Last week Daunte Culpepper was awarded the team's Ed Block Courage Award. He showed why on Sunday, playing just more than three quarters of football while in obvious pain and with extremely limited mobility. It was a tough-man effort, but it was clear that he couldn't scramble and even more obvious that he wasn't stepping into his throws.
By the time Culpepper was pulled from the game, the Vikings were trailing 21-3 with less than a quarter to play. By the time the game ended, everything had changed. The Vikings went nearly two full games without a touchdown despite the defense trying to keep the team in the game under difficult circumstances.
But with a running back as punishing as Jerome Bettis, the defense finally wore down in the second half and gave up back-to-back touchdowns in the third quarter as the Steelers built a 21-3 lead, a tough assignment to overcome considering Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense was playing at home in Heinz Field.
Backup quarterback Todd Bouman almost completed that assignment, however, as he led the Vikings to two touchdowns in less than six minutes in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't quite enough in a 21-16 loss in Pittsburgh.
It dropped the Vikings to 4-7 and left them without hope of making the playoffs, but not without hope for the future, as a team that has gotten young in a hurry still looks to have the talent to compete with the best in the league.
The game started with the feel of a defensive struggle. Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and got Bettis loose for 13 yards on the first play of the game and moved across midfield with an intermediate pass of 11 yards from Kordell Stewart to Plaxico Burress. But the Steelers were forced to punt after two Stewart interceptions.
The Vikings came out ready to run, but passed heavily in their first series, highlighted by a third-down pass to Randy Moss that gained 13 yards and picked up the team's initial first down. But that would be the only one of that series, and the Vikings punted to Pittsburgh.
Bettis got loose again on the Steelers' first play of the drive, this time for 22 yards, but Stewart made a critical error on the next play. He locked his vision on his receiver, and safety Robert Griffith diagnosed the play and stepped in the path for the first interception in 160 Stewart passes.
Griffith's interception set up the Vikings offense on the Steelers 47-yard. The drive started with a heavy dose of running back Michael Bennett. He picked up a first down on two rushes, then another with a 13-yard run. Byron Chamberlain got the ball inside the red zone with a 17-yard reception and, two plays later, Doug Chapman got the ball to the 7-yard line with a 9-yard run. It wasn't quite enough, and the Vikings had to settle for a 25-yard field goal from Gary Anderson after a third-down pass fell incomplete.
But Bettis and the Steelers answered in convincing fashion. The bruising back started Pittsburgh's drive with runs of 6 and 3 yards, and Amos Zereoue converted the first down with a 3-yard run. The passing game moved the chains for a second time with passes of 6 and 11 yards to Hines Ward and Burress, respectively. Fullback Jon Wittman got into the act with a 15-yard run before Bettis and Stewart brought the ball to the 1-yard line with runs of 3 yards by Bettis and 20 by Stewart. Even though most everyone could guess that Bettis would get the call, the dive was still executed and the Steelers had a 7-3 lead with 10:26 to play in the first half.
The Vikings answered with a solid drive that mixed short runs with passes of 27 yards to Jake Reed and 22 yards to Cris Carter, but it was all for nothing when Anderson hit the left upright and bounced a 38-yard field goal.
Anderson's former team, the Steelers, would repay the favor at the end of their next drive. Pittsburgh moved the ball with precision all the way to the red zone, then stalled. Starting from the 28-yard line, the Steelers started with a 24-yard pass to Burress, who picked up another first down with a 20-yard reception to the 24-yard line. Bettis and Zereoue picked up the last first down of the drive with runs of 7 and 3 yards, respectively, but consecutive holding calls backed up Pittsburgh 20 yards, and that was just enough for Kris Brown to push a 40-yard field goal wide right to keep the score 7-3 in Pittsburgh's favor heading to halftime.
The Vikings opened the second half with a rushing game that struggled, with two running plays losing yardage, and were forced to punt before picking up a first down.
Pittsburgh put together their most impressive drive of the game, thanks to a second chance on a defensive holding call that bailed the offense out of a third-and-11 situation and an incomplete pass. Bettis did the most work, pounding the ball for 21 yards on five carries, and receptions of 19 yards by Ward and 11 by Burress brought the ball to the 20-yard line. Two plays later, on third-and-2, Troy Edwards took a reverse and got to the corner for a 12-yard touchdown with 7:04 to play in the third quarter.
The 11-point lead wouldn't hold up long — but not the way the Vikings would have liked. On the ensuing kickoff return, Nate Jacquet was stripped of the ball by Edwards and Myron Bell recovered for Pittsburgh on the Vikings 47-yard line.
A Minnesota defense that had just endured a nine-play drive that featured a heavy dose of Bettis had to go right back on the field, and it looked like a tiring effort again. Once again, Bettis touched the ball five times, but it was the passing game that was most effective. Bettis converted a fourth-down try with a 4-yard run, then Ward picked up a first down with an 11-yard catch. Bettis converted the third first down with a 16-yard screen catch to the 4-yard line, and from there Zereoue broke containment against Dale Carter and went untouched into the end zone for a 21-3 Pittsburgh lead with 44 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Vikings were tiring and needed a scoring drive from their offense — and they couldn't even come close to getting it. After a 21-yard pass to Moss to open the drive, Brent Alexander intercepted Culpepepper on the second play of the drive to set up the Steelers on the Vikings.
The defense held and forced a Pittsburgh punt after three plays, and the Vikings came out with Todd Bouman at quarterback. He drove the offense into Steelers territory with passes of 15 and 17 yards to Moss and additional completions to Byron Chamberlain and Carter. However, facing third-and-8 from the 35-yard line, Bouman's pass to Carter was deflected off a defender, then Carter's hand and into the hands of Alexander for his second pick of the game.
The defense held the Steelers from moving the chains again, as Chris Fuamata-Ma'afala failed from his backup running back role for the second drive in relief of an injured Bettis.
This time Bouman was able to take advantage, as he found Bennett on a screen at the 20-yard line. The speedy back got loose down the sideline and picked up a final block from Cris Carter to break free for the 80-yard touchdown. It was Bennett's and Bouman's first touchdown of their NFL careers. And while it only brought the score to 21-10, it would turn out to be a crucial igniter to the final 6:29 of the game.
After the defense forced Pittsburgh off the field in three plays and a punt again, Bouman hit Moss for a 62-yard bomb down the right sideline to the 12-yard line on the first play of the drive. Two plays later, Bouman found Moss again, this time in the end zone for an 12-yard touchdown with 3:22 to play. When the pass on the two-point conversion failed, it was 21-16 in Pittsburgh's favor.
With Bettis staying on the sideline with an injury, the defense stuffed Ma'afala on two carries and the Steelers were desperate for a first down. On third down, Stewart dropped to pass and dropped the ball when Chris Hovan bull rushed his blocker into Stewart. Talance Sawyer recovered on the 10-yard line, and the Vikings offense needed a touchdown.
Bouman started by hitting Moss for a 6-yard reception, but the ball backed up on the next play when a timing pass to Moss was delayed and Cris Carter was called for pass interference while blocking with the ball in the air. Doug Chapman was caught on a screen pass for a 5-yard loss, and the Vikings were looking at third-and-goal from the 19-yard line. Bouman scrambled to buy time and found a receiver in the end zone, but he was well past the line of the scrimmage when he released the ball, bringing up fourth-and-goal from the 20.
One of the key matchups of the game was Moss on Pittsburgh's smaller cornerbacks. The Vikings got a good height advantage when the Steelers elected to have Dewayne Washington covering Moss in the end zone, and Bouman went for his favorite receiver in the corner. While the pass was there, Washington shielded Moss from getting to the ball without looking for the ball. Even with plenty of contact, Washington wasn't flagged, and the Steelers just needed a first down to salt the game.
They got it on third down when Ma'afala finally broke past the initial defensive attack and found wide open field ahead. Tyrone Carter caught Ma'afala from behind, but the damage was done with the ball in Vikings territory and the comeback effort thwarted.
The offense returned to explosive status in the fourth quarter behind Bouman, but the result didn't change. The Vikings lost on the road and fell out of playoff aspirations at 4-7, but even for those looking ahead to the coming years there is reason for hope.
The defense looks improved and young, the offense still shows some spark when healthy players are on the field, and the special teams have been solid of late. What has been missing are the few important plays that win games, and this Sunday that meant just one play that didn't happen or one penalty that wasn't called or player that wasn't inserted soon enough.
Comeback Effort Falls Short
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