Vikes Improbably Compete Despite Injuries

Todd Bouman relieved Daunte Culpepper in the fourth quarter, and the Vikings almost got a win on the road against a solid team despite injuries.

The Vikings looked like a M*A*S*H unit heading into Pittsburgh Sunday, their season on the brink of collapse and a severe underdog with Daunte Culpepper hobbled. But, if anything, the Vikings showed they aren't a team that will lay down for anyone — throwing a scare into the Steelers late but falling 21-16.

The Steelers dominated the game for three quarters, but at the outset the Vikings held close because of their defense.

Pittsburgh got the opening kick and drove into Vikings territory. The drive started with a 12-yard run by Jerome Bettis, and Kordell Stewart converted a pair of first downs with passes of 11 yards to Plaxico Burress and 3 yards to Bobby Shaw. But after a double-reverse was brought down for a 4-yard loss the Steelers had to punt and give the Vikings their first offensive shot of the game.

The Vikings quickly gave the ball back to the Steelers, as the team picked up one first down with a 13-yard swing pass, but the flat-footed Culpepper was unable to scramble or get much zip on his passes. It was clearly on the backs of the defense to get the job done and, on the next drive, it did.

Stewart has depended on the run for much of his success, but when he tried to go for the throat following a 22-yard run by Bettis, safety Robert Griffith intercepted Stewart, giving the Vikings the ball near midfield.

Michael Bennett did the initial damage, with runs of 4, 6 and 12 yards to the Pittsburgh 31, and after a 17-yard pass to Byron Chamberlain the Vikings were in business on the Pittsburgh 14-yard line. The Steelers stiffened from the there, forcing a third-down incompletion by Culpepper after an 8-yard run by Doug Chapman, making the Vikings settle for a 20-yard Gary Anderson field goal, but with 1:28 to play in the first quarter the Vikings led 3-0.

With the Steelers on their heels, it was up to their running game to get the chains moving, and it did just that. Bettis opened the next drive with runs of 3 and 6 yards and Amos Zereoue moved the sticks with a 4-yard sweep. After passes of 6 yards to Hines Ward and 11 yards to Burress, fullback Jon Witman got in the act with a 15-yard run. Stewart then did his part with a 20-yard scramble to the 1-yard line, and Bettis finished the deal with a 1-yard bellyflop into the end zone to give the Steelers a 7-3 lead with 10:26 to play in the first half.

The Vikings looked to retaliate, and for the first time in the game the passing offense came to life. It started with a 27-yard pass to Jake Reed near midfield. Two plays later, it was Cris Carter downfield for 22 yards to the Pittsburgh 27. But, once again, Culpepper's lack of mobility cost him and the team, as the Steelers forced a third-and-2 situation and Culpepper, unable to move to buy time in the pocket, was forced to unload a pass. It looked as though the Vikings would draw within one point, but Anderson's 38-yard field goal attempt kissed off the left upright and the score remained 7-3 with 5:15 to play in the half.

With the running game established, the Steelers showcased their pass offense. Stewart hooked up with Burress on passes of 24 and 20 yards to the Vikings 24, and following runs of 7 yards by Bettis and 4 yards by Zereoue the Steelers looked ready to score again. However, they became their own worst enemy, as consecutive holding calls backed them up 20 yards and Kris Brown pushed a 40-yard field goal attempt wide right to keep the score 7-3 — a lead the Steelers would take to halftime.

Pittsburgh looked to put the game away in the third quarter and it looked like it would, as the Vikings opened the second half with a three-and-out. The Steelers came out hot, following a 30-yard punt return by Troy Edwards. Bettis mixed in runs of 6 and 5 yards with Stewart's passes of 19 yards to Ward and 11 to Burress to get the ball to the Vikings 20. After a 9-yard Bettis run, Edwards took a reverse and finished the drive with a 12-yard run to give the Steelers a 14-3 lead with 7:04 to play in the third quarter.

The Vikings' situation went from bad to worse, as Nate Jacquet broke a kickoff return that was headed toward midfield, only be stripped of the ball by Edwards. Kimo Von Oelhoffen recovered for the Steelers in Vikings territory.

With momentum clearly on their side, Bettis and Stewart carried the load from there. Stewart started the drive with a 9-yard pass to Burress, which was converted to a first down with a 4-yard run by Bettis. Two plays later, Bettis moved the chains again with a 5-yard run. The two would combine one play later, as Stewart swung a screen to Bettis that went 16 yards to the 4-yard line. From there, Zereoue took a sweep untouched the final 4 yards — and with 44 seconds left in the third quarter the Steelers led 21-3 and the rout was on.

The Vikings tried to come back, but the offense lost its zip. Unable to throw accurately on deep passes, Culpepper overthrew Carter and was picked off by Brent Alexander on the first play of the fourth quarter, and the game appeared all but over.

The Steelers were content to run the ball with Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who took three straight carries before a punt. With Culpepper on the sideline, backup quarterback Todd Bouman got the call and the Vikings appeared to simply be wanting to give the untested quarterback a look — but he gave the Steelers much more of a look than they could have expected. Starting from his own 15, Bouman completed a 7-yard pass to Chamberlain and then a bizarre pass to Moss that was tipped by Moss and then by linebacker Joey Porter back to Moss for a 16-yard gain to the 37. After a 4-yard pass to Carter, Bouman connected again with Moss for 17 yards and their confidence was building. The drive would end, however, as a pass for Carter was tipped by Porter off Carter's hands and intercepted by Alexander to turn the ball back to the Steelers.

Pittsburgh went three-and-out again, and this time the Vikings took advantage. When Bennett was drafted in the first round it was his speed that was his hallmark, and he finally got a chance to show it. Taking a short screen on his own 20, Bennett got a couple of blocks, hit the sidelines and was gone on an 80-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. The Vikings were on the board, trailing 21-10 with 6:29 to play.

Still content to run time off the clock, the Steelers ran the ball three times and punted. The Vikings were in control of momentum and it got a lot hotter on the next play, as Bouman threw a bomb for Moss, who made a circus catch and wound up on the 12-yard line after a 62-yard gain. Two plays later, it was Bouman and Moss again — this time for a 12-yard touchdown — to cut the Steelers' lead to 21-16. In what would prove to be a critical play, Bouman's 2-point conversion pass for Chamberlain was a high bullet that sailed out of the end zone to keep the Steelers ahead by five with 3:22 to play.

The Vikings defense was asked to hold the Steelers and did more than that. After two runs by Ma'afala, Stewart was bull rushed up the middle by Chris Hovan, who forced a lineman into Stewart. He fumbled the ball and Talance Sawyer recovered on the Steelers 10-yard line with 2:12 to play.
The Vikings had a golden opportunity to win the game.

However, Bouman would show his inexperience on the series. After a 5-yard screen to Moss, the same play was set up, but Bouman took too long to get the ball out. As part of his assignment, Carter provided a downfield block, only to be called for pass interference because the pass to Moss had not yet been thrown. Backed up 10 yards, Bouman sold a screen pass to Chapman that was sniffed out for a 4-yard loss. On third-and-goal from the 19, Bouman scrambled from the pocket, but after getting 5 yards past the line of scrimmage he saw Carter uncover in the end zone and threw a touchdown to him. But Bouman was clearly past the line and was charged with an illegal forward pass — a 5-yard penalty and loss of down. On fourth down, he lofted a ball to the end zone, but it fell incomplete and gave the ball back to the Steelers.

Any hope the Vikings had of a last-second miracle fell by the wayside when, on third-and-11 from the 19-yard line, Ma'afala broke off a 46-yard run, and the Steelers ran out the clock to preserve the win.

For a game that looked to have little or no chance for the Vikings, perhaps a close loss when all seemed lost was worse than a domination because, for all the good things that happened late, the Vikings could have and should have won the game — which is sometimes more painful than being beaten soundly. VU

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