Yes, the latest most important regular season game in the history of any football season ever kicks off in a little more than five hours, but we still need to take one final look back at Minnesota's first loss of 2009, as painful as it might be to do so. As always, this look at the Vikings' red zone prowess is brought to you by the folks at Comcast, the providers of the NFL's Red Zone channel. The Red Zone channel is, bar none, the best way cable TV offers you to keep track of all the biggest plays and all the huge scores at one time. Red zone success is a big indicator of team success, and nobody is more successful in bringing you the biggest and most important plays of the day than the Comcast Red Zone channel.
Well, last week the Steelers provided the Vikings with their biggest challenge of the season to date, and the Vikings responded by. . .putting up their worst red zone performance of the year. This is what we in the business call "bad timing."
Vikings Red Zone trips - 5
Vikings Red Zone scores - 2 (1 TD, 1 FG)
Red Zone touchdown percentage - 20%
Definitely not the numbers one wants to see against a team the caliber of the defending world champions.
The game got off to a bit of a slow start for the Vikings, as they pretty much failed to move the football at all on their first three drives, and Chris Kluwe kept giving the Steelers good field position by shanking punts of 35 and 19 yards. After said 19-yarder, the Steelers drove all the way down to the Minnesota 4-yard line, and appeared to have a touchdown on a pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, but an offensive pass interference penalty on Heath Miller wiped it out. A couple of plays later, the Steelers were forced to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Jeff Reed to make the score 3-0, Pittsburgh.
Into the second quarter, the two teams exchanged punts again, and with 10:34 left in the half, the Vikings took over from their own 24. Brett Favre converted a huge first down early in the drive, as he hit Percy Harvin on the left sideline for 28 yards on third and six to move the ball into Steeler territory. Favre connected on passes to Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian (twice) and Visanthe Shiancoe, and Adrian Peterson picked up another big third down to put the ball at the Pittsburgh 3. The drive concluded with the best running back in football slamming his way into the end zone from two yards out, and the Vikings took a 7-3 lead. Peterson had four carries for 16 yards on the drive, and Favre connected on five of seven passes for 60 yards.
Neither team would make a red zone appearance for the remainder of the first half, although the Steelers did pick up a touchdown pass on a 40-yard connection from Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace
of 60 Minutes fame to make the score 10-7 in favor of Pittsburgh going into the locker room.
After the Vikings allowed the Steelers another field goal to start the first half, a 27-yarder by Jeff Reed, the Vikings set about putting together the drive that, in my opinion, decided the football game. Starting from their own 35 after a nice kick return by Percy Harvin, the Vikings made their way to the Pittsburgh 35-yard line, where they faced 4th and 1. Favre took the snap, faded to his left, and fired a bullet to Sidney Rice. Rice made the catch and turned the play into a 34-yard catch and run that set the Vikings up inside the Steelers' 1-yard line. Unfortunately, after an unsuccessful run by Peterson and two incomplete passes, Brad Childress elected to settle for an 18-yard Ryan Longwell field goal rather than attempting to slam it into the end zone on 4th and about six inches. The field goal made the score 13-10 in favor of Pittsburgh. Peterson had just two carries for two yards on the drive, and the remaining 72 yards were picked up by Brett Favre, as he completed seven of ten passes on the drive.
After the teams exchanged three and outs, the Vikings allowed the Steelers to drive into the red zone again on a big pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes that allowed Pittsburgh to set up and the Vikings' 9-yard line. However, on first and goal, Steelers' running back Rashard Mendenhall inexplicably decided that he was going to dive all the way into the end zone from the five yard line, and managed to get the ball knocked out by big Pat Williams in the process. The Vikings recovered the ensuing fumble, and methodically put together a very impressive drive.
Starting from the Pittsburgh 3-yard line, the Vikings passed their way down the field. Favre was hitting everything in sight, completing passes to Rice and Shiancoe, and even getting Greg Lewis involved in the act. Highlighting the drive was an absolutely ridiculous 26-yard reception by Rice that converted a big 3rd and 18 for the Beloved Purple. After Purple Jesus moved the Vikings into the Pittsburgh red zone with a 19-yard run and an 11-yard catch, the Vikings appeared to score the go-ahead touchdown on a 10-yarder from Favre to Rice, but a horrendous tripping penalty on Jeff Dugan negated the play and pushed the Vikings back. (For the record. . .was it a BS call? You're damn right it was a BS call.) On third and 8, Favre dropped back to pass, and as he was getting ready to fire, he got the ball knocked out of his hands by Pittsburgh defensive lineman Brent Kiesel. The fumble was recovered by Lamar Woodley at the 23, and he rumbled all the way to the other end for a 77-yard fumble return. Rather than going up 17-13, the Vikings now found themselves down 20-10.and seemingly out of it. This was the first drive the Vikings experienced all season where they reached the red zone and failed to score points, and it couldn't have come at a worse time.
However, the dark cloud was lifted temporarily as Harvin made his presence felt again, taking the ensuing Jeff Reed kickoff and blasting 88 yards for a touchdown. Harvin managed to run through Reed's ridiculous "tackle" attempt and turn on the jets to put the Vikings right back into the game at 20-17.
The Vikings' defense did what they needed to do and forced the Steelers to punt, starting their next drive at their own 26. Once again, Favre moved the Vikings along, but the drive was highlighted by Peterson pushing up on the "truck stick" against Steelers' CB William Gay on a 29-yard catch and run that moved the Vikings to the Steeler 26. On second and 3 from the Pittsburgh 19, Favre flipped a screen pass to Chester Taylor, who appeared to be well-covered. Still, the pass bounced off of Taylor's hands and into the waiting arms of LB Keyaron Fox, who proceeded to go 82 yards for the score that put the dagger into Minnesota's hopes. The final score was 27-17. The Vikings technically made it into the end zone on their final desperation drive, but although it counts in the NFL's official stats, it really doesn't mean much.
So now, for the season, the Vikings have scored points on 23 of their 26 red zone trips, having notched 13 touchdowns and 10 Ryan Longwell field goals. The Minnesota red zone defense continues to be outstanding, as Viking opponents have reached the red zone 17 times in seven games, and have only come away with six touchdowns and five field goals. On six trips into the red zone, opposing teams have come away with no points against Minnesota's defense.
Hopefully the Vikings' offense can get their red zone prowess back this afternoon at the House that Brett Favre (Re)Built.