The Minnesota Vikings defense wasn’t all bad against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Antonio Brown was held to just five catches and 62 yards, while Le’Veon Bell was kept to 87 yards on 27 carries for an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
But as head coach Mike Zimmer said accurately after the game, “big plays and penalties” were the Vikings’ downfall. Minnesota was charged with 11 penalties for 131 yards, not including a handful of declined penalties.
There were three instances, in particular, where big plays and penalties merged as Pittsburgh gained 22, 49 and 51 yards, respectively, on three deep passes that were aided by Vikings penalties.
The Steelers likely recognized that an early lead against a team playing its backup quarterback might hold up for the duration of the game, and they weren’t shy about throwing deep early against the Vikings vaunted secondary. Their first deep shot went to Antonio Brown on the left sideline and drew a pass interference against Brown’s training buddy Xavier Rhodes. While Rhodes’ tug may have prevented a larger gain, it nonetheless set up Pittsburgh for the game’s first touchdown, which gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“We grabbed a guy in the back, just a slight grab,” said Zimmer. “That’s a penalty.”
Pittsburgh’s next downfield shot came on their next drive with Martavis Bryant isolated as the only receiver to the right of the line of scrimmage against Trae Waynes, who was playing off and giving Bryant nine yards of cushion.
Waynes was beaten deep and jumped on the back of Bryant a second before the ball arrived for a 49-yard pass interference penalty.
“When he turned he didn’t accelerate to the upfield shoulder,” said Zimmer, “and that’s why he was behind.”
The penalty on Waynes eventually led to another Steelers touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Up by two scores and looking for the kill shot, Pittsburgh was even more assertive with the deep ball in the second quarter, but the Vikings snuffed it out each time. On two separate drives in the quarter, Roethlisberger fired bombs on consecutive plays, perhaps hoping to draw another flag against the grabby Vikings corners, but Rhodes had great coverage on three of them, and Roethlisberger overthrew Bryant on another.
The Steelers had one more strike left in them, however — the only long ball they actually completed Sunday afternoon. It helped Pittsburgh that Tom Johnson jumped offside, giving Roethlisberger a free play. Bryant beat Waynes again for 51 yards as the safety help from Andrew Sendejo was too late. It’s possible Waynes was momentarily distracted by the penalty flag.
“[Waynes] saw the official throw the flag, and the receiver kind of stopped,” said Zimmer, “Then [Bryant] took off, and then Trae kind of stopped and then took off, and the guy made a catch.”
On the two times Waynes was burned, he was giving the receiver cushion, which should theoretically help him defend deeper routes. Waynes has usually excelled at breaking up downfield passes, so his two lapses on Sunday were uncharacteristic. He also allowed a deep pass to Tommylee Lewis in the Saints game.
Essentially, the Steelers identified man coverage against the Vikings and repeatedly did their best to exploit it. The bottom line says they were pretty successful with three massive gains on seven attempts.
While Rhodes generally did well against New Orleans and Pittsburgh, Waynes has surrendered 10 completions on the year, dropping him into a tie for 82nd amongst cornerbacks, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. With Tampa Bay coming to town in Week 3 with the tandem of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, both Vikings cornerbacks will need to be solid.
“We’ve got to be more disciplined with our hands,” said Zimmer. “We’ve got to be in better position.”