Despite dire predictions about how the Vikings will fare in the regular season (again), Minnesota's starters beat the Steelers' starters, 17-7, in the first half and the team finished the game with a 24-10 win.
The defense brought a strong pass rush when it needed it most and the offense, while starting sluggishly, finally got it going through the air with big plays to all-everything receiver Randy Moss, who ended the game with 70 yards in one half of play.
Both teams proved they could move the ball, the Steelers against a Vikings defense still searching for the fine details to haul them into the respectable defensive rankings in the NFL; and the Vikings against a physical Steelers defense looking to leave a mark against the Vikings' finesse offense.
With starters for both teams going the distance in the first half, the Vikings started with the ball and started slower, getting to midfield and stalling after a holding call.
Pittsburgh used their more methodical, smashmouth style and shoved it down the Vikings' throats on the first drive while starting quarterback Kordell Stewart continued the opening perfection that the Saints' Aaron Brooks had in the Vikings' preseason opener last week. Stewart took the Steelers for a score on their opening drive, going 5-for-5 for 30 yards and moving the offense 89 yards.
The Steelers had only one third down on the 89-yard drive and only one pass of more than 10 yards. Running back Jerome Bettis was the workhorse on the drive, rushing five times for 32 yards, including a 19-yard run to the 1-yard line. From there, Stewart called his own number and gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead with 3:57 left in the first quarter.
An Aaron Smith sack ended the Vikings' next drive after one first down, but the Minnesota defense shut down the Steelers in turn.
Then the Vikings offense got untracked.
Six first downs and getting Randy Moss involved gave the offense the spark it was looking for. Moss caught two passes, as did Jake Reed, and between Jim Kleinsasser and Michael Bennett on the ground the Vikings put together one of their longer drives in recent memory. After 16 plays, the Vikings were set up on the 1-yard line. Once a Bennett dive failed, Culpepper took the sneak for 1 yard to tie the game, 7-7, with 5:10 left in the second quarter.
It also sparked the defense. Pittsburgh got to midfield on a 24-yard Stewart run, but a pass interference call on receiver Troy Edwards preceded an Ed McDaniel interception to give the ball to Minnesota at its own 43-yard line with 2:36 to play in the half.
Culpepper went for the quick score and nearly got it. After a false start, a 59-yard bomb to Moss, which was batted in the air and brought down again by Moss on the 3-yard line, put them in prime scoring position. Culpepper went right back to his star receiver, who delivered with the go-ahead catch with 1:55 to play in the half.
But the Vikings weren't quite done. Sacks by Chris Hovan and Talance Sawyer in three plays not only backed the Steelers up on their next possession, but Sawyer stripped Stewart of the ball and Lance Johnstone fell on the fumble to give Minnesota the ball on the Steelers 32-yard line.
Doug Chapman picked up one first down on a pass from a scrambling Culpepper, but three straight incompletions brought on Gary Anderson to end the half with a 39-yard field goal, giving the Vikings a 17-7 lead going to the locker rooms.
It would be the last action for the starters.
Culpepper finished the game 14-for-24 for 178 yards, one touchdown rushing and one passing. The running game didn't fare as well, averaging just 2.8 yards per rush, but it was a passing night. Moss had 77 yards on four catches, Chamberlain 50 yards on four receptions and Reed had 15 yards on two catches.
While the defense produced two sacks and an interception, it also allowed a 6.8-yard average rush in the first half.
The Steelers opened the second half with Tee Martin at QB and used a heavy dose of Amos Zereoue at running back. The shifty back ran five times for 33 yards on the first drive of the second half, eventually setting up Kris Brown for a 42-yard field goal to make it 17-10.
Incompletions and a sack by Lemanzer Williams ended the Steelers' next drive, but a 35-yard punt return by Troy Walters set the offense at the 45-yard line. However, from there, the second half was filled with balls punted back and forth as neither team was able to put together a sustained, threatening drive, due mostly to poor timing or bad throws by the backup quarterbacks.
But with the Steelers easily within striking distance one touchdown away, the Vikings defense put the final touches on the game when defensive tackle Fred Robbins broke through the line and sacked Steelers third-stringer Tommy Maddox and Williams recovered the ball in the air and rumbled 21 yards for the closing touchdown with 35 seconds left to give the Vikings a 24-10 win.
The offensive line still has work to do, the running game isn't automatically going to return to Robert Smith form, but the defensive line continued to look more disciplined and able to create pressure in pressure situations — the first step in creating turnovers.
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