomena. Under Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh has a 6-1 record at home on Thursday Night; In their last seven Thursday road games, the Steelers are 1-6 straight-up. At home on Thursdays, Pittsburgh is 4-2-1 against-the-spread in the past seven, while the team is 2-4-1 ATS on the road. The Steelers did not play on Thursday last season because their scheduled game against the Ravens was postponed due to COVID and eventually that game was played on the following Wednesday.

Minnesota, on the other hand, has mostly played on the road on Thursday games (where it has also been bad, going 1-5 straight up since 2006, but above .500 ATS at 3-2-1). The Vikings have played four Thursday Night home games in the past 15 years, losing to Tampa in 2012, beating Washington in 2013, losing to Dallas in 2016 (but covering the spread), and beating Washington in 2019 (but failing to cover). Interestingly, like Pittsburgh, Minnesota did not play on Thursday last season because the team played on Christmas Day against the Saints, which was a Friday Night game. 

According to Action Network, the bets in this game are nearly even so far, with 52% of the tickets on the Steelers, with some sharp action on the Vikings. However, 72% of the money has been bet on Pittsburgh. Similarly, 54% of the bets are on the Over with sharp action on the Under. But 77% of the money has gone toward the Over. At books where the Vikings opened as 3.5 or 4-point favorites, the line has been bet down to Minnesota -3, which is the current line at nearly every book. The Total was set as high as 45.5 in some places, but despite the money being bet on the Over, the line has moved down to 43.5, which is the current consensus line. 


Defensive Player of the Year? 

In three of the past four seasons, Rams DT Aaron Donald has been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Coming into this season, he was the favorite to repeat again, with +400 odds. Steelers DE T.J. Watt, who has never won the NFL DPOY, but did win AFC DPOY last year, was listed at +700 in the preseason. But after getting injured against the Raiders in Week 2 and missing the majority of that contest, along with all of the following game, Watt began to fall down the list of contenders, dropping as low as 16-1. He had a strong five-game run (Steelers went 4-1) from the beginning of October though the first week in November. During that surge, Watt recorded 8.5 sacks and vaulted himself back up the leaderboard to +300. But a tie against the Lions, a missed game against the Chargers and a loss to the Bengals in which the Steelers went 0-2-1 and Watt recorded only one sack dropped him all the way back to +800, a distant second behind Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (+160). 

What a difference one week can make, though. Watt sacked Lamar Jackson 3.5 times in last Sunday’s upset victory while Garrett’s Browns had their bye week. Watt jumped over Garrett and for the first time this season is the Las Vegas favorite (+200) to win the most prestigious defensive award that the NFL gives out. Watt has been a driving force for the Steelers’ success this season; they are 0-2 in the two games that he missed, and they lost the game to the Raiders in which he played less than 25% of the defensive snaps due to injury.

According to Pro-Football Reference, when Watt plays at least 80% of the defensive snaps, the Steelers are 6-2. In the other four games where he has played fewer than 50% of the defensive snaps (including the missed games where he played 0%), they are 0-3-1. According to ESPN Analytics, Watt is tied with Philadelphia’s Josh Sweat for second in the NFL among EDGE rushers at pass-rush win rate with a 26% mark (Garrett is first at 27%). While neither Garrett nor Sweat appears in the Top 10 among EDGE rushers in run stop win rate, Watt rates out as tied for eighth in that category (29%), showing that he defends all plays well and is not just a pass rusher. Watt and Raiders DE Maxx Crosby are the only two EDGE defenders who rate out in the Top 10 in both pass rush and run-stop win rate. 

This week, Watt and the Steelers face the 27th-ranked pass-block win rate team in the NFL (Vikings are at 54%) and they will likely be without starting left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who suffered an ankle injury last week against the Lions. In his absence, right guard Oli Udoh shifted to left tackle and committed two false starts. If Udoh is given the Watt assignment on Thursday, it will be tough sledding for the 2019 sixth-round pick who is Pro Football Focus’ 72nd-rated guard in pass blocking (out of 80).