Pittsburgh (24) @ Minnesota (12)
-Vikings WR Adam Thielen (ankle) is out after being injured last week.
-Vikings RB Dalvin Cook (shoulder) is likely to play. He was injured week 12, and was out week 13. The injury was supposed to sideline him two weeks, but he got in two limited sessions and is reportedly trending toward playing.
-Vikings LT Christian Darrisaw (ankle) is out. Darrisaw last played week 12. A 1st rookie our of Virginia Tech, Darrisaw has been an above average tackle this season. His replacement, Oli Udoh, is a downgrade.
-Steelers DT Isaiah Buggs (ankle) is out. Buggs hasn't played since week 10. This isn't a huge loss for the Steelers -- Buggs is a rotational tackle with average pass rush skills, but not much else.
-Steelers CB Joe Haden (foot) is out. Haden is an above average cornerback who hasn't played since week 10. Ahkello Witerspoon has seen an upgrade in snaps as a result, and he's a clear downgrade.
When the Steelers have the ball:
The Steelers offense (23rd in DVOA, 22nd in EPA/play) have a pretty pittiful offense. Ben Roethlisberger, aged 39, real age 55, is in what is likely his last season. Among 38 qualifiers, Big Ben ranks 33rd in PFF grades (57.9) while completing 64.8% of his passes (2.2% below expectation) and gaining 6.6 yards per attempt. You can expect a bunch of quick, short passes -- Ben gets rid of the ball in 2.31 seconds on average, which is fastest in the league. His aDOT of 7.3 is 5th lowest. This helps mitigate the Steelers objectively horrible offensive line -- Roethlisberger is under pressure just 22.2% of the time, which is 2nd lowest in the league behind Tom Brady. It's probably the best way forward for the Steelers -- Roethlisberger's passing grade under pressure is 35.2, 5th lowest in the league. His top receivers by projected targets: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, RB Najee Harris, and TE Pat Freiermuth. Johnson is the best of the bunch -- he's cut down from his issues with drops a year ago -- where Claypool is the big play, boom or bust threat. Freiermuth is a rookie who's enjoying a productive season -- he'll spend about 60% of his time lined up in-line and about 30% in the slot. Harris will handle the bulk of the RB carries. He could be a solid running back, but he plays behind an aforementioned terrible offensive line. Harris gains just 0.88 yards before contact, which ranks 55th in the NFL out of 61 qualifiers. In total, Pittsburgh is 20th in passing DVOA and 26th in rushing DOVA. They prefer to run, ranking 21st in situational neutral early-down pass rate. On the other side, the Vikings are 17th in DVOA and 16th in EPA/play. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who have been out since weeks 11 and 8, are 1 and 2 in total pressures on the team. They have Sheldon Richardson (25 pressures) and Armon Watts (22) playing the inside who can generate a pass rush, but without Griffen and Hunter they have zero rush off the edge. Their corners are notoriously weak -- an aging Patrick Peterson is the best of the bunch, but they get bailed out by LB Eric Kendricks and S Harrison Smith, both of whom excel in coverage. The Vikings are better against the pass (13th in DVOA) than the run (29th).
When the Vikings have the ball:
The Vikings offense is sitting at 8th in DVOA and 13th in EPA/play. Kirk Couins is PFF's third highest graded passer this season (87.4) while completing 68.4% of his passes (3.3% above expectation) and gaining 7.5 yards per attempt. He's playing behind an offensive line that is far stronger on the right hand side (RG Mason Cole and RT Brian O'Neill) then the left hand side (due partially to Darrisaw's injury). His top receivers by projected targets are Justin Jefferson, TE Tyler Conklin, KJ Osborn, RB Dalvin Cook, and DeDe Westbook. Absent is Adam Thielen, who suffered a high ankle sprain last week. This represents a major loss to the Vikings passing attack. Osborn should shift from primary slot man duties to the outside, with Westbrook coming in to play the slot. Jefferson has been one of the best wide receivers in football this season, ranking 7th in targets (110), 7th in receptions (78), 2nd in yards (1,209), 8th in touchdowns (7), and 3rd in PFF receiving grades (89.6). Dalvin Cook is projected to return -- he probably won't handle his full workhorse load given the shoulder injury, but him and Alexander Mattison make a solid combination at running back. The Vikings are far better passing (3rd in DVOA) than running (29th), but Mike Zimmer is stuck in the stone age and prefers a run first attack -- Minnesota ranks 18th in situational neutral early-down pass rate. On the other side, the Steelers are 27th in DVOA and 23rd in EPA/play. The strength of their team is without question the pass rush -- Pittsburgh gets pressure at a rate of 25.9%, 13th highest in the league. They blitz 15th most often (25.3%), a departure from their previous "Blitzburgh" days -- a strategy they should continue tonight as Cousins is PFF's 3rd highest graded QB against the blitz. Leading the way is TJ Watt (40 pressures, 16 sacks) on the outside and Cam Heyward (43 pressures, 7 sacks) on the inside. Watt's sack total is absurd -- he's done it in just 10 games, but a rate of 16 sacks to 40 pressures is simply unsustainable. This isn't to take anything away from Watt, he's been one of the best edge defenders in all of football who also has 4 forced fumbles on the season. Watt primarily lines up on the left side, meaning he does have a tough individual matchup against O'Neill. Pittsburgh's defense is trash virtually everywhere else -- at corner, they're without Haden, and don't have a single sole who is capable of running with Jefferson. The good news for them is Thielen's absence means they can dedicate more resources toward Jefferson, but it's worth noting that both safeties (Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick) are having awful seasons. The Steelers are equally bad against the pass (25th in DVOA) and the run (24th).
Spread: The model green lit the Vikings as 3 point favorites. It's tough to get that price without paying serious juice (the consensus is -3 -125), another sign that you need to get your bets in early (as a reminder, our recommendations come out Tuesday night).
Total: The line of 44 is a bit low for an interconference matchup with two week defenses. We don't have a model for totals, but I'd lean over.
Justin Jefferson o90.5 receiving yards -110 (FanDuel): This line falls short of Jefferson's projection of 102.9. As mentioned above, the Steelers don't have the secondary to hang with Jefferson, and the Vikings will need to rely on him without Thielen.