PREGAME STRETCH: Minnesota at Pittsburgh

Steelers look to clean up Week 1 mess in home opener

The game: Minnesota Vikings (1-0, 8-8 in 2016) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0, 13-6 in 2016), Sunday, 1 p.m., Heinz Field, 68,400.

Announcers: Kenny Albert and Ronde Barber. Hey, a couple of new (or at least unfamiliar) voices. This pairing is Fox’s C Team starting out the season, which appears to be a step up for Barber, who’s been on the fourth or fifth team in the past few years. With the low bar Greg Gumbel and Trent Green set last week, we’re going to predict this will be the best broadcast of the season so far!

Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Variable clouds, humid, 83. Something to watch this week: Vikes’ shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes had to leave the team’s Monday night game to deal with cramps and that was indoors at 72 with perfect humidity. If Rhodes is covering AB Sunday, he better be ready to run in that heat.

Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Ol’ Blind Pete Morelli. Yep, he’s still with us. In fact, Morelli is one of 21 officials (four of them white hats) who the NFL hired on a full-time basis before this season. And now that all reviews are being done in New York, it will be fascinating to what Morelli comes up with to wreak havoc on games. Although Pete and His Merry Men might be a little rusty in their mischief making as they were hurricaned out last week in Miami. As an aside, if you’ve got a few down moments, do a Twitter search for “Pete Morelli” and sit back and enjoy.

Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com

The last time: Pittsburgh fell to 0-4 and one of the low points in recent Steelers history after they lost to the Vikings, 34-27, in London in 2013. The Steelers creaky old defense allowed a 70-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings and a 60-yard Adrian Peterson scoring run, while the sieve-like offensive line let Ben Roethlisberger be sacked five times. Good times.

The line: Pittsburgh -6.5

Smarts say: This opened at -4.5, which makes a lot more sense to us. The swing had about 55 percent of bettors on the Vikings as of midweek. The over/under of 46.5 (same as the opener, btw) would play out as Steelers 28-19.

Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 11th passing, 29th rushing, 13th scoring (29.0 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (1)

MIN defense, 23rd passing, 8th rushing, 13th scoring (19.0 ppg), 18th sacks (1)

When the Vikings have the ball:

MIN offense, 2nd passing, 6th rushing, 5th scoring (21.0 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (1)

PIT defense, 11th passing, 6th rushing, 12th scoring (18.0 ppg) , 2nd sacks (7)

So…: The Steelers start the season dead last in rushing in the NFL after one week. Who had that in the poll? That’s a combination of Le’Veon Bell’s rust, Cleveland’s improved defense (especially Danny Shelton) and the fact that Pittsburgh considers a 5-yard, first down pass play just as good as a rush (as much as that may gall fans). We’re guessing, though, there will be concerted effort to run the football this week by the Steelers braintrust.

Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups:

> CB Trae Waynes vs. WR Martavis Bryant.

Why: We are assuming the Vikings will double Antonio Brown with Xavier Rhodes and take him largely out of the game, meaning Bryant gets his first chance to show his x-factor talent on the opposite side. Waynes’ pro career started slowly but he’s serviceable now. However, he’ll be severely tested Sunday, giving up five inches and 20 pounds to Bryant. Don’t hold your breath for a deep ball to Bryant as Minnesota likes to employ double-high safeties, but don’t rule out him breaking one of those WR screens you all hate so much for a big gainer.

Player on the spot:

It appears that someone might need to tell Le’Veon Bell how this “playing for a big contract” thing is supposed to go because we’re pretty sure the steps aren’t 1) skip training camp, 2) play a sloppy, disinterested first game, and 3) say you’re just following the game plan (aka blame the coaches). We’re guessing Bell will get and respond to an increased workload this week and everything will be fine, but if he doesn’t on either count then we just might have a situation developing.

Quick hits:

+ You probably could have convinced us to bet the house Sunday evening that this blog item would be about losing Stephon Tuitt for the season rather than avoiding losing Tuitt for the season. As we noted on the Twitter machine Sunday, biceps injuries in the NFL are very rarely minor (maybe one of out 10). If the biceps tears at the elbow, where it usually does, it’s surgery and IR. If it tears as its other insertion spot, the shoulder, the injury is much less severe and that’s obviously what happened to Tuitt. Knowing how cautious Pittsburgh usually is with injured players, we’d guess that even if the damage is truly minor, as Mike Tomlin is teasing, we still won’t see Tuitt again until the Ravens game in Week 4 and if it’s worse, likely not until the Bengals in Week 7.

+ Joe Haden gave up 109 receiving yards in his Steelers debut, the most given up by any cornerback in the NFL in the Week 1, and earned a 55.1 graded from Pro Football Focus. But that earned him a game ball Sunday and praise from Mike Tomlin Tuesday who said he was pleased with both his cornerbacks’ one-on-one work. Certainly, if Ross Cockrell were still wearing black and gold and gave up the most yards in the league in Week 1, there would a different reaction from the fan base for certain. It will be interesting to see how long Haden’s honeymoon lasts.

+ With a win already over the Browns and the Bengals appearing to be truly terrible, the AFC North might be shaping up as a two-team race already, making Pittsburgh’s Oct. 1 trip to Baltimore a bigger-than-usual early-season game. Hopefully, the Steelers don’t get caught looking ahead to that game (like we are right now in this blog item).

The pick: The NFL is the ultimate week-to-week sport and that applies not only when you play poorly, but when you play well. So what can we glean about this week’s game based on the Steelers stinker in Cleveland and the Vikings looking like a Super Bowl team against the Saints? Absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. How many times have you seen the Steelers look like a million bucks at home only to become a rusty penny the next week on the road? More times than you can count, right? Our best guess is the Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger are going to look a lot better this week while Sam Bradford will not. That said, the Vikings could still control this game with their pass rush so prepare for more of those three-step Roethlisberger throws that you all love so much. Based on the belief that Bell will actually catch five or six passes this week and rush for a score or two … Pittsburgh 27-21.

Last year: We started out strong last week, not only hitting straight up and against the spread, but also basically laying out how the game was going to unfold (save a Sammie Coates touchdown catch, which we really only mentioned for dramatic effect anyway). Like half the NFL, that leaves us unbeaten at 1-0 and 1-0.

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