While hype surrounded QBs, it was defense that ruled in Pittsburgh

  • By Vic Carucci
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PITTSBURGH -- As players from both teams milled around Heinz Field after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, Anthony Herrera had a message for James Farrior.

"See y'all in the Bowl," the Minnesota guard told the Pittsburgh linebacker.

It was interesting that a player on the wrong end of the final score, belonging to a franchise that hasn't been to the big game in 32 years and has never hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, felt comfortable enough to make such a bold appointment with an opponent whose club not only is the defending champion, but has won two of the last four Super Bowls and owns more pieces of Lombardi tiffany (six) than any other team in the history of the game.

But the Vikings arrived here with a 6-0 record, while the Steelers were 4-2. The Vikings were being hyped as one of the best teams in the NFL, while the Steelers were actually striving to keep pace with the Cincinnati Bengals for first place in the AFC North.

As regular-season wins go, the Steelers acknowledged that this was bigger than one would usually expect for a non-conference game, particularly one played in only the second month of the season.

Joe Robbins /
For the 12th time in his 19-year NFL career, Brett Favre had at least 50 pass attempts. In those games, Favre has 13 touchdowns to 26 interceptions and his teams have gone a dismal 3-9.
When Favre attempts 50 or more passes
Oct. 25, 2009
Dec. 21, 2006
Sept. 17, 2006
Dec. 25, 2005
Dec. 4, 2005
Nov. 21, 2004
Nov. 27, 2000
L, 31-14
Nov. 14, 1999
L, 27-13
Oct. 14, 1996
W, 23-20
Sept. 3, 1995
L, 17-14
Sept. 11, 1994
L, 24-14
Dec. 5, 1993
L, 30-14

"It's big because, usually, we are the hunted," Steelers defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. "Today, we were the hunters. (Being) in kind of reversed roles was unfamiliar territory for us, but it was nice to get the win."

Here's something else that's unfamiliar for the Steelers: The defense taking a back seat to the offense.

Most of the conversation surrounding the three-game winning streak they carried into the game was about Ben Roethlisberger's passing and Hines Ward's catching. Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards and Ward was the league's top receiver. Roethlisberger also was on pace to throw for 5,000 yards, which actually would be a first for a team that once boasted a prolific, Super Bowl-winning passer named Terry Bradshaw.

That led to the popular assumption that the Steelers-Vikings game would be a shootout between Roethlisberger and Brett Favre, because both could routinely put up big numbers and both defenses seemed vulnerable enough in pass coverage to allow it to happen.

Instead, defense ruled the day -- specifically, Pittsburgh's defense. There was no shootout. In fact, thanks to linebacker LaMarr Woodley returning a Favre fumble 77 yards for a touchdown and linebacker Keyaron Fox returning a Favre interception 82 yards for another touchdown, Pittsburgh's defense scored more points in the fourth quarter than Minnesota's offense scored the whole game. Percy Harvin took a kick back 88 yards to account for one of the Vikings' touchdowns.

"We don't do shootouts," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said defiantly. "We have pride. It's not ego, it's pride, and guys have character. We don't like coming into a game (when) you say it's going to be a shootout because as much as you are saying something good about our offense, you are saying something negative about this defense, if we allow it to be a shootout. I think, if it was a scrimmage, we would have won; (our) defense would have beaten their offense."

Still, the Steelers knew that they weren't playing their best defensively. They were giving up too many big plays, in no small part because safety Troy Polamalu was sidelined with a knee injury. Polamalu returned last weekend, to help Pittsburgh beat Cleveland, but was wearing a knee brace for Sunday's game.

Questions lingered, in and around Pittsburgh, about whether this was still the same unit that had performed so dominantly on the way to the Steelers' triumph in Super Bowl XLIII. It was a good defense, to be certain, but was it great? To achieve greatness, a sterling performance against a top-flight club such as the Vikings was necessary so that the Steelers could enter their Week 8 bye with a higher degree of confidence that all was right with their world after all.

"We've given up some leads this year and haven't finished the way we've wanted to," said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, who forced the fumble that Woodley returned for the score. "That's why we have a couple of losses in our column, but you just go out and compete, and you have to be excited to have an opportunity to play in a game like this -- a game against great players and great competition."

Although Polamalu held up fine, the Steelers did have to go without their best run-stuffer, end Aaron Smith, who is out for the season with a torn rotator cuff. Yet, they persevered. The Steelers entered the game with the NFL's second-ranked rush defense, and played that way by holding Adrian Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher coming in, to 69 yards and a touchdown.

Favre did wind up throwing for 334 yards (nearly doubling Roethlisberger's total), but, with Peterson largely contained, he also attempted a whopping 51 passes -- and he never got the ball in the end zone through the air.

"They're pretty good; I tip my hat off to them," Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams said of the Steelers. "I think they're going far in the AFC."

All the way to yet another Super Bowl?

"That's how they played today," Williams said.

Especially in the fourth quarter. With the offense looking less than explosive, it was clear the defense was going to have to do something to settle the outcome, as it has so many times before. And that was exactly what Pittsburgh's defenders spoke about with each other on the sideline.

"We feel that we're the best defense in the world, we've been there for a while, and we kept saying (among) ourselves, 'We've got to go out there and play like it,'" Hoke said. "Those last couple of drives, (ending with) the interception and fumble returns for touchdowns, (allowed) us to prove that we're the best defense in the world."

Said Keisel, "That's a great team we played over there, and to come away with this win today was big for us. I'm really proud of our team."

So was the opposition.


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