The difference in Sunday’s game was two turnovers the Steelers returned for touchdowns in a span of 5 minutes, 23 seconds of the fourth quarter. In both instances, the Vikings moved the ball deep inside Steelers territory and were threatening to take a late lead.
“Kind of fluke deals,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said of the two plays: LaMarr Woodley’s 77-yard fumble return and linebacker Keyaron Fox’s 82-yard interception return.
“What are you going to do?” said defensive end Jared Allen. “You win some and you lose some. Their defense outscored our defense at the end of the game. I don’t know what else to say. There’s really not a whole lot else. There’s not much else we can do. We held [their offense] to 13 points. That should be enough to win.”
That was as close as anyone came to pointing fingers in Minnesota’s postgame locker room, and most players and coaches repeated the same mantra.
“We’re disappointed,” Childress said, “but not discouraged.”
Really, it’s hard to do anything but whistle and tip your cap when two linebackers grab the ball and weave their way to the end zone, especially when you consider the superior individual efforts required on both plays. (See below.) The Vikings answered Woodley’s play with an 88-yard kickoff return from rookie Percy Harvin, but they ran out of time after Fox returned the Steelers’ lead to 10 points.
Last week, Minnesota jumped to a 14-0 first-quarter lead over Baltimore and was outplayed thereafter. Had it not been for the fourth-quarter heroics of quarterback Brett Favre, and a missed 44-yard-field goal on the game’s final play, the Vikings would have registered their first loss a week earlier.
I didn’t mind telling you that last week, and I don’t mind suggesting the Vikings put on a more impressive showing Sunday in staying with a Steelers team that seemed primed to blow them out of Heinz Field. With cornerback Antoine Winfield sidelined, it was fair to question how the Vikings might fare against a Steelers passing offense that entered the game ranked second in the NFL.
But other than some particularly atrocious tackling on Mike Wallace’s 40-yard touchdown, the Vikings' defense was surprisingly effective. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 53.8 percent of his passes for 175 yards, or about 120 yards less than his per-game average this season.
“I thought we played a great game,” cornerback Cedric Griffin said. “We let a few plays go, but at the same time, collectively we played a pretty good football game against a really good team.”
Favre and the offense did its part by maintaining possession for nearly 37 minutes despite a relatively quiet afternoon from tailback Adrian Peterson (18 carries, 69 yards).
If you want to quibble, you could argue the Vikings erred by not handing Peterson the ball four times on the goal line during a third-quarter possession. You know I never hesitate to question Childress’ decisions, but in this case I wasn’t offended. Even Peterson said: “Well, I did get two cracks at it.”
The Steelers have one of the NFL’s best run defenses and they weren’t giving up much Sunday. Peterson’s first two plunges into the line, one negated by penalty, netted nothing. Favre, meanwhile, entered the game as the NFL’s top red-zone passer.
The Vikings certainly didn’t draw up the third-down play to target backup tight end Jim Kleinsasser, but the Steelers covered up the rest of Favre’s options.
Overall, however, the Vikings offense rolled up 386 yards and converted 50 percent of its third-down attempts. Add those figures to Harvin’s special-teams touchdown, along with a defense that seemed to have the Steelers figured out, and you have the ingredients of a huge victory.
In essence, the game came down to two plays, turnovers with especially painful repercussions.
“To think coming into this game that … we were going to have two [turnovers] for touchdowns going their way?” Childress said. “Hats off to those guys. You never know which one of those 70 plays is going to end up being the play.”
Let’s take a closer look at each play:
Return No. 1 Left guard Steve Hutchinson was matched up on defensive tackle Brett Keisel. “I was just riding him around the pocket,” Hutchinson said. Favre said he was planning to throw a pass to receiver Sidney Rice: “I don’t know if we were going to have any success with the play. But I was going to give him a high throw in the back of the end zone.” The play might have taken too long, Favre said, and he might have held the ball too long.
Hutchinson said he didn’t know until later than Keisel had poked the ball out of Favre’s hands at about the 14-yard line. The ball bounced backward and Woodley scooped it up at the 23-yard line. Hutchinson tried unsuccessfully to grab Woodley’s feet at the 33-yard line, and Woodley stepped inside Favre at the 40 before breaking into the open field.
Return No. 2 On a second-down play at the Steelers’ 19-yard line, the Vikings called a screen pass to receiver Chester Taylor. “I think it was a good call,” Favre said. “We were moving the ball extremely well at that time, and things happen.”
Again, Keisel made the key play. He recognized the screen immediately, moved laterally down the line of scrimmage and drilled Taylor just as the ball arrived. Indeed, Taylor said, “I got hit in the process of catching the ball.” The ball slipped through his hands and into the Fox’s. Hutchinson missed Fox at the 24-yard line. “I guess I’m not a linebacker,” he said. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie lost his pursuit angle and Favre slid before he could attempt a tackle on the right sideline.
Those two plays ensured the Steelers’ victory, and let’s be clear: No one awards style points for victories. Every game is important, but if you choose to look at Minnesota’s season from the big picture -- and when they’re 6-1, I think that’s OK -- you saw more encouraging signs for its long-term future in Sunday’s loss than you did in a victory last week.
That’s probably why you didn’t see too many people bent out of shape after the game. If you’re going to lose -- and every team in the history of the NFL has except for one -- there’s no shame if it comes in a close game on the home field of the Super Bowl champions.
“Things like that happen,” Childress said. “I’m proud of the way guys competed. Don’t like the result. [But] it’s been a resilient group from the standpoint of coming back and wanting to improve.”