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Lunchbreak: Pundits React to Vikings Stressful Win Over Steelers

The Vikings 2021 roller-coaster season provided yet another ride on Thursday night.

Minnesota earned a 36-28 win over Pittsburgh, but there were stretches where it felt like the Vikings would win by at least 20 points. And there were moments where many wondered if they would win at all.

The football world has reacted to the Vikings prime-time victory, offering up its takeaways from another wild ride.

Chad Graff, who covers the Vikings for The Athletic, opined that Minnesota missed a chance to get a stress-free win after a dominant first half.

Graff wrote:

Thursday night should have been a chance for the Vikings to sit some of their starters. They should have been able to let their home fans enjoy a rare easy, relaxing win. Instead, a 29-point second-half lead at home was somehow turned on its head. Nearly everything that could've gone wrong in the second half did.

In a five-minute span, the Vikings allowed three touchdowns. [Kirk] Cousins threw two interceptions. Kris Boyd took a needless taunting penalty that led to the Steelers' first touchdown and a confrontation on the sideline. And the Steelers had a chance to tie it on their final possession.

The Vikings second-half lead was never fewer than eight points, but it was still a game that didn't need to be that close. The Vikings will take (and celebrate) the win. But it could have been closed out with a lot less stress.

Minnesota led 23-0 at halftime but saw Pittsburgh chip away throughout the second half. The Vikings were paced early on by running back Dalvin Cook, who ended up with 205 rushing yards and a pair of scores.

Graff wrote that Cook, who returned after a one-game absence from a shoulder injury, was the spark for the offense.

After Cook was stretchered off the field in San Francisco less than two weeks ago, the Vikings came up with a plan for their running back. He suffered the same injury at the end of the 2019 season, so they came up with nearly the same rehab plan.

He would miss two games, they thought, then return after that, as he did before a Wild Card Round playoff game against the Saints two years ago.

Instead, Cook's rehab went more quickly than even they expected, and the captain made it clear to the team that he wanted to play in this game. So in a surprise move, the Vikings made Cook active, and he wore the same shoulder brace that he donned against the Saints two years before.

The result? One of the best games of his career. Cook set the franchise record for first-half rushing yards with 153, besting a mark Adrian Peterson set in 2012. He was aided by the best run blocking we've seen all season from the Vikings. Cook had the benefit of some massive holes and had several runs where he wasn't even touched for 10 yards.

Cook finished one yard shy of tying his career-high of 206 rushing yards.

Graff's full list of "things learned" from Thursday night can be found here.

Smith, Cleveland get Star Tribune game balls after win

The Star Tribune handed out its usual trio of game balls after Thursday night's win.

Cook received one, of course, for his dynamic performance. But so, too, did Harrison Smith and Ezra Cleveland.

The Vikings safety saved his best for last as he jarred the ball loose on Pittsburgh's final play of regulation.

The Star Tribune wrote:

He broke up what could have been the game-tying score for the Steelers on the game's final play, knocking the ball from tight end Pat Freiermuth's hands in the end zone. Smith also had one of the Vikings five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

And Cleveland also earned praise as a key part of an offensive line that paved the way for a season-high 242 rushing yards against the Steelers.

View game action photos between the Vikings and Steelers during the Thursday Night Football matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium.

That total was the third-most under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer since he arrived in 2014.

The Star Tribune wrote:

The entire offensive line deserves kudos for rebounding from a difficult game against Detroit. The Vikings stayed [with] the shuffled lineup from Sunday, but this time they didn't allow a sack and opened big holes for Cook. Cleveland in particular had key blocks on some of Cook's big runs.

One of Cleveland's best blocks came on Cook's 7-yard score below. The second-year left guard patiently pulled to the right before clearing cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon out of Cook's way.