Special Teams Leave Vikings Hanging

For much of the season, Minnesota's special teams were a bright point on the team. If the Vikings don't make the playoffs, a loss to the Steelers due largely to special teams can be given blame.

During the course of the Vikings' six-game winning streak, special teams had been a vital part of their success. With improved punting, field goals at critical times and explosive returns on both kicks and punts, special teams had more than done its part in the Vikings' success. But, critical breakdowns in the special teams were killers for the Vikings – denying themselves points, giving away points and creating the Turning Point of the Game.

The troubles got started early. On the first kick return of the game, rookie Marcus Johnson was called for holding – bringing back what should have been a starting point on the Vikings 35 all the way back to the 18-yard line.

It would prove to be a continuing trend that prompted Mike Tice to give a blunt assessment of the special teams.

"Absolutely not good," Tice told VU. "We gave up big punt returns with guys out of their lanes. We had a miscommunication on one of the pooch kickoffs. We were trying too hard to make plays. We needed to play the detailed football we've done the past few weeks and didn't."

The return of which Tice spoke came with less than seven minutes to play in the first half with the game tied 3-3. A low line drive punt by Chris Kluwe was returned 72 yards by Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El. It gave the Steelers a short field to work with and they took advantage. Starting from the Minnesota 14, Jerome Bettis pounded the ball up the middle three times to move the chains and, after a couple of stops at the 3-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for a touchdown – the only TD the Vikings defense would allow all day.

Things didn't get better in the second half either. On their first drive of the second half, the Vikings drove to the Steelers 14-yard line, but, when the drive stalled, the special teams collapsed again. Looking for a 32-yard field goal that would cut the deficit to 10-6, Paul Edinger's kick was low and blocked – the third time the Vikings had got into the red zone and came away empty.

With the Vikings trailing 13-3 later in the quarter, another special teams goof essentially killed the game. The Steelers were cognizant of the Vikings' big kick returns in recent weeks and made the decision to kick off short to avoid Koren Robinson taking advantage of them. Instead, Robinson and up-back Ciatrick Fason didn't communicate and the ball was fumbled and recovered by the Steelers.

"We were trying to make something happen and just ran into each other," Robinson said. "Those are plays we haven't been making during this streak that we made today."

The woes just continued into the fourth quarter. Despite an awful punt by the Steelers, it wasn't handled by Mewelde Moore and rolled all the way to the 2-yard line. On the next play, Michael Bennett was brought down in the end zone for a safety to make the deficit 18-3.

On the next punt opportunity, a short punt hit Travis Taylor and the Vikings were fortunate to recover the loose ball.

For most of the Vikings' recent winning streak, the special teams have been a critical part of that success. That same unit abandoned them Sunday and, in the process, went a long way to determining the Turning Point of the Game.

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