Notebook: Strengths melt in Steeltown

The things that had made the Vikings so successful through six games turned around to be their Achilles heel on Sunday. Their previous strengths ended up costing them the game in a 27-17 loss. We break down the areas where the Vikings were strong until Sunday, take a look at those players who lost their leads and some statistical and contractual information.

The Vikings defense came into Sunday's game answering a lot of questions about their previous performance, about their 24th-ranked pass defense, and about how much they would miss Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield. It all came with the anticipation of Ben Roethlisberger, the league's leading quarterback in passing yards.

But, just like everything else from the Sunday's 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it didn't go according to script.

To wit:

  • Roethlisberger, coming off a 417-yard game against the Cleveland Browns, finished the game with only 175 yards passing as the pass defense was impressive on all but one late first-half drive that allowed receptions of 22 and 40 yards, the second for a Pittsburgh go-ahead touchdown.

  • Hines Ward, who entered the game as the league's leading receiving with 599 yards, finished with only one reception for three yards.

  • The Vikings, who entered the game tied for second in turnover ratio at plus-8, had two turnovers. Both were returned for touchdowns. In the final seven minutes alone.

  • The Vikings entered the weekend leading the league in red zone offense, scoring 15 touchdowns in 23 possessions inside the 20-yard line. Instead of 65.2 percent efficiency, the Vikings had only 20 percent efficiency inside the red zone Sunday. The first ended with a touchdown, but the final four ended with a field goal, fumble return for a touchdown, interception return for a touchdown and the end of the game.

  • The Vikings, who were tied for the league lead by averaging only 4.5 penalties per game, were called for 11 of them.

    Four of those penalties came on one important fourth-quarter drive, and the final penalty was questionable at best and killed the Vikings' chances. They dug themselves a hole with a holding call on Bryant McKinnie and two legitimate penalties for an illegal shift when Percy Harvin wasn't set and a false start on Steve Hutchinson. Still, facing third-and-18, Sidney Rice came through with a toe-tapping 25-yard sideline reception that needed a video review to overturn an original out-of-bounds call on the field.

    Rice was involved in another big play from the officiating crew. The Vikings managed to get into first-and-goal at the 10-yard line and Brett Favre went to Rice for a touchdown, but the play that would have given Minnesota a 17-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter was nullified by a tripping call that Vikings coach Brad Childress (and likely the majority of Vikings players and fans) didn't agree with.

    Jeff Dugan went to cut block the defensive end and dove past him.

    "That's football – cutting the end at the line of scrimmage," Childress said. "… You saw it. What did you guys see? Football?"

    That was the final penalty of the game for the Vikings, but instead of a four-point lead, they were facing a 10-point deficit three plays later after LaMarr Woodley returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown.

    LOSING THEIR LEADERS

    Adrian Peterson entered the weekend as the league's leading rusher. He lost that lead after a 69-yard performance on Sunday. Peterson is now second in the league with 687 yards while Cincinnati's Cedric Benson overtook the lead with 720 yards.

    The Steelers' Hines Ward entered the game as the league's leader in receiving yardage and tied for the lead in receptions. He, too, dropped to second play with 602 yards now after catching only one pass for 3 yards. Houston's Andre Johnson now has the lead with 634 yards and Ward is third in receptions.

    Likewise, Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL's leader in passing yardage and dropped to second as he now has 2,062 yards, trailing Houston's Matt Schaub by 8 yards.

    MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

    On the Steelers' touchdown drive at the end of the first half, the Vikings could have dramatically altered the storyline of the first half if two defenders had had been able to hang onto the ball. On the second play of the drive, Roethlisberger fired across the middle of the field to Mike Wallace and Tyrell Johnson was in perfect position to intercept the ball at the 42-yard line with 1:27 to go in the half.

    Three plays later, Roethlisberger tried to hit Santonio Holmes in the middle of the field and badly underthrew him. E.J. Henderson had a chance for another interception with that pass in his hands near midfield and couldn't hold on.

    With two bad passes out the way and new life, Roethlisberger proceeded to connected with Wallace for 22 and 40 yards, the last one being on a touchdown to give the Steelers a 10-7 halftime lead. Had either one of those two defenders been able to hang onto the ball, the Vikings very likely would have entered halftime with the lead.

    CHICKEN OR EGG CONUNDRUM

    Which is it: QB Brett Favre making his receivers look good or the receivers making Favre look better? Probably both.

    In "Point 4" of his 7 Points column, Scout.com's Ed Thompson shows that the Vikings are doing well with that old adage from the West Coast offense – getting yards after the catch. In fact, they were one of the best in the league.

    Entering Week 7, Favre and Denver's Kyle Orton had the lowest average passing yards at the point of the catch among quarterbacks who have averaged at least 14 passing attempts per game, according to Thompson. "Their 5.3 yards per throw lags well behind the league's leaders – the New York Giants' Eli Manning (8.7) and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (8.0)," Thompson writes.

    But their receivers are helping them by gaining plenty of yards after the catch and the Vikings and Broncos were undefeated entering Week 7. Part of the reason for the passing success with the two teams also has to do with Favre and Orton's ability to throw down the field. As Thompson referenced, both of them are in the top half of the league by completing at least 30 percent of their passes that travel at least 21 yards downfield.

    HARVIN'S INCENTIVES

    As Scout.com's Adam Caplan pointed out in his NFC insider column, Percy Harvin could earn big bucks with incentives in his contract that could be reached if he stays healthy. According to one of Caplan's league sources, the receiver will make an extra $250,000 in incentives if he has at least 41 catches or 801 yards. With 55 receptions or more than 1,000 yards, he'll earn an additional $350,000. Offensive rookie of the year would garner him $25,000.

    Harvin currently has 23 receptions for 285 yards through seven games.


    Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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