Vikings, Steelers looking for legitimacy and a 2-0 start

Published 9:37 pm Thursday, September 14, 2017

PITTSBURGH — The memories of last season’s scorching start and inglorious fade remain fresh for the Minnesota Vikings.

There’s nothing they can do about it. Even their impressive opening victory over New Orleans in Week 1 only led to more questions about whether their dominant performance was real or a mirage.

Repeating it on the road Sunday in Pittsburgh against a team that figures to play into January and beyond would go a long way toward quieting the doubters.

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“I think we’re an improved version of that team that started 5-0, as a whole,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “But especially on offense.”

The Vikings certainly looked it while lighting up the Saints. Dalvin Cook set a club rookie record by running for 127 yards in his debut. Sam Bradford completed 27 of 32 for 346 yards and three scores. The group that sputtered through a forgettable second half last fall appears considerably more dynamic.

It was the kind of performance the Steelers (1-0) were looking for but didn’t get in Week 1.

Sure, they beat the Browns because they always beat the Browns , but penalties, an ineffective running game and lack of rhythm outside of wide receiver Antonio Brown left the “Killer Bs” decidedly less potent.

The Steelers managed just two offensive touchdowns against Cleveland, though Heinz Field has a way of curing whatever seems to be bothering quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and company.

Pittsburgh is 9-1 in home openers under coach Mike Tomlin and averaged 30 points a game at Heinz Field in 2016 when Roethlisberger played.

An upgraded scoreboard in the south end zone will greet the 68,000-plus expected to turn out. The Steelers would like to make sure they put it to use.

Not an easy task against a defense that kept Drew Brees in check until things were well in hand.

“We need to bring back that home field, Heinz Field kind of mystique,” Roethlisberger said. “It was always that way when I first got here. Teams need to fear coming into Heinz Field one because of the fans and the craziness and two because of our play.”

Some things to look for as the Steelers try to keep Minnesota winless in Pittsburgh since 1995.

Center of attention

With running back Dalvin Cook and center Pat Elflein, the Vikings started two rookies on offense in the season opener for the first time since 1963.

Elflein has drawn rave reviews for his ability to grasp a demanding position, and his performance against the Saints was a significant part of the group’s success. Nobody on the team sounded surprised, either.

“He’s smart and tough. He played in a lot of big games in college,” coach Mike Zimmer said of the third-round draft pick from Ohio State. “He’s done a great job since he’s been here.”

Bradford is extra appreciative of the progress Elflein has made in just a few months in the NFL.

“During training camp, if he made a mistake, rarely would he ever make that mistake again,” Bradford said, adding: “I think that’s one of the reasons, obviously, he was able to start Week 1 and play the way he did.”

Encore, encore

T.J. Watt spent his first Sunday in the NFL putting on the kind of performance typically reserved for older brother J.J. The youngest of the three Watt brothers in the league became the third player in NFL history to have two sacks and an interception in his first professional game.

Watt downplayed his splashy start, pointing to mistakes such as a 15-yard personal foul penalty for a late hit as evidence he still has a ways to go. Maybe, but Watt’s immediate impact offered tangible proof Pittsburgh’s long search to find an heir apparent for James Harrison may finally be over.

Goal-line grit

The Vikings allowed the Saints five trips inside their 20-yard line, including four inside the 10 and two that reached the 2, but the net result was four field goals and one late add-on touchdown by the NFL’s second-highest scoring team last season.

Zimmer designed the offseason practice plan to include a heavy dose of work in specific situations such as the red zone, and that paid off in the opener.

“We were just so confident,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We’ve been in that situation thousands of times in practice. It’s about doing your job and making the play when it comes to you.”


When the Steelers acquired tight end Vance McDonald from San Francisco late in camp, it seemed to signal a change was imminent.

Maybe not.

Jesse James caught both of Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown passes against the Browns, the first time a Pittsburgh tight end has done that since Heath Miller in 2013. James remains a work in progress as a blocker, but his size (6-foot-7) makes him an enviable red zone target and a matchup problem for defenses.

“The game that he played last week was awesome,” Roethlisberger said. “All the players knew what we had in Jesse James. Coach sometimes wants to get guys fired up and maybe it worked.”