Minnesota Vikings Impress In A Game They Had No Business Losing
Plenty of things went right for the NFC North-leading Vikings, who stuck with the favored Pittsburgh Steelers for virtually the entire game. Questionable play-calling and poor luck got in between Minnesota and a perfect record, though, and the Vikings fell to 6-1 on the season.
Heading into the game, much ado was made regarding the injury and absence of Minnesota corner back Antoine Winfield. The Viking's best defensive back, Winfield would force the Steelers to think twice before launching the ball down field.
With Winfield out for a month, the consensus among fans was that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would have at least one receiver open all day. It was thought he would be free to pick apart the corner back-by-committee approach the Vikings would take.
During the game, few throws were lofted downfield. The only extended period of time when Roethlisberger was able to consistently find open receivers for 20-25 yard gains was at the end of the first half, when Minnesota was implementing a soft cover-two defense with extremely deep safeties.
Other than that 1:39, the Steelers were held mainly to the ground. This wasn't of particular concern to Pittsburgh, however, as they managed to have success against the suddenly-porous Minnesota rush defense.
In the first half, the Minnesota defense was surprisingly solid. Despite having to deal with horrible field position because of awful punting, the Vikings held Pittsburgh to just three points (not including the touchdown resulting from the poor defensive scheme at the end of the half.)
Earlier in the half, however, Minnesota had perhaps the best offensive drive of the season. Going 76 yards on 13 plays, Brett Favre led Minnesota down the field with methodical dips and dukes to his receivers.
The perfect picture of Minnesota's ideal offense was painted when Favre mixed in the occasional 15-20 yard heave to Sidney Rice. If opposing defenses want to know how to stop the Vikings, they need look no further than the drive that resulted in an Adrian Peterson two-yard touchdown dive.
Minnesota had the ball with 3:30 remaining in the half while holding a slim lead. Completing one first down, the Vikings found themselves near midfield, and in prime position to add to their lead going into the half. If coach Brad Childress didn't feel comfortable going for the end-zone, another acceptable strategy would have been running the clock down.
Instead of going for the points or consuming time, however, Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell accessed their infuriatingly conservative playbook. The play that stuck out the most, though, was on third-and-15, with just under two minutes remaining in the half.
Bevell called for a Chester Taylor dive up the middle, in essence forfeiting the drive. Minnesota was forced to punt, and Roethlisberger took over at his own nine-yard line with 1:39 remaining. That drive resulted in a touchdown.
Rashard Mendenhall tore apart the Vikings during the first drive of the second half, which ended in a Pittsburgh field goal to push the score to 13-7.
With seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Childress called for the Vikings to attempt a fourth-and-one from Pittsburgh's 35 yard line, much to the joy of Minnesota fans everywhere.
Favre connected with Sidney Rice for the first down, who ran the ball down the one-yard line to set up the eventual Minnesota field goal. The relationship that has developed between Rice and Favre is certainly worth mentioning and probably deserving of its own column.
Without the mentoring and right arm of Favre, Rice would have never reached the level of performance he has so far this year. Putting up two consecutive 100-yard games, Rice has impressed upon Vikings' fans the importance of a veteran in the locker room.
Later in the third quarter, the Steelers were in a first-and-goal position thanks to two big plays from Mendenhall and Santonio Holmes. A touchdown would have given Pittsburgh a 10-point advantage, but a Mendenhall fumble helped spark a long Minnesota drive.
Following three penalties early in the fourth quarter, Minnesota faced a third-and-18 from their own 23-yard line. Needing a big play to keep the potential go-ahead drive alive, Rice did his best impression of Vikings' great Cris Carter on the right sideline, completing a 25-yard pass that was originally ruled an in-completion.
Perhaps the most frustrating penalty call of the game occured at the most inopportune time for the Vikings. A 10-yard touchdown throw to Rice was nullified by a supposed tripping penalty (seen at the 2:00 mark of NFL-Scoreboard-Vikings-Steelers-highlights">this video ) by Jeff Dugan.
This penalty fueled a 14-point turn around for the Steelers, as they forced a fumble and ran the ball across the field for a touchdown, putting the score to 20-10.
Rookie receiver Percy Harvin ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown of his own, though, giving Minnesota the momentum despite still being down by three points.
The highlight-reel clip of the game came from Peterson in the play directly following the two-minute warning. Facing a critical third-and-four from his own 45-yard line, Favre shuffled a quick pass to Peterson up the middle.
Turning around after catching the ball, Peterson saw Pittsburgh's William Gay six inches from his face. Instead of attempting a spin, or juke, Peterson simply lowered his head and continued plowing forward for a gain of 29 yards. (See it here at the 3:06 mark. )
In the red zone with under two minutes to play, Favre had the chance to give the Vikings a four-point lead, but tossed the ball a bit too high to Chester Taylor. Unable to hold on, the ball slipped through Taylor's hands right into a Pittsburgh defender, who returned it for another Steeler touchdown, sealing the fate of the Vikings.
Although now with a blemished record, the Vikings hung with a very solid team at a hostile location. Remove a few questionable play-calls and a fluke interception, and Minnesota is still one of the best teams in the league.
That said, there are certainly some things the Vikings need to improve. While the conservative play-calling at critical times in the game probably won't cease, Minnesota would be doing themselves much good by working on both late-game pass defense and offensive tackling.
Next week, providing they are able to keep Aaron Rodgers upright, the Green Bay Packers will have a much easier time exploiting the absence of Winfield in the secondary. Benny Sapp, Karl Paymah, and Asher Allen all need to be at the top of their games.
Despite the great performance put up by the Vikings on Sunday against the Steelers, some improvement will be needed in order to maintain their leg-up on the rest of the NFC North.
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