Wow, the Pittsburgh Steelers find a way to win for the fourth consecutive week. The defense hadn't really won a ballgame for the Steelers this year, and on Sunday they again had their struggles defending the pass. But for the first time all season really, Dick LeBeau's defense came up with multiple game-changing plays that dictated the outcome. Here's some preliminary thoughts about the 27-17 victory.
* There are still some troubling issues with the Steelers defense, but the good news is that they're starting to make some of the big plays that they weren't making to start the year. Through the first five games of the season, the Steelers had forced just 4 turnovers. The past two weeks, Pittsburgh's defense has 6 takeaways. The two turnovers Dick LeBeau's defense created today were not just run of the mill takeaways either - both were returned for touchdowns. And both came in the 4th quarter with the Vikings on the march. LaMarr Woodley got things started by taking a Brett Favre fumble 77 yards for a score. Keyaron Fox then intercepted a muffed catch by Chester Taylor and took it the other way for a game-clinching 82 yard score. Credit to the D for stepping up and making a play when their backs were against the wall, but color me still concerned about how much this defense continues to bend in the passing game. It didn't break today but it most likely will unless they can make things much, much tougher for those opposing quarterbacks who are disciplined, experienced and accurate enough to dink and dunk their way down the field.
* This defense is going to continue to need big plays like that if they hope to repeat as AFC North champions. The defense is still struggling against the pass otherwise. Brett Favre threw for 334 yards and the Vikings converted a very healthy 9-of-18 on 3rd down. Minnesota had three drives of 13 plays or more which helped them win the time of possession battle by almost 14 minutes.
* Wacky stat of the game #1 - Total plays: Minnesota 78, Pittsburgh 49.
* Wacky stat of the game #2 - Minnesota 1-5 TD efficiency in the red zone; Pittsburgh 0-3.
* Wacky stat of the game #3 - Minnesota 16 first downs through the air; Pittsburgh 14 total first downs.
* William Gay had 8 tackles on Sunday, increasing his season total to 30. Only James Farrior, Ryan Clark and James Harrison have more tackles. In case you were wondering, I don't necessarily think this is a good thing. I tip my hat to Gay for playing hard and for making some nice plays in each of the Steelers first seven games, but there's no doubt in my mind that he's the weak link not only in the team's secondary, but the entire defense as well. Teams are going right at Gay most weeks, hence the high tackle totals. And they're definitely making him pay when he gives his man too big a cushion. I don't have the exact total on me, but there were at least four or five plays where Favre quickly slung the ball out to the wide receiver that Gay was defending. Again, I'm not disgusted with the way he's playing or anything. It's just he's not nearly as physical as the player he is replacing, Bryant McFadden. I said I was worried about his play before the start of the season more than anything else with this team. That sentiment has not changed for me one bit.
* I still miss Anthony Madison on special teams. The Steelers surrendered yet another kickoff return on Sunday. There were plenty of people responsible for Percy Harvin breaking off the 88 yard kickoff return, but perhaps none more than Jeff Reed. Reed not only didn't force Harvin back to the middle of the field - which is definitely rule #1 - but he also just gave his best matador impersonation by meekly flailing at Harvin as he ran by him. Bad, bad stuff from Reed.
* To his credit, Reed had a nice day kicking the ball. Both of his field goal attempts were relative 'chip shots' (39 and 27 yards), but his kicks looked crisper and an improvement over how he had been kicking the ball earlier in the year, even on his made attempts.
* A tough day for the Steelers offense. Pittsburgh mustered just 259 total yards, by far their lowest output of the season. However, the Steelers did average 5.3 yards per play, not a shabby number. The problem was settling for two field goals in the red zone and a Rashard Mendenhall fumble inside the 5 yard line. That's a lot of points left on the board. Credit the Vikings defense though - they took Hines Ward out of the game for the most part, bottled up the run for much of the afternoon, and did a superior job of not letting Big Ben break free from would-be sacks.
* Anybody else notice how many deflections the Vikings had at the line of scrimmage? I'm not sure of the number but it seemed like there were at least three or four balls batted down by Vikings defensive linemen. That rarely happens with the 6'5" Ben Roethlisberger. A job well done by them.
* I'd like to break down the play with pictures in the near future since we have a couple of weeks before the next game, but Big Ben's touchdown strike to Mike Wallace at the end of the 1st half was gorgeous. The pass was thrown with plenty of zip, but it also had just the right trajectory to fall over the Vikings first line of defense in the secondary and down in to Wallace's breadbasket before the last line of defense could get to #17. A truly perfect throw by Big Ben.
* Not to sound overly negative, but I haven't been that impressed by Daniel Sepulveda. He's been fine and a decided upgrade over what the team was getting from the punting game last year in his absence. But he's no Mike Scifres or Shane Lechler. I've still yet to see him really boom or place a punt that made me say 'wow'.
* Bet you didn't know that it was the first time in NFL history that there were 3 touchdown returns of at least 75 yards during the 4th quarter of a game. It was awesome watching the Steelers defense block for both Woodley and Fox on their respective runbacks. Percy Harvin on the other hand didn't need much help on his touchdown.
* I have been extremely impressed by the way Santonio Holmes has been playing during the Steelers four game winning streak. Santonio only had 2 receptions for 59 yards, but he continues to impress me in the running game and blocking down field for his fellow WRs after the catch. Hines has clearly rubbed off on him, and I'd imagine that both he and Hines are having the same effect on rookie Mike Wallace. It was unfortunate that Holmes didn't get his TD reception in the 1st quarter when Heath Miller was called for pass interference.
* Speaking of Mike Wallace - the rookie out of Ole Miss continues to earn the confidence and trust of his teammates and coaches. Wallace had 3 catches for 79 yards and a TD. Kevin Colbert and his army of scouts definitely found a keeper in #17. He's going to be a treat to watch over the years.
* My phrase for Mewelde Moore after we signed during the 2008 free agency period - 'one mans trash is another man's treasure'. Who would you rather have if you were Minnesota? A 30 year old Chester Taylor taking up nearly $4 million in cap room or a 27 year old Mewelde Moore who takes up less less than half the cap space that Taylor does. Moore is reliable and even keeled with his performance. Taylor is more up and down. It wasn't the easiest catch in the world, but on the play where Keyaron Fox returned the interception for a touchdown, the ball hit Taylor's hands. He's got to make that play. Anyway, I'm just glad we have Moore on our side.
* Congratulations to David Johnson. The 7th round tight end out of Arkansas State caught his first career pass late in the 1st quarter. Good stuff David!
* I'll wrap this up for now, but a job well done by the Steelers defense against Adrian Peterson. AP had just 69 yards on 18 carries and was largely unable to do much against the stout Steelers rush defense. Peterson still had some nice runs and of course that beastly play in the passing game against William Gay, but you have to be impressed with the Steelers ability to contain him without Aaron Smith for the entire game and Lawrence Timmons for part of it. Kudos to guys like Nick Eason, Travis Kirschke, Ziggy Hood and Keyaron Fox for filling in admirably.
* Now it's Pittsburgh's turn for their BYE Week before heading to Denver to take on the Denver Broncos. I think it's a great time for the BYE. The team has lots to feel good about but plenty to work on. A little rest to heal up some aching bodies and then it's time for the second half of the season and hopefully another run at securing an AFC North crown and potentially even a 1st round BYE in this year's playoffs.