NOTEBOOK: The Players Explain

The Vikings had a number of plays or trends in Sunday's loss to the Pittburgh Steelers, from red zone troubles to special teams gaffes to losing the turnover battle and much more. The players and coach explain what went wrong on offense and special teams.

RED ZONE RUSE

Four minus three equals three, at least when it comes to the Vikings' red zone problems Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Special teams blunders and penalties each played a huge role in the Vikings' loss, but the offense still had four opportunities in the red zone and could only come away with three points.

Quarterback Brad Johnson threw two interceptions – doubling his season total – the Vikings had a field goal blocked, and did score one field goal on another trip into the red zone.

In order:
1) The Vikings received the ball on the Pittsburgh 3-yard line on a muffed punt in the first quarter. They gained 1 yard and settled for a field goal.

2) In the second quarter, the Vikings drove 68 yards and made it the Pittsburgh 6-yard line when Johnson forced a shovel pass to Koren Robinson that the receiver wasn't expecting. It bounced off Robinson and into Joey Porter's hands.

"We struggled in the red zone today. On the shovel pass … I saw Koren setting a pick and I tried to make a shovel pass," Johnson said. "I have done that before in my career. I can't remember the last time I have thrown an interception in the red zone. I think it has been like five years or so."

Robinson said he was shielded for an instant and wasn't expecting the pass.

3) At the end of the second quarter, the Vikings drove 50 yards to the Pittsburgh 19-yard line when Johnson went for Marcus Robinson in the end zone, but Johnson was hit as he threw and Deshea Townsend got the Steelers' second interception of the first half.

4) On the Vikings' fourth trip into the red zone, they drove 40 yards to the Pittsburgh 14-yard line before Paul Edinger had a 32-yard field goal attempt blocked.

Edinger said he simply kicked the ball too low.

In contrast to the Vikings getting only three points out of their four red zone trips, the Steelers scored all 16 of their offensive points in their four red zone trips, making three field goals and a touchdown.

SPECIAL EXPLANATIONS

The Steelers' final trip into the red zone was the result of the Vikings' biggest special teams gaffe of the game.

After the Steelers took a 13-3 lead, they kicked off in pooch fashion to up-back Ciatrick Fason in order to keep it away from Koren Robinson.

"They said if it was short enough for me to grab it, and in the game they told Koren if he could get it, get it," Fason said. "So I didn't know where he was at at the time. And so I was sitting there and he came up and there was just miscommunication between both of us."

The result was that Fason tried to field the kickoff, was bumped by Robinson and muffed the attempt. Former Viking Tyrone Carter recovered.

Ironically, the Vikings were prepared for the short kickoffs because they saw Pittsburgh execute them against the Bears last week.

For their part, the Steelers were respecting Robinson.

"They are No. 1 in the NFC and No. 4 in the NFL. Koren Robinson is pretty good. We didn't want to give them a big play to get back into it," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "Our coverage teams did a good job. Jeff (Reed) did a good job kicking it. He squibbed it one time. We blipped it one time. We were just trying to disrupt their timing because they are a pretty special kickoff return group."

THE REPLACEMENTS

The defense survived the return of Kevin Williams on the defensive line and the insertion of linebacker Raonall Smith, starting in place of the injured Keith Newman.

The Vikings may need to test their depth on the offensive line next week against another strong defense. Center Melvin Fowler and tackle Marcus Johnson both suffered ankle injuries, along with tight end Jermaine Wiggins.

Linebacker Napoleon Harris also suffered a concussion. All will be evaluated Monday morning.

NO DOME DIN

The Steelers' poor dome performances didn't come into play Sunday, and they weren't too impressed with the noise of Vikings fans.

Pittsburgh didn't handle the noise well when it went to Indianapolis, but in the Metrodome …

"It wasn't nearly that close. Whomever said that, Tyrone Carter, has to get on him. He said it was so much louder in (the Metrodome) – it wasn't even close," Roethlisberger said. "I think the big thing was that we went to a silent count. Our offensive line did an awesome job – they might have had more false starts than we did and this is their place."

SEASON OF GIVING

Sunday was the first time in the last eight games the Vikings were on the short end of the turnover battle. With Johnson's two interceptions and Fason's fumbled return, the Vikings had three turnovers in contrast to a fumbled punt return attempt by Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El being Pittsburgh's only turnover.

"Yeah, I think if you look at the stats around the league, you'll see that the teams with more turnovers (forced) are the teams that win the games. That's just the way it is – you get more opportunities," Lance Johnstone said. "Unfortunately, we wanted to create some turnovers and we weren't able to do that on defense. We were a little disappointed with that because we've been doing such a good job the last couple weeks."

Not that the Vikings had a lot of opportunities for interceptions, as the Steelers only attempted 15 passes and ran the ball 39 times. They entered the game with the NFL's highest percentage of running plays.

SINKING THE BOAT

Tice was asked if the charges four Vikings had waged against them this week in connection with the players' infamous boat party had anything to do with the loss.

"I think that would be a layman's excuse if I sat here and said it did (affect the team)," Tice said. "Absolutely not."

Despite a heavy day of questioning for the players surrounding the charges on Thursday, Johnson said the charges and attention didn't affect the week of preparation for the game.

"The focus was great all week," Johnson said. "I felt like we came in prepared. I don't think that had anything to do with it. Obviously, we knew it was going to come along, but I really don't think it had anything to do with it. They just beat our butts."

MENTAL ERROR

When the Steelers deactivated left tackle Marvel Smith, it was viewed as a point of weakness for the Vikings to attack since rookie Trai Essex was Marvel's replacement. However, it was a Minnesota rookie making a critical mistake on the first drive of the game.

The Steelers were backing up after holding and false start penalties. Facing second-and-17 from his own 18-yard line, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for a 9-yard run and was stepping out of bounds when rookie defensive end Erasmus James knocked him into the Vikings sideline crowd and was flagged for a personal foul with the hit out of bounds. The penalty gave Pittsburgh a first down, and on the next play tight end Heath Miller broke free for a 50-yard gain to the 8-yard line.

The Steelers had to settle for a field goal, and on their next drive James was responsible for helping stop Pittsburgh with a second-down sack.

FLAGGY GONE WILD

Mike Tice has gained a reputation for throwing the challenge flag, and he had plenty of opportunities Sunday in the first quarter.

Following the Vikings' second drive, Chris Kluwe launched a 43-yard punt. Punt returner Antwaan Randle El called for the fair catch but went to block a Vikings gunner, hoping the ball would carry into the end zone. Instead, it bounced back into El, who was on the ground. Raonall Smith recovered, but the officials ruled that the Vikings interfered with a fair catch.

Tice was 10 yards onto the field, throwing the challenge flag and motioning like he was ready to toss the head set in for good measure. Tice pointed at the Metrodome replay and re-enacted the blocking motion made by El. After the officials conferred with each other, Tice, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher and more with each other, they decided that the Vikings should retain possession because of El not attempting to catch the ball.

Tice won that challenge, but on the Vikings' ensuing possession, on an end zone fade to Marcus Robinson, Tice lost a challenge that Robinson came down with possession of the ball.

The penalty flags were also flying. Both teams combined for 25 penalties for 224 yards – including the Vikings' 10 penalties for 80 yards in the first half.

"We were too penalized," guard Adam Goldberg said. "We made a lot of mistakes. … All those things that seem little to the outside viewer – those penalties, the field position – all that's critical when you're going to play a tight game, and they won all of those aspects today and we lost."

NO RUNNING WILD

The Vikings' leading rusher, Michael Bennett, carried the ball only 11 times for 43 yards, and the team had only 17 rushes for a 3.2-yard average. Besides an 18-yard run for Bennett, very little came easy for the running game.

"They were loading the box up and we were trying to run the ball on them and they were stringing our outside game out, and some of their defensive speed was stringing our outside running game out," Goldberg said.

REPLACEMENT PUNT

Lost in the excitement of the Vikings' one field goal, which came on a muffed punt return by El, was the return the of Kluwe after a one-week absence because of a knee injury. Kluwe's first punt went for 36 yards but a net of 38 yards when El was tackled for a 2-yard loss.

The next punt brought the fumble recovery for the Vikings, but Kluwe's third punt resulted in a 72-yard return by El that led to a touchdown and a 10-3 Pittsburgh lead in the second quarter. On the return, Kluwe had a chance to end it about 20 yards short of where it did, but he didn't get enough of El and came up limping across the field.

Kluwe told Viking Update he was at about 80 percent with his knee injury, but he said he didn't re-injure it during the game. He was, however, disappointed with his low punt that led to the 72-yard return.

Kluwe ended the game with a 44.5-yard gross average, but that 72-yard return brought his net average to 30.3 yards.

BACK TO LOSING

The Steelers not only ended the Vikings' six-game winning streak after ending the Bears' eight-game winning streak the week before, they also sent Tice back into a losing record as a head coach (32-33).


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