NOTEBOOK: The Bad Statistical Categories

With the offense scoring only three points against Pittsburgh, the Vikings have pointed toward two key statistics that were lacking. Their performance in one of those categories was a departure for them, but another bad statistic seems to be a trend.

While turnovers may be the most important statistic in pointing toward a winner, the Vikings repeatedly referenced their lack of success on third downs and in the red zone as two primary deficiencies in their offensive game against Pittsburgh.

The Vikings lost the battle of turnovers, 3-1; they lost the battle of the red zone; and they lost the competition in third-down conversions.

The red zone woes were obvious to everyone.

"When you're facing a good defense, you have to take those opportunities," offensive coordinator Steve Loney said. "You don't get a whole slough of them. Given the opportunity when we had to make something happen, we didn't."

No, they certainly didn't. Entering the Pittsburgh game, the Vikings had scored a touchdown on 46.2 percent of their red zone opportunities. The Steelers defense had allowed touchdowns on 51.3 percent of their opponents' red zone trips.

But those stats weren't indicative of what happened Sunday. The Vikings got inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line four times. Quarterback Brad Johnson threw two interceptions, Paul Edinger had a field goal blocked and they managed to score one field goal on their other attempt.

The players owned up to the mistakes.

"Everything was good. I just kicked it a little low, I think, low enough for him to get his hand on it," Edinger said of his blocked 32-yard field goal attempt. "If they get the right push, a low kick, then they've got a block."

Said Johnson: "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. Sometimes you take a gamble and try to make a play and it really hurt us.

"I thought I was highly ineffective in the red zone. That is the bottom line. I think we had way too many penalties that put us in bad situations. We can't explain all that, especially the false starts. They called one on me for head-bobbing. I've never had that called; I've never seen that call made. So that is part of it."

The Vikings had 13 penalties – 10 in the first half – and about half of those penalties were on the offensive line.


That naturally put the Vikings in some bad down-and-distance situations, and their offense hasn't proven explosive enough to cover that.

"On first-and-5 and second-and-5, then you can run the ball and play-action and do what you want, but when it's second-and-15 or second-and-20, then they kind of know the pass is coming. It definitely changes the momentum," running back Michael Bennett said.

But that wasn't the cause for Johnson's interceptions. On one shovel pass to Koren Robinson, the quarterback said he was simply trying to do something he's gotten away with earlier in his career.

But that pass surprised Koren Robinson.

"It caught me off-guard. It was pretty much like a broken play. I was supposed to go across the middle and pick for somebody. I saw Brad and he made eye contact with me, but somebody came across my face. I saw it at the last minute and tried to catch it, but it was too late," Robinson said.

"When you get into the red zone and come away with three points or no points, it's real frustrating from an offensive standpoint because the defense is out there bustin' their tail doing what they have to do. And then we come out on the offensive side of the ball and make mistakes, we've just got to correct it."

The red zone woes aren't a trend yet. During the course of their six-game winning streak, which began on Nov. 6 with against Detroit, the Vikings have scored touchdowns on 12 of their 18 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line – 67 percent efficiency. The best team in the NFL at scoring touchdowns in the red zone is the San Diego Chargers, who entered Week 15 at 73.3 percent. The Vikings are currently 26th in the league, converting 41.9 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns.

The Vikings' third-down woes are more of a season-long trend.

"In the first half we were pretty good. The second half we were morbid," head coach Mike Tice said. "So yeah, that is really the difference, especially when you don't have good field position, which I don't think we had in the second half except for the opening kickoff return. You need to make first downs to get yourself out of there so you can start winning that field position game, and we lost the field position game in the second half by a lot I think. So yeah, those first downs become more and more important the worse your field position is."

Minnesota converted only 3 of 12 first downs against Pittsburgh, but that's not really a surprise considering they entered the game with the 30th-ranked offense in that category, converting only 32.1 percent for the season. After Sunday, that percentage fell to 31.6.

By contrast, Indianapolis, the league leader, has converted 50.6 of its third downs into first downs.

"You look at last year, we led the league by five percentage points on third down over the next-best team. This year we come back and quite frankly it was a scary thought last night when I was thinking we could go from first in third-down conversions to last. That would be a historic swing I think. That is how poor we are on third down conversions," Tice said.

STARTING UP FRONT

Tice was asked about his offense compared to last year and trying to replicate the success when he doesn't have Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss or Matt Birk available.

"I didn't see us as being as explosive as we were last year, but we still have plenty of playmakers. If we can give the quarterback time and keep him clean, if we can make the right line calls and take the protection to the proper side, then we can make enough plays," Tice said.

Injuries are hurting the Vikings up front again. Starting right tackle Marcus Johnson will probably miss Sunday's game with a sprained ankle, as will center Melvin Fowler. In their place would be the more veteran Mike Rosenthal at tackle and Cory Withrow at center. However, the younger players had supplanted the veterans for a reason, and it won't get any easier for the offensive line when they play in Baltimore.

"Working together and things like that always cause a little turmoil," Loney said of the moving parts the Vikings have had in their offensive line this season.

PRAYING FOR PLAYOFF HELP

Besides winning their last two games, the Vikings need the Packers to beat Chicago on Sunday if Minnesota wants a shot at the NFC North title. The odds are against that happening.

The Ravens dismantled the Packers 48-3 on Monday Night Football, the Packers' worst loss in 25 years, and Chicago reinserted former starting quarterback Rex Grossman into the lineup Sunday night and he sparked the Bears to a 16-3 win over playoff contending Atlanta.

If the Vikings don't win the NFC North, they will need even more help to enter the playoffs via the wild card.

Tice said he would like to see Washington, Atlanta and Dallas all lose this weekend. The New York Giants play at Washington, Dallas is at Carolina, and Atlanta is at Tampa Bay. Washington, Carolina and Tampa Bay are the favorites, according to oddsmakers.

Tice spent Monday going over the scenarios with the team and emphasizing that the Vikings need to win to have a chance.

"I wanted to make sure they still knew we had a chance to accomplish our goals, but we don't have a chance if we don't win this game. So with the holidays coming up and the distraction of the holidays, having to travel on Christmas Eve, having to sit around all day Christmas away from your family, having to play the last game Sunday night on the road, that by itself is tough," Tice said. "I wanted to make sure they knew we still had a chance to accomplish what we set out to do, which is win the division."


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