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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings had the NFL's lowest-rated pass defense in 2007. They ranked 31st the year before that, 22nd the year before that, 29th the year before that, 26th the year before that and 29th the year before that.
(For those keeping track, that litany takes us back to 2001 -- the last year the Vikings had so much as a top-20 pass defense. In a 32-team league.)
(And if you're really keeping track, yes, we've already used the word "that" six times in this post. High school English teachers around the country are yelping.)
It takes time to wash away years of ineptitude, but Saturday night it appeared the Vikings at least were on the right track. In two quarters of play, their No. 1 defense shut down the Pittsburgh Steelers from all angles. Most notably, the Vikings limited quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to 65 passing yards, sacking him twice and hurrying him on at least three other occasions with primarily a four-man pass rush.
"We brought a little extra pressure somewhere in there but for the most part it was four-man," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "One of the things we really wanted to find out this preseason was if we have improved in that area. This was really the game we pointed to as a group. [The Steelers] were a playoff team a year ago and should be again. This was an area that we needed to step up in, and I think we did."
Indeed, the Vikings committed three draft choices and $31 million in guaranteed money to step up their pass defense during the offseason. Pairing defensive end Jared Allen with Pro Bowl tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, as well as emerging left end Ray Edwards, gave the Vikings one of the NFL's best defensive lines -- on paper.
In the Vikings' first two preseason games, however, Allen and his new teammates still seemed to be working out the kinks. Even the Vikings' vaunted run defense -- they have led the NFL in each of the past two seasons -- had sprung some leaks. (Opponents rushed for 5.6 yards per carry in those games.)
But Saturday night, Edwards set the tone by hurrying Roethlisberger into a third-down incompletion on the third play of the game. Edwards and Kevin Williams each sacked Roethlisberger once, and Williams forced rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall to fumble late in the first quarter.
"We're two weeks from [the season]," Williams said. "We're trying to get keyed up and we wanted to show that tonight. We wanted to show why we brought in Jared and how solid we are against the run. We just wanted a good showing over the other two preseason games, and I think we did it."
Even the run defense returned to its dominant self, holding the Steelers' starters to 18 rushing yards on 10 carries.
"We got some runs leaked out on us the first few games," Williams said. "But just to shore up the doubters on our run defense, it's there. And we're going to get after the passer, too."
How active were the Vikings Saturday night? On a second-quarter pass play, all three of the Vikings' primary rushers -- Williams, Allen and Edwards -- defeated their opponent and got into the backfield. Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket, causing a comical collision as Williams sent Allen careening to the ground.
Roethlisberger escaped, but it's fair to say that not many quarterbacks would have in a similar situation.
"[Williams] is a big man," said Allen, who was able to chuckle about it afterwards. "I think he re-adjusted my spine for me."
Whatever it takes, the Vikings will welcome their defensive readjustment.