NOTEBOOK: Pressure on the Line

The Vikings' offensive linemen have been doing their homework this week in preparation for an aggressive Pittsburgh defense that is good at disguising its intent. It could be a defining game for an offensive line that feels maligned but has been making obvious progress.

Offensive lineman Adam Goldberg stood by his locker talking this week with his foot on a stool, careful not to bump the DVD that had been burned for him. The title of the epic thriller was "Pittsburgh" … or something like that. It was the Vikings' video scouting report on the Steelers' defense, one of the biggest challenges Minnesota will face this season.

Goldberg and his linemates have had their homework this week, searching for a way to keep the rushing Steelers defense off of quarterback Brad Johnson and the running backs.

"Pittsburgh's an elite team in this league. They struggled in the last few weeks, but they had a great win against Chicago and we know how good Chicago is," said Gold berg, whose team lost to Chicago 28-3 on Oct. 16. "A win against Pittsburgh would be great for our confidence and to further our momentum."

The Steelers come into the Metrodome with the eighth-ranked defense in the NFL, especially stingy against the run with the fourth-ranked rushing defense, according to yardage allowed. They also run a 3-4 scheme that the Vikings offense has only played against once this season when they beat Cleveland on Nov. 27.

But Pittsburgh's 3-4 is more aggressive than Cleveland's version, according to Vikings players and coaches. The Steelers dog (blitz linebackers) more, making it difficult for the offensive linemen to know which linebacker is rushing on which play.

That's not all bad, Goldberg says.

"When teams blitz on you, it's a feast or famine thing. They either guess right and get you or they guess wrong or we pick it up or see it in advance or they tip their hand and we're able to either redirect protections or audible plays and hit them for a big play down the field. … Sometimes they get you, sometimes you hit them for an explosive play down the field," he said. "As an offense or an offensive lineman, I like when teams blitz us. That gives us a great opportunity to put the outcome in our hands a little bit."

The Vikings can take comfort in the fact that they held up well against a St. Louis team that unexpectedly blitzed far more often than they had shown in the past when they came to the Metrodome last Sunday.

Running back Michael Bennett figured St. Louis blitzed about 45 percent of the time, but the Vikings didn't give up a sack the entire game, the first time that has happened all season.

"Brad got hit some, but there were some plays where we didn't have enough guys," head coach Mike Tice said. "Sometimes they sent more guys than we could block; sometimes the quarterback, when he's a veteran guy, decides I'm going to wait in here and get the ball off and take a shot because I have a chance to make a big play. There was some of that in there."

Johnson took his shots and avoided the sacks against St. Louis, but he only produced 146 yards of passing offense. It was the first time in six starts that Johnson's yardage total didn't go up from the previous game.

With the lead in hand in the fourth quarter, the Vikings relied heavily on their running game to take time off the clock, but they gained only 259 yards of offense.

The Rams have the 31st-ranked defense, and the Vikings know they will have to be better than they were last week when they face the Steelers' more accomplished and unfamiliar attack.

"You always have to be more mentally sharp when you play a defense you don't play very often, and I mean the scheme, not the personnel," Goldberg said. "You have to be mentally sharper in the week preceding the game. Hopefully by game time you'll have it so ingrained in your head that you can just roll with it."

Grab the popcorn and fire up that DVD one more time.

ENDING THE CRITICISM

For the first 11 weeks of the season, the offensive linemen felt they were taking a beating – off the field. Goldberg said he felt the offensive line was being criticized in public and his linemates wanted to put an end to it.

"I think the guys on the team decided to come together and prove to the world that we're a lot better than we had been playing. I can speak for the offensive line, and I know we were a lot better than we were getting made out to be," Goldberg said.

In the first 10 games, the Vikings had given up 45 sacks, the easy average of 4.5 per game. The worst was a nine-sack performance against Atlanta in a 30-10 loss. In the last three outings, Johnson has been sacked only four times, including the first sack shutout of the season last week against St. Louis.

Tice said the St. Louis game is the first game all season that the whole offensive line graded out as playing winning football. It was an especially strong performance for tackles Bryant McKinnie and Marcus Johnson, who each graded in the 1.7s with McKinnie the higher of the two.

The stiffest tests of the season are ahead of them, however, with three defense – Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago – all ranked in the top 10.

"(The Steelers have) a very fast and physical defense," Tice said. "They play the game the right way. They are relentless to the football, which is what we talk about being all the time."

LOOSE IN THE HUDDLE

Running back Michael Bennett said Brad Johnson's positive impact starts before the ball is snapped.

"Brad's doing a great. He's telling jokes in the huddle, getting guys aligned where they need to be out on the field. He's definitely a seasoned veteran, a proven veteran. He's a Super Bowl champion, and you can never go wrong with a guy like that," Bennett said.

Bennett relayed a story about how Johnson talked about the stench of a defensive lineman the Vikings were playing against recently, which helped loosen up the offensive huddle.

STREAK BUSTERS

The Steelers have lost three of their last four games, but they are hoping to continue what they started last week, which is ending winning streaks of NFC North teams.

"We've won one game, a tough game against Chicago, and this will be a big, big challenge coming up here to another team," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "They won eight in a row last week in Chicago, and Minnesota has now won six in a row, and we're playing them at home and they are in a middle of a fight for their division too. I don't know if we're back. All I know is right now we are taking it one week a time recognizing that we have no margin of error."





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