If the Vikings were hoping to unveil a more polished, more veteran version of their offense with Gus Frerotte starting in place of the injured Tarvaris Jackson, the plan failed. Without Jackson, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament last week, and the top two wide receivers – Bernard Berrian (turf toe) and Sidney Rice (virus) – the Vikings offense struggled against the NFL's top-rated defense from 2007.
Frerotte and the offense were efficient enough to leave the game with a 10-3 lead after one series in the third quarter, which meant the Vikings defense shored up their troubles from the opening two games of the preseason. The backups allowed the Steelers to make up the difference and more when Steelers kicker Jeff Reed pulled out a 47-yard field goal with four seconds left for a 12-10 win, but Minnesota's starters – especially on defense – got their game back on track in the third and most important outing of the preseason.
Frerotte ended up completing 13 of 19 passes for 133 yards, but without Berrian and Rice the passing game lacked explosiveness. Aundrae Allison, making the start, was the closest thing the Vikings had to explosive, as he had five catches for 56 yards. The running game also struggled, as Adrian Peterson gained only 21 yards on 12 carries and Chester Taylor had 5 yards on four carries.
To add to the struggles, the Vikings committed 10 penalties – most of them early and costly.
But the savior for the Vikings with the starters still on the field was their stout defense, especially the rush defense against Steelers running back Willie Parker. Pat Williams and his run-stuffing teammates held Parker to 18 yards on 10 carries. Rashard Mendenhall picked up 79 of the Steelers' 102 rushing yards, but most of those came against the second-team defense (he gained only 4 yards in the first half).
The success of the first-team defense started early, as it held the Steelers to one first down in the first two series and Parker to 4 yards on four carries, but the offense didn't help matters.
On their first drive, it was a tragedy of errors, with false starts from Anthony Herrera, Visanthe Shiancoe and even center Matt Birk. Combined with a 3-yard sack on the first play from scrimmage, the offense was stuck in a third-and-23 hole at the 3-yard line that they couldn't overcome. The second drive didn't have any penalties, but it didn't go very far either, with Peterson picking up 6 yards on two touches before an incompletion by Frerotte, who was under pressure in the pocket.
The defense held again, yielding one first down on a 12-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller but forcing the Steelers to punt the ball away three plays later when a pass to Willie Reid came up 2 yards short of the sticks.
The Vikings offense sputtered for its third straight series, but the defense created a needed big play in a scoreless game when Kevin Williams stripped the ball from rookie running back Rashard Mendelhall on his second carry of the game and rookie safety Tyrell Johnson recovered.
That was the spark the offense needed. Frerotte started with consecutive completions to Aundrae Allison to move to the 28-yard line. On the next play, Frerotte fired a bullet downfield to Shiancoe , who caught it in stride before being dragged down at the 3-yard line. After Peterson couldn't turn the corner around left end and was pushed out of bounds for a 3-yard loss, a swing pass to Thomas Tapeh got them to the 1-yard line. From there, Peterson dove over the pile for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead 52 seconds into the second quarter.
The defense continued to do its job, with consecutive sacks by Ray Edwards and Kevin Williams stopping the Steelers' next drive, but Frerotte gave it right back to Pittsburgh when he threw an easy interception to cornerback Ike Taylor, who returned it 4 yards to the Minnesota 34-yard line.
The field position was enough to set up the Steelers for their first points of the game. They got one first down on a 9-yard run up the gut by Parker and a 6-yard pass to Mewelde Moore. A facemask penalty on E.J. Henderson gave them another first down, but Roethlisberger couldn't move them any closer than the 12-yard line, causing Pittsburgh to settle for a 35-yard Jeff Reed field goal with 6:40 to play in the first half.
The offense was able to overcome one penalty on their next drive and move the chains once with a 13-yard pass to Allison, but a 7-yard sack from linebacker James Harrison ended the drive. Frerotte's series was similar. He picked up a first down with a 13-yard completion to Martin Nance, but an unnecessary roughness penalty on Birk put them in another hole. Allison converted another first down with a 17-yard catch over the middle, but LaMarr Woodley ended the half with a 5-yard sack.
The first-team offense didn't look explosive to start the second half, but it was at least moving the ball consistently. Frerotte started with a 12-yard pass to Nance, and a 3-yard run by Peterson and 7-yard completion to Allison picked up another first down. Three plays later, Frerotte needed 7 yards and got 11 on a pass to Shiancoe. When cornerback Bryant McFadden was flagged for pass interference on a deep ball to Allison, the Vikings were on the doorstep of the red zone. But when Allison dropped a third-down pass, they had to settle for a 37-yard field goal from Longwell to assume a 10-3 lead just less than 5 minutes into the second half.
With the second-team defense for the Vikings and second-team offense for the Steelers in the game, Byron Leftwich drove Pittsburgh into scoring position. It started with a 21-yard run by Mendenhall and was assisted by a third-down offside penalty on defensive tackle Ellis Wyms and an ensuing 8-yard pass to Dezmond Sherrod. Leftwich converted a fourth-down pass to Reid, but the Steelers wouldn't get any closer than the 25-yard line before settling for a 43-yard Reed field goal to make it 10-6 with 2:50 to play in the third quarter.
Rookie quarterback John David Booty couldn't move the chains and the Steelers' backup offense went on the move again. Leftwich took them on a 13-play, 63-yard drive with Mendenhall starting it out right again. The rookie back began with an 18-yard run down the right sideline, and defensive tackle Letroy Guion extended the drive when he waged a blow to Leftwich's helmet on a third-down incompletion. Once again, it would take a combination of Vikings penalties and a fourth-down conversion by the Steelers to put them in scoring position. This time, it was fullback Billy Latsko getting just enough yardage on a fourth-and-2 reception, but Otis Grigsby effectively stalled the drive when he shot through the gap and tackled Gary Russell 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. One play later, Reed kicked a 37-yard field goal to draw Pittsburgh within a point, 10-9, with 10:02 to play in the game.
The teams exchanged possessions when a sack of Booty ended his second drive. Linebacker Erin Henderson put a finish to Pittsburgh's next drive when he stripped Mendenhall of the ball and Husain Abdullah recovered.
So with 4:03 to play, the Vikings needed a couple first downs to salt away a one-point win, but they couldn't move the chains on three consecutive runs to give Pittsburgh one last chance. With Leftwich still in the game, he connected with Reid for 12 yards on the initial third down of the drive, then went to Limas Sweed to pick up two more first downs and drive across midfield. And when he needed one more first down to put Reed in position for the field goal, Leftwich got it with an 11-yard pass to Dallas Baker at the 29-yard line. With four seconds remaining, Reed gave the Steelers the game-winning kick from 47 yards out to cap a 12-10 win in which Pittsburgh led for only those final four ticks.
The Vikings fall to 1-2 in the preseason, but without three of their skill-position starters in the passing game and a stout run defense that allowed them to leave the game with a 10-3 lead, they didn't feel too bad about the performance – knowing there is more work to be done but progress being made against a team that finished the 2007 season with a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance.
Vikings Fall 12-10 In Final Seconds
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