Defense Still Strong In Second Win
The Vikings defense has been maligned for the past couple of seasons, but if Thursday's 24-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers is any indication, the new look attack-style Vikings defense isn't going to be nearly as brutal as many people would think.
"We've been told our defense needs to be aggressive and really pick up its play," Vikings defensive end Lance Johnstone told VU. "We had a couple of rough spots, but I thought the defense did a lot of good things to give us the win tonight."
Those "rough spots" came early, as it looked like the Vikings could be in for tough sledding. The Vikings offense, which clicked early and often a week earlier against the Saints, shut itself down early. After Daunte Culpepper got the Vikings into Steelers territory with passes of 6 and 22 yards to Byron Chamberlain, a 14-yard completion to Randy Moss was negated by a holding penalty on Brad Badger and the drive died, punting the ball to Pittsburgh and giving the defense its first test of the night — a test it failed.
Starting from his own 11-yard line, Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart engineered a seven-minute drive that saw the team face just one third-down play. He came out passing, hitting fullback Jon Witman for 8 yards and tight end Mark Bruener for 9 more. After Jerome Bettis had two carries for 11 yards, Stewart hit Hines Ward for 11 yards and Witman for 2 more — but had 15 tacked on for a personal foul on Robert Griffith for a late hit to put the ball on the Vikings 33. From there, the assault came on the ground. Ward took a reverse 9 yards before Bettis broke off a 19-yard run to the 1-yard line, where Stewart scored on a sneak to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead with 3:57 to play in the first quarter.
"We didn't get off to the start we were looking for," Griffith told VU. "But, from that point on, we started making the big plays we needed."
That, too, would take time. After the Vikings fell flat on their next drive, the Steelers had the ball at midfield looking to deliver an early knockout blow. But the Vikings defense rose to the occasion to stop the bleeding. The Vikings forced the Steelers into a three-and-out, thanks to pressure up front that forced Stewart to get rid of two passes quickly — the second of which was broken up nicely by rookie Eric Kelly. It gave the Vikings offense the ball in the final seconds of the first quarter, and that would enough to get the offense going.
Starting from his own 16-yard line, Culpepper engineered a drive that took almost 10 minutes to complete. He did most of it through the air, hitting Moss for passes of 9 and 6 yards before completing consecutive passes of 14 yards to Cris Carter, 16 yards to Chamberlain and 5 yards to Chris Walsh, but his biggest play was yet to come. In the face of a safety blitz, Culpepper got away from what looked like a sure sack and completed an 8-yard pass to Jake Reed for a first down on the 23-yard line.
The ground game took over from there, as Michael Bennett took a sweep 9 yards that Culpepper converted into a first down with a 2-yard run. After a 7-yard pass got the ball to the 1-yard line, Culpepper ended the 17-play drive with a sneak up the middle to tie the game 7-7 with 5:10 to play in the half.
With the offense clicking, the defense made another big play. Following a 24-yard scramble by Stewart, he attempted to burn the Vikings through the air — only to be picked off by Ed McDaniel. With 2:36 to play in the half, the Vikes took the opportunity to go for the throat and succeeded.
On his own 38-yard line, Culpepper launched a bomb for Moss, who was locked in single coverage. Moss made a juggling catch for 59 yards to the 3-yard line and, on the next play, with the help of what some would call a pick by Carter, Moss caught a 3-yard TD wide open in the right flat to give the Vikings a 14-7 lead with 1:55 to play in the half.
The Vikings got another big play before halftime from the defense, as, following a sack by Chris Hovan, Talance Sawyer also sacked Stewart, who fumbled and Johnstone recovered to give the Vikings offense another chance to score.
"Those were the plays our defense needs to make," Sawyer said. "Getting pressure on the quarterback makes good things happen and we got those type of plays in the final couple of minutes of the half."
Culpepper got the Vikes into scoring position with a 16-yard pass to Doug Chapman to get the ball in the red zone and, while the Steelers defense stiffened, the Vikings ended the half with a 39-yard field goal by Gary Anderson to lead 17-7 at the half.
The Steelers were down, but not out. With the backups in for the second half, quarterback Tee Martin led the Steelers on a long drive. Most of the damage was done by running back Amos Zereoue, who carried five times for 33 yards to get the Steelers in scoring position. But, as it had done in the first half, the Vikings defense stood tall and forced Pittsburgh to settle for a 42-yard Kris Brown field goal, cutting the lead to 17-10 with 8:21 to go in the third quarter.
The Vikings second-unit offense continued its struggles. Backup QB Todd Bouman misfired on a three-and-out first drive and, after the Vikings defense forced a similar on-and-off drive, Troy Walters' 35-yard punt return left Bouman at midfield. Once again, he seemed out of sync with his receivers and another drive failed, putting the onus back on the Vikings defense.
Martin engineered another long drive that took the game into the fourth quarter. This time, running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala led the way, rushing five times for 21 yards and taking a 14-yard swing pass. But when Martin zipped a pass too hard for Troy Edwards, the pass deflected and was intercepted by Don Morgan to keep the Vikings with the upper hand.
Bouman's struggles continued. His next drive was stymied by a holding penalty, but, after the Vikings forced No. 3 QB Tommy Maddox to throw three straight incompletions, Bouman failed to help put the game away. He took control of the ball on his own 41 with 7:40 to play and, with the team looking for a couple of first downs to milk the clock, Bouman threw a pass that went through the hands of Cedric James and was intercepted by Hank Poteat, giving the Steelers new life in Vikings territory.
Sensing their chances were fading, the Steelers opted to go for a fourth-and-4 play from the Vikings 33 with 5:30 to play. Maddox misfired and the Vikings looked again to salt the game away — this time with reserve quarterback Romaro Miller.
While Bouman had struggled, Miller moved the team with passes of 7 and 8 yards to Joey Kent and runs of 4, 5, 2 and 4 yards by running back James Wofford. The Steelers were able to get the ball back, but they had just 1:03 to do something with it — and failed.
Desperately looking for a big play, Maddox was ambushed by the Vikings front four. Fred Robbins forced a fumble and Lemanzer Williams recovered and rumbled in 21 yards for a score to give the Vikings a 24-10 lead with 35 seconds to play.
"I really didn't have to do much," Williams said. "The ball popped in the air right to me. All I had to do was stay on my feet and get in the end zone."
Kelly salted away the win with an interception on the next play and the Vikings left the Metrodome with a 2-0 record and the happiness of coach Dennis Green.
"The big thing right now is that we're 2-0 and won in front of our home fans," Green told VU. "There are still areas we need to improve upon, but getting the wins right now is the most important thing for us." VU
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