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5 Vikings-Steelers Storylines: Jefferson Soaring, Big Ben Ticking

EAGAN, Minn. — It's go time, to be frank.

Just two weeks ago, the Vikings were in control of their own destiny for the NFC Playoffs, but back-to-back road losses with a shorthanded defense has positioned Minnesota in a spot where the final five games of the 2021 regular season need to result in wins.

That begins with Minnesota (5-7) hosting Pittsburgh (6-5-1) on Thursday Night Football, when the Vikings are hoping for a replenished defense.

The Vikings are the ninth overall seed in the NFC Playoff picture; the Steelers are eighth in the AFC.

Only the top seven in each conference will advance to the postseason.

Vikings uniform combination: #Primetime Purple

Matchup to watch: Vikings offensive line vs. Pittsburgh's pass rush

The Vikings responded to losing Christian Darrisaw to an ankle injury at San Francisco by moving right guard Olisaemeka Udoh to left tackle and sliding Mason Cole to right guard after he had started the previous four games at center. Garrett Bradbury returned to the pivot, where he's started all 40 career games for Minnesota.

Darrisaw, who is the only offensive lineman on the injury report, did not participate in practice Tuesday.

When asked if the Vikings would go with the same lineup Thursday as it did in Detroit, Head Coach Mike Zimmer said, "We'll see if the guys are healthy. They did all right."

Pittsburgh leads the NFL this season with 37 sacks, which is one more on the year than Minnesota.

T.J. Watt surged to the top of the league leaderboard with 3.5 Sunday at Baltimore and created enough pressure to force an incompletion on a 2-point conversion pass that would have put the Ravens ahead with 12 seconds remaining.

Watt, the 30th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, has 16 sacks in 10 games played. That's already a career high and has him within reach of the NFL's official single-season record (22.5 by Michael Strahan in 2001). Sacks became an official stat in 1982.

"He's a game-wrecker. He's not by himself, they've got some other guys, too, but he's a game-wrecker," Zimmer said. "He always seems to make big plays. Obviously a terrific rusher, but he's very violent and physical."

Here are five storylines of interest this week:

1. What's next for Jefferson?

Justin Jefferson has just turned in the most prolific four-game stretch for receiving yards in Vikings history (577 yards).

His latest showing Sunday involved career highs of 11 catches and 182 yards in a game where the Vikings lost Adam Thielen early.

What could be next for Jefferson?

Well, personal stats — he's got a good chance at the most yards by an NFL player in his first two seasons and topping his rookie output — are fine, but they aren't the same to him as winning.

"It's about our record and about winning. It doesn't really matter what type of game I have," Jefferson said. "Yeah, I'm proud of myself for having a game like that and getting that many yards and catches, but it's more, 'Focus on the team' and getting the win."

2. Quick turnaround

Vikings players downplayed the short turnaround time between Sunday's fourth loss of 2021 on a final play and the next opportunity.

Some said the quick transition is better because there's not time to stew over the disappointment in Detroit.

They also noted that the Steelers have to travel and be ready to roll.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has refined his preparation during standard weeks and figured out modifications for unique weeks over the years.

"You kind of have to fail and learn from that; trial and error and see what works. For me, it's that balance of rest and recovery," Cousins said. "Getting your body right but then also the grind of learning the game plan and studying.

"I think I've been able to find that balance through the years, but I think early in my career, I would probably err on the side of grinding and not knowing how to rest and recover to be refreshed for that game or for the long season," Cousins added. "I've kind of found that balance through the years, and I think that's helped me be a little more consistent week-in and week-out."

3. Big Ben still ticking

The Vikings last "home" game against the Steelers occurred in 2013 at London's Wembley Stadium, approximately 10 miles northwest of the iconic Big Ben clock tower.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who shares the nickname, completed 36 of 51 passes that day for 383 yards, but the Vikings limited him to one touchdown.

Chad Greenway intercepted Roethlisberger and sacked him once, and Jared Allen totaled 2.5 of Minnesota's five sacks.

With Everson Griffen on the Non-Football Illness list, Harrison Smith is the lone Viking who played in the game and is still with Minnesota.

Roethlisberger is still standing tall, even though his skill players and line have changed.

Rookie RB Najee Harris and TE Pat Freiermuth turned 6 before or during Roethlisberger's rookie season (2004), but they have provided the next wave of players to a fairly familiar Steelers identity at their respective positions.

According to a report, Roethlisberger plans to retire at the end of the season, which some believe was a way to try to spark Pittsburgh after allowing 41 points in back-to-back games.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Steelers.

4. Head-to-head coaches

This will be just the second time in eight seasons that Zimmer has coached against the Steelers since his hire by Minnesota in 2014.

The Vikings dropped a 2017 Week 2 game 26-9 at Pittsburgh when Case Keenum started for the first time in place of an injured Sam Bradford.

Zimmer's tenure in Minnesota is the seventh longest among NFL head coaches. Mike Tomlin, who was hired by Pittsburgh in 2007 after a year as the Vikings defensive coordinator, ranks third on the list behind New England's Bill Belichick (2000) and New Orleans' Sean Payton (2006).

Zimmer was Cincinnati's defensive coordinator from 2008-13, facing Tomlin's team twice yearly.

"I don't know him great. I know from competing against him, and he's always been a gentleman, he's always stood for the right things," Zimmer said of Tomlin. "He's been on the [NFL's] Competition Committee, so we've had some conversations, but I think he does things the right way. His team plays the right way. I have a lot of respect for him."

It will be a matchup of two tough-minded coaches for sure.

Cousins, a frequent recipient of credit and criticism on social media, was asked about Zimmer's resolve at this point of a season with 11 of 12 games decided by one score.

"He's resilient. He's been through a lot in his life. He's been through a lot in his football career," Cousins said. "That's a guy that you're not going to knock down easily, and you can't count him out. I think we feed off that, and it makes us a resilient group.

"He's always going to come in, he's going to tell us the truth. He's going to coach us hard, but he's also going to tell us the truth when its, 'Hey, there's some positives here.' He's going to address those, too," Cousins continued. "Every time you lose, it hurts. It really hurts. It hurts him, too. But as the leader, he knows he's got to get back up on the horse each day and keep fighting."

WRs Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn showcase the team's Primetime Purple uniforms, which will be worn on Thursday Night Football against the Steelers on Dec. 9.

5. Protecting the home front

Steelers fans, like Vikings fans, consistently travel well to road venues. That could be the case again this week with Pittsburgh playing its first game at U.S. Bank Stadium and making its first trip to Minnesota since 2005.

The franchise's have generally enjoyed strong home-field advantages, but Minnesota is just 3-2 at home this season. The Vikings can't affort to yield ground in the standings during their final three home games.

"We've got to start fast, get the crowd in it and make that an advantage all game long because I know when we're at home and when we start fast, it's a tremendous advantage for our team," Cousins said.

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