Defensive depth shines for Vikings

Although the starters didn’t face the Steelers’ three best offensive players, all levels of the Vikings’ defensive depth chart won their battles and the numbers support that.

Much of the talk over the last few months has been centered on the potential explosiveness of the Minnesota Vikings offense, but the Vikings hired Mike Zimmer as their head coach because they were excited about what his defense has done over the years to dominate on that side of the ball.

While the preseason opener didn’t include many of Minnesota’s and Pittsburgh’s star players, it was a beginning-to-end dominance of the Vikings defense – first team, second team and third team – that fortified a 14-3 win.

In the first preseason game, especially the first of five games, the first-unit defense was expected to be used sparingly. They didn’t disappoint. The Vikings starters saw action in only one series and got off the field in three plays, finishing their night just two minutes, 36 seconds after it began.

Not much more could have been expected of the Vikings defense as a whole. The team didn’t allow a touchdown. They allowed Pittsburgh to gain just 191 total yards of offense and made plays when they had to throughout the game.

With the game scoreless as it moved between the first and second quarters, the Steelers and quarterback Landry Jones, who played most of the game due to the Steelers resting Ben Roethlisberger and sitting backup Bruce Gradkowski, put together the longest and most impressive Steelers drive of the game. He marched Pittsburgh on a 12-play drive, converting a third-and-14 play with a 14-yard draw and a fourth-and-1 with another run.

But just as the Steelers were moving into scoring position inside the Vikings 40, a short pass to C.J. Goodwin was blown up by Audie Cole, forcing a fumble that was scooped up by Antone Exum, who returned the fumble 32 yards into Pittsburgh territory to set up the offense for a chance for points.

Late in the first half, with the Vikings leading 7-3, the Steelers got a 38-yard pass interference penalty from Trae Waynes to give them a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Danielle Hunter blew up the first-down play for a minimal game and Jones went after Jabari Price twice from the 1-yard line only to have both passes go incomplete. The Steelers had a chance to score on fourth down, but tight end Jesse James – a goat in the opener – dropped a pass at the 2-yard line to preserve the lead for the Vikings.

From that point on, Zimmer’s defense took over and dominated. Of their 11 drives in the game, Pittsburgh managed one first down or none on eight of them. Of the 59 offensive plays they ran, the Steelers gained just 191 yards – an average of just 3.2 yards per play.

It didn’t seem to matter who was in the game. The situation remained the same throughout, as the Vikings allowed Pittsburgh just 52 yards in the entire second half, which made it almost impossible for the Steelers to overcome the deficit they found themselves in at halftime.

The Steelers tried throughout the game to establish the run, but managed just 68 yards on 25 carries – a paltry 2.7-yard average. Jones struggled throughout the game to get anything consistent established, completing just 16 of 32 passes for 135 yards. Factoring in the two sacks he took, the Steelers had just 123 yards through the air.

On their second drive of the game, the Steelers converted a third down and fourth down. After that, they were completely stymied. Following those first-quarter conversions, the Vikings stopped the Steelers on third down in three of their 14 third-down situations and the other fourth-down play they faced.

While it isn’t a reason to start planning for passage to Santa Clara for the Super Bowl, the Vikings won the battle of the backups. Whether it was limited starters, backups or third-teamers, in each case the Vikings got the better of the Steelers and consistently held them down, notching a 14-3 win in the Hall of Fame Game.

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