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How the Steelers pressured Case Keenum and stunted the Vikings' offense

Mike Zimmer deflected blame away from the Vikings offensive line after backup quarterback Case Keenum was pressured an NFL-high 51 percent of his pass plays on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus.

So, what happened?

“It was a combination of things,” Zimmer said Monday, adding: “Protecting and the quarterback depth, a lot of these things go hand-in-hand. [Keenum] got deep a couple times and we’re not protecting at that depth. Some of it was that. We were late out of the snap one time. For the most part, we got on the right guys.”

With starter Sam Bradford a game-time decision in Pittsburgh, the Vikings turned to Keenum for his first start since Week 10 last season. Some rust was evident. Keenum only took two sacks, but at least one could be pegged on the quarterback dropping too far back, which opened the field for Steelers defenders like Bud Dupree.

The Vikings allowed pressure due to a handful of gaffes. Zimmer pegged some of it on “communication issues.” They also allowed the rare free run at Keenum when Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt came unblocked. We’ll get to that play shortly.

“We did have some communication issues,” Zimmer said. “There was a couple times we were late off the ball. It wasn’t just on [Keenum], it was a combination of things.”

Let’s take a look at four examples of the Steelers’ pressure, a critical element to the Vikings’ failure on offense in Pittsburgh. Here to help is Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @Dan_Hatman.

On this third down, the Steelers blitz to stress the right side. Cornerback Joe Haden (21, far left) is set to come off the edge. Bud Dupree (48, middle) takes a wide rush, which is where Keenum eventually helps this blitz get home by escaping backward instead of stepping up — leading to one of six Ryan Quigley punts.

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“Looks like Keenum sets up at 6-7 yards in the gun, then retreats to almost 12 yards in his drop,” Hatman said. “There are almost no OTs in the NFL I would trust to carry Dupree’s speed to that depth. The rest of the 6-man protection does a good job versus the nickel blitz and would have held up well. Finally, [Cameron] Hayward was too much for [Riley] Reiff here, collapsing the pocket.”

When the Vikings set up ‘manageable’ third downs, let’s call them third-and-6 or shorter, they were effective. Minnesota converted 4 of 5 third downs in those situations, except for this one below. On the surface, the untrained eye could blame Keenum not getting the ball out in time, but the pressure from left guard Nick Easton’s lane helped stall this drive, according to Hatman. Keenum’s progression eventually brought him to the open Kyle Rudolph, though he was hit when he threw. The failed fake punt attempt came after this play.

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“Right side of the OL handles [tackle/end] twist game,” Hatman said. “Berger carries the penetrator as the protection calls for Elflein to be pushing that way and he picks up the outside linebacker. The direct pressure came from the DT softening Easton’s outside shoulder with the bull rush. In addition, that pressure came on the same side as the primary read, so with the throwing window taken away, Keenum came back across the formation and even though Rudolph was open, the pressure was already home.”

On this third-and-10, the Steelers again bring a blitz (24 times total, per Zimmer). The pressure comes off right tackle, but running back Dalvin Cook appears responsible for defensive back Mike Hilton in this protection scheme. Hilton gets one of the Steelers’ seven hits on Keenum, who doesn’t help his blockers by escaping backward again.

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“You can draw up 6-man protections in many ways, but it looks like [Dalvin] Cook is scanning inside-out. With [Mike] Remmers blocking down versus the defensive end, Cook would have to come across and pick up the edge blitzer. Many protections like to work inside-out to keep immediate pressure off the QB as edge pressure takes longer to get there. As such, I’d be inclined to think Remmers was doing his job and Cook didn’t find the rusher in time to make proper contact. Tough block for him.”

The Vikings’ best drive of the first half was stalled, in part, because of three straight plays with Steelers pressure on Keenum. Right after Keenum’s 24-yard pass to receiver Adam Thielen, the Vikings allow Watt a free run at the quarterback. The Steelers overloaded left tackle with Watt’s wide alignment and a linebacker (#98) blitz, which Reiff attempted to pick up. This one broke down at multiple spots. Zimmer alluded to the play Monday, noting the line was sliding away from the blitz.

After the play-action handoff, Cook had little chance seeing three Steelers defenders between Watt, the linebacker and defensive tackle pressure between Elflein and Easton.

“Sometimes if you got everybody out and about and they bring an extra guy, and the [offensive] line is sliding away, they’re going to have a free runner,” Zimmer said. “The [blocker] has to come back in and take the most dangerous guy. Sometimes that happens.”

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“Again, with this 6-man protection, Reiff and Cook need to pick up 90 [Watt] and 98 [Vince Williams],” Hatman said. “There is some miscommunication there as Reiff either did not see 90 or thought he had Cook protecting that edge.”

How long could the Vikings survive without Sam Bradford?

The morning after each Vikings game, beat writer Ben Goessling dives in for a deeper look at a key aspect of how the Vikings played, and what it means for the team going forward:

In a five-minute press conference where Mike Zimmer aimed to say as little as possible about Sam Bradford’s left knee, the Vikings coach did divulge one piece of pertinent information about his quarterback’s health.

Bradford’s issue was “non-surgical,” Zimmer said, while intimating it was related to the two ACL reconstruction surgeries Bradford had in 2013 and 2014. “He’s had two surgeries on his knee; sometimes it swells up,” Zimmer said.

That’s good news for the Vikings in the sense that the injury, at least as it appears now, shouldn’t be the kind that ends Bradford’s season. The fact Bradford’s issues are related to a previous injury, though, means there might not be any quick way to get rid of them.

As Bradford’s brief pregame workout showed on Sunday, his health could be something of a moving target until the swelling in his knee goes away. Zimmer said Friday he anticipated Bradford would play, and the Vikings came into the game planning to put him on the field if his pregame workout went smoothly. Instead, after a brief round of catch and a few dropbacks, Bradford went into the locker room.

“Maybe the next week, maybe six weeks from now, he’s going to be OK,” Zimmer said. “It’s a non-surgical issue. He’ll be fine.”

The timetable was most likely rhetorical, since Zimmer had already declined to provide specifics on an actual timetable (though San Diego-based sports medicine doctor David Chao weighed in on Bradford’s return here). If Bradford is out for any length of time, though, it’s worth wondering how effective the Vikings will be without him.

They have the good fortune of playing four of their next five games at home, with their lone trip away from U.S. Bank Stadium coming in a Monday night game at Soldier Field against the 0-2 Bears on Oct. 9. But the four teams coming to Minneapolis — the Buccaneers, Lions, Packers and Ravens — went a combined 36-28 last season, and were 5-1 through Sunday, with the Lions still set to play Monday night and the Buccaneers having played only one game because of Hurricane Irma.

The Vikings managed only 237 yards of offense on Sunday in Pittsburgh, at the end of a week where, as running back Dalvin Cook said, Bradford and Case Keenum split first-team snaps in practice. Assuming the Vikings are trying to get Bradford back for Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers, they’d likely devote a sizable share of the practice snaps to him again this week, which means Keenum would have to make the most of the preparation time he’d get if he were asked to play again.

The Buccaneers only sacked Bears quarterback Mike Glennon once on Sunday, but pressured him on 34.8 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Whether it’s Keenum trying to get comfortable in the pocket or Bradford trying to find clean throwing lanes coming off a knee injury, the Vikings will have to provide better protection against Tampa Bay than they did on Sunday in Pittsburgh, when Keenum was under pressure 46.1 percent of the time.

They’d be hard-pressed to be effective for a long stretch of time without Bradford, as most teams would be without their starting quarterback, but whether they can snatch a win or two with Keenum could hinge on the Vikings protecting him better than they did Sunday. Most of the games in their near future are at home, but the slate won’t be easy.

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