On the solid end were the veterans returning from last year.
Chris Kluwe has been the only punter in training camp and this was just another preseason game for him, although maybe his best performance yet. He averaged 48.6 yards on seven punts and put one inside the 20-yard line. Pittsburgh's returners, all veterans, averaged only 6 yards on six returns.
"I thought the special teams did a good job covering and pinning people down there with the punt game and Kluwe kicking it 48 yards on average," head coach Brad Childress said.
Kicker Ryan Longwell was seeing his first action of the preseason. His game-opening kickoff traveled to the 1-yard line and he made his only field goal attempt, from 37 yards. The Vikings had been using rookie Steven Hauschka to keep Longwell's leg from tiring in training camp and early in the preseason.
The biggest difference for the Vikings came in their return game. Previously, they had rookies handling the punt and kickoff returns. On Saturday, the veterans got more action.
Despite receiving his most significant role on offense with Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian out of action, second-year receiver Aundrae Allison also handed punt returns. Allison said getting more playing time on offense "wasn't really no big difference," but the punt-return game struggled.
Allison lost 3 yards on two punt returns and called for a fair catch on two others. Still, he said he wanted the ball in his hands as much as possible, including returning punts.
"They went well," he said of the returns. "We're still early in the year and I feel like the guys up front are getting a feel of the game tempo. You've just got to be patient because you really don't get to simulate the speed of the game until game time. I felt like it's getting better game by game."
Allison had been the Vikings' main kickoff returner last year, but special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro wanted to get a look at him returning punts.
Running back Maurice Hicks handled most of the kickoff returns on Saturday and was respectable. He returned three kicks for 67 yards (a 22.3-yard average) with a long of 30 yards. Hicks is a veteran return man, having 185 kickoff returns over the last four years with San Francisco.
The Vikings gave a little bit more of an opportunity to rookie quarterback John David Booty against the Steelers, but it still wasn't as long as they had hoped.
"I didn't know he was going to go in with two minutes to go in the third quarter, as luck would have it, because Gus (Frerotte) was going to play to open the second half," Childress said. "(Pittsburgh) went on an extended drive and you look up and Booty's first in with (two minutes to go). He was going to play whatever portion Gus didn't play in the second half."
Pittsburgh had drives of 13 and 11 plays in the second half, limiting the amount of time Booty had on the field, but he completed 4 of 5 passes for 19 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He appears to be the favorite to win the third spot at quarterback over Brooks Bollinger, but Childress said that battle is still "ongoing."
"That's about the best way to declare it. It's ongoing," Childress said. "You just have to let guys play so they can get a little bit of a feel as opposed to a series, pull them out and put somebody else in. Would I have liked to see (Booty) the whole second half? Yeah, I would have."
After two questionable performances defending the run, the Vikings are feeling better about their ability to stop the opposition's rushing attack. Pittsburgh averaged 3.3 yards per carry, but most of that was against the second-team defense. Starter Willie Parker averaged only 1.8 yards per carry, getting 18 yards on 10 carries.
"We came in at halftime and we talked about it being a grinding game. We knew it was going to be a grinding game," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "This is the No. 1 rush defense and the No. 1 rush offense in football from a year ago. It was a hard-fought battle, a defensive battle if you will."
Linebacker Ben Leber said it was an important performance for the Vikings defense.
"It was a big game for us starters. We wanted to come back and kind of erase any questions we had about the first two games. I think we did that," he said. "We came out and played strong. We didn't give up any big plays on the run, and that's what we're about."
A few game notes from Viking Update stats man Scott Grams: