Special Teams, Offense Let Down Minnesota

Brad Johnson threw two interceptions and special teams mistakes accounted for 10 Pittsburgh points and kept three points off the Vikings' scoreboard. It all added up to an 18-3 loss in a crucial game for Minnesota's playoff hopes.

Take all the sports clichés and apply them – a must-win game that the Vikings didn't win; a team that was striving for respect after a six-game winning streak that did nothing to earn it; and, a football team that is made up of offense, defense and special teams that had only one of those units show up consistently.

The Vikings had blunders on special teams, little second-half offense and too many mistakes (read: penalties and turnovers) to stay with another playoff contender. The result was an 18-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Minnesota entered the game trying to refute statements about the weakness of its opponents during its winning streak – beating only one team with a winning record. Instead, the naysayers had their way Sunday when the Vikings self-destructed on special teams and couldn't find much of a second-half offense against the Steelers, who entered the game with an 8-5 record to match the Vikings

Pittsburgh's second-year quarterback looked like the grizzled veteran managing the game, while the Vikings' Brad Johnson threw two game-turning interceptions with his offense in the red zone. Ben Roethlisberger finished 10 of 15 for 149 yards and a 99.0 passer rating. Johnson was 16 of 30 for 143 yards, two interceptions and a 38.6 rating.

While Minnesota held Pittsburgh to 275 total net yards, the Vikings were limited to a measly 185 yards – only 25 of those in the second half. No Minnesota receiver had more than 40 yards receiving, and besides Michael Bennett's 43 yards rushing, no other running back had more 6 yards. It was a dismal offensive effort once again that wasn't helped by its special teams or 13 penalties.

Instead of giving Minnesota good field position, as was the case often during the winning streak, the Vikings' special teams had a field goal attempt blocked, fumbled a kickoff return that Pittsburgh recovered and turned into a field goal, and gave up a 72-yard punt return that resulted in the Steelers' only touchdown of the game. Without the miscues, the outcome may have been much different, but the clichés held true.

Pittsburgh started the game going backwards, but a hit out of bounds by Erasmus James on Roethlisberger helped the Steelers turn second-and-17 into a first down. From there, tight end Heath Miller found a big opening down the right sideline for a 50-yard pass play, but Minnesota's defense forced a 21-yard field goal out of the drive to limit the damage.

After an exchange of punts, the Minnesota special teams set up the team's first score of the game. When Antwann Randle El called for a fair catch inside the 5-yard line and then elected to block a gunner, the punt hit around the 2-yard line and bounced back in El. Raonall Smith recovered, and the Vikings had first-and-goal on the 3-yard line. They couldn't turn it into a touchdown but were able to tie the game, 3-3, with 1:59 left in the first quarter on a 20-yard Paul Edinger field goal.

Another special teams play set up the final scoring drive of the first half, but that went in favor of the Steelers. Midway through the second quarter, El took a Kluwe punt and returned it 72 yards to the Minnesota 14-yard line. It took six plays and a penalty on the Vikings, but the Steelers eventually scored on a 3-yard Roethlisberger scramble for a 10-3 lead with 3:30 left in the first half.

For the second time in the game, the Vikings got into the red zone on their final drive of the half, but a second interception brought that drive to an end and sent it to halftime.

Like the end of the first half, the start of the second half brought the Vikings offense into the red zone. And, like the previous times, Minnesota was denied points. The scoring position was brought on by a 43-yard kickoff return by Koren Robinson to open the second half. Nate Burleson's first catch of the game picked up the initial first down before Michael Bennett went to work, rushing four consecutive times for 13 yards and one first down. Even so, the Vikings had to settle for a 32-yard attempt that Edinger kicked low and had blocked.

The Steelers showed the Vikings how it is done with their next drive. Despite being pinned with a third-and-12, the Steelers continued forward when Roethlisberger connected with Cedric Wilson for 12 yards. One play later, Parker broke free for a 49-yard run inside the red zone. A sack and two penalties forced Reed on for a 41-yard attempt that he nailed for a 13-3 Pittsburgh lead with 3:49 left in the third quarter.

Another special teams blunder, a muffed attempt by Ciatrick Fason while fielding a pooch kickoff, gave Pittsburgh the ball 29 yards from Minnesota's end zone. Two runs for 20 yards by Parker put the Steelers inside the 10-yard line, and Reed capped the drive with a 26-yard field goal to extend the lead to 16-3 with 3:13 left in the third quarter.

A combination special teams-offensive blunder one drive later finished the scoring. The Steelers were allowed to down the ball on the 2-yard line, and on the first offensive play of the drive linebackers Larry Foote and Joey Porter combined to bring down Bennett in the end zone for a safety. Less than four minutes into the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh had an 18-3 lead, and the only way the Vikings got another first down on two drives was via a Pittsburgh penalty.

The safety was a fitting cap to the second-half offensive struggles the Vikings encountered.

The loss put the Vikings' playoff hopes in continued jeopardy while they await the results of a key Sunday night matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears.

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