The Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers will meet for an ever-important contest on Thursday night. Both teams are currently just on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff spots in their respective conferences. Life changes fast in the NFL, but these two foreign opponents enter this game trending in very different directions. The Steelers claimed a thrilling, last-second victory over their AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, whereas the Vikings were embarrassingly defeated by the previously winless Detroit Lions.
A loss for either opponent on Thursday would deliver a crushing blow to their chances of qualifying for the postseason, which could mean sweeping personnel changes this offseason. The tension will be palpable. We've identified three player-versus-player matchups we’re particularly excited to monitor.
JUSTIN JEFFERSON VS. BRACKET COVERAGE
The Steelers haven't shadowed an opposing wide receiver with one of their cornerbacks in quite some time, but that doesn't mean defensive coordinator Keith Butler won't have something special dialed up for Justin Jefferson on Thursday. Ahkello Witherspoon will serve as the left cornerback and Cameron Sutton will be the right cornerback on the majority of defensive snaps, and Jefferson will see a healthy amount of both of them throughout the contest.
Witherspoon and Sutton will rarely be asked to stifle Jefferson on an island though, and that's where things get particularly interesting. The absence of Jefferson's elite running mate Adam Thielen due to injury will allow Pittsburgh's defense to place much of their emphasis on eliminating Jefferson from Minnesota's offensive game plan. Jefferson will see an excess of double teams or bracket coverage via safety help. The likes of either Terrell Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick will often shade toward Jefferson's side of the field in hopes of forcing Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to look elsewhere. Jefferson is one of the most talented receivers in the league, but he has his work cut out for him on Thursday.
T.J. WATT VS. OLISAEMEKA UDOH
Vikings rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw missed Sunday's loss to the Lions and has once again been ruled out of this contest as Minnesota prepares to play on a short week. Darrisaw was replaced in the starting lineup against Detroit by Olisaemeka Udoh, a third-year player out of Elon. Udoh predictably struggled against the Lions and will face the tallest of tasks against Pittsburgh.
Udoh should see plenty of Watt, who currently leads the league in sacks with an astonishing 16 quarterback takedowns in just 10 appearances. Watt typically lines up over the right tackle in Pittsburgh’s defensive formation, but defensive coordinator Butler wasn't born yesterday. The Vikings possess a quality right tackle in Brian O'Neill and we'd expect Watt to switch sides some in order to take advantage of an extremely favorable matchup with Udoh. Watt is currently seven sacks shy of setting the all-time single-season record and should add to his unbelievable totals on Thursday.
NAJEE HARRIS VS. MINNESOTA’S FRONT SEVEN
Although they've been slightly better in recent showings, Pittsburgh's offense has largely struggled to create explosive plays throughout the 2021 season. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has found difficulty when attempting to establish an offensive identity and it's led to a plethora of touches for rookie running back Najee Harris, via both the running and passing game.
Harris will be predictably busy on Thursday and Pittsburgh will need their first-round starlet to be in top form if they hope to defeat the Vikings. Harris was well-contained in Pittsburgh's win over the Ravens on Sunday, gaining just 71 yards via 21 carries. The former Alabama standout added 36 receiving yards on five receptions but failed to create a single play from scrimmage that gained 20 yards or more. Harris will now encounter a putrid Vikings defense that is allowing 382 yards per contest. Only the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets have fared worse in that category. The Vikings are dealing with various injuries within their front seven with the likes of Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin currently on injured reserve. It sets up opportunistically for Harris, who needs to be a better version of himself than we've seen lately on Thursday night.
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