Vikings head coach Mike Tice said he wanted to find out how comparable the Vikings are to a very good football team like the Pittsburgh Steelers and their No. 1-ranked defense from last year. Early on with the starters, the Vikings weren't only comparable, they were downright very good themselves.
But that quickly evaporated. By the end of the first half, when the starters were pulled, Daunte Culpepper had finished his worst performance of the preseason, the defense had missed far more tackles than they should and the Vikings had accumulated seven penalties and a 14-7 deficit.
The Steelers opened with excellent field position — a major point of concern for the Vikings' coverage units this preseason — after a 38-yard return by Hank Poteat to the 43-yard line. But after allowing one first down across midfield, the Vikings defense stiffened and forced two incompletions to turn the ball over to the offense.
Going against that top-ranked defense of the Steelers, the Vikings moved the ball, but eventually mistakes inhibited a score. The drive started on the 34-yard line, with a run by Michael Bennett and a reception by Jim Kleinsasser picking up the initial first down. A 7-yard Bennett run started the next series, but Culpepper missed his big chance when he underthrew an open Randy Moss, allowing the defense time to knock down the ball. One play later, Moss picked up the first down with a 12-yard reception, but a Joey Porter sack of Culpepper — the QB's first time of the preseason being sacked — put the offense in a hole they couldn't get out of.
They call it a game of inches, and that is precisely what allowed the Steelers to not only get out from the shadow of their own end zone but let them score. Facing third-and-9 from his own 3-yard line, Pittsburgh QB Kordell Stewart narrowly escaped a sack in the end zone by Lance Johnstone and ended up scrambling 15 yards for a first down.
That was the big play that got the Pittsburgh offense rolling. It was followed by a 27-yard run by Bettis and a 33-yard pass to Plaxico Burress on consecutive downs. That put the Steelers on the 12-yard line, and after getting to the 6-yard line the game of inches hurt the Vikings again. Stewart scrambled again, and this time was ruled to have stopped short. However, after the officials turned down a Tice challenge on Burress' long reception, Steelers coach Bill Cowher found instant replay in his favor. When Stewart appeared stopped short of the first-down marker with the official spot, Cowher challenged the spot and won. The Steelers were given a first down at the 1-yard line, and Bettis finished it with a 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead with 1:42 left in the first quarter.
The Vikings continued to throw Moss' way, as the receiver caught passes of 21 and 15 yards on the next drive, but another penalty put the offense in a hole and they punted back to Pittsburgh.
Stewart took advantage of it, leading the Steelers on a 13-play drive, six of those on Chris Fuamata Ma'afala's rushes for a combined 36 yards. Amos Zereoue finished the drive with a 1-yard run for a 14-0 Pittsburgh lead with 6:12 left in the half.
After two Doug Chapman rushes picked up 24 yards, the offense sputtered again. But this time the defense forced the Steelers off the field as well, giving the Vikings offense their best starting field position at the 43-yard line.
This time, consistent explosive plays put the Purple in the end zone. The drive started with a 6-yard pass to Byron Chamberlain before the wide receivers got involved. On second down, Culpepper found Moss down the left sideline for 26 yards, then D'Wayne Bates over the middle for 20 yards to the 5-yard line. On the fourth play of the drive, Culpepper hit Moss on a shallow post to the corner of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown play with 47 seconds left in the half, pulling Minnesota within a touchdown at 14-7.
Missed opportunities on pass plays (underthrowing Moss, throwing behind Derrick Alexander and floating a couple other passes) and penalties (seven for 42) stymied the Vikings' first-team offense as much as the Steelers' top-ranked defense.
The sporadic quarterback play continued in the second half, with Todd Bouman picking up a first down with a strong 18-yard pass to Sean Dawkins for a first down, then following that with an off-balance pass that was intercepted at midfield by Hank Poteat.
A 23-yard pass from Charlie Batch to Lenzie Jackson put the Steelers in field goal range, and Todd Peterson connected on a 33-yarder for a 17-7 Pittsburgh lead.
The Vikes were snakebitten more by instant replay. When Bouman put a throw right on the money to Kelly Campbell for a big gain, Cowher challenged again and won, with the officials saying Campbell was out of bounds. That gave the ball back to the Steelers, who didn't take advantage of a 36-yard reception by Lee Mays when Peterson's 41-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
From there, the inconsistent preseason play continued. The Vikings punted, then got a break when Batch fumbled and Andre O'Neal recovered. Again, neither team could take advantage of the game of field position as the contest moved deep into the fourth quarter without any second-half scoring and with continued Vikings penalties.
Minnesota finally broke the second-half drought with a 62-yard drive. It started with a 10-yard pass to Campbell, which was followed up by a 21-yard run by Chapman. Three plays later, Bouman found room scrambling for 20 yards to the 7-yard line. After two Chapman runs and an unnecessary roughness call on a hit on Bouman, the quarterback took a bootleg 3 yards to the right pylon for a touchdown and a 17-14 deficit with a 4:47 left in the game.
With the outcome still undecided, the Steelers drove to midfield but were eventually forced to punt. But the game essentially ended on the second down when Bouman threw his second interception to Poteat with 1:36 left.
The Vikings learned that they have the potential to play with one of the Super Bowl favorites, but they have to eliminate penalties, missed tackles, missed alignments and assignments, and mistakes in general. Without those, the first team could well have come away with a lead at halftime. With them, they looked outmatched in an frustrating 17-14 loss.
And next weekend? The Vikings face the NFC's top-ranked defense from last season.
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