Looking at the Vikings Game

PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers have spent the preseason spinning their wheels on the ground while the team's vaunted running game has gone nowhere.

But the Steelers may get a much-needed elixir when they host the Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field in both teams' final preseason tune-up.

While the Steelers led the NFL in rushing last season averaging 173.4 yards per game on the ground, only Carolina (143.8) allowed more rushing yards per game on the ground than Minnesota (143.7) last season.

Considering Minnesota made precious few changes up front with its defensive personnel, if Pittsburgh's ground game can't get it going against the Vikings, the Steelers should really be concerned.

"We're not too worried about it," said Steelers right guard Oliver Ross of the team's running game, which is averaging just 86.7 yards per game in three preseason games, less than half of its average from last season. "We've just been missing things by a little thing here, a little thing there. I'm not going to say you can just turn things on once the regular season starts, but I think we'll be fine."

That being said, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is concerned. Cowher will go against his usual preseason plan and play his starters well into the first half against the Vikings. In years past, Cowher has played his starters only for a series or two in the team's preseason finale.

"Given the way this preseason has gone, I know I could use the extra work," said running back Jerome Bettis, who has gained just 32 yards on 19 preseason carries while attempting to come back from a torn groin that cost him almost half of last season. "It seems like we've been missing a key starter in every on of our preseason games."

Injuries have hurt the Steelers this preseason with quarterback Kordell Stewart, wide receiver Hines Ward, left tackle Wayne Gandy, and guard Kendall Simmons, the team's top draft choice, all missing at least one game. Ward (appendectomy), Simmons (hamstring), quarterback Tee Martin (groin), and wide receiver Troy Edwards (knee) won't play against the Vikings. They will be joined on the sidelines by linebackers Kendrell Bell (ankle) and Clark Haggans (knee).

Cowher expects Bell, Haggans, and Simmons to return to practice next week in preparation for the team's season opener Sept. 9 at New England, while they are optimistic Ward will be available.

With quarterback Daunte Culpepper and wide receiver Randy Moss, the Vikings should test the Steelers' pass defense considerably.

But, as they were last season when right tackle Korey Stringer died during training camp, the Vikings have been struck by tragedy again this year. Left tackle Lewis Kelly, who has been starting while the team continues to negotiate with top draft choice Bryant McKinnie, has left the team after his wife died Sunday night from complications during pregnancy. Ravika Kelly was four months pregnant at the time of her death. Journeyman Everett Tice will start at left tackle against the Steelers.

Odds and end zones:
Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El are tied for the Steelers' lead with nine preseason receptions each. Burress has 160 receiving yards, while Randle El has 114 yards and two touchdowns. ... Rookie free agent running back Antwon McCray leads the Steelers with 52 yards rushing on 17 carries. ... Steelers' placekicker Todd Peterson has made all five of his field goal attempts and is three-for-three on PATs this preseason.

--Dale Lolley


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