Minnesota Vikings 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 27
It seems the BBC is not always authoritative. Their Primary History pages say “Vikings did not send many ships on their first raids. They made surprise attacks on lonely places.” Their modern counterparts on their first visit to these shores, however, seemed to have brought thousands of purple-clad warriors to swell a crowd of more than 85,000 at Wembley Stadium last night and cheer the Minnesota Vikings to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers,
There was a surprise element to the success in that the Vikings arrived without a win in their opening three games, but the same was true of their opponents who now have to take the long flight home with a 0-4 record, all but condemning them to spend the rest of the season working out how to rebuild for next year.
Some things began to work for the Steelers here. Superbowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got a little more time than lately behind his offensive line and showed off a variety of quick, short passes to sure-handed receivers, notably Antonio Brown who reeled in twelve of them, in compiling almost 400 yards through the air on 51 attempts. Yet the Vikings defense was able to make stops and generate turnovers at vital moments throughout, none more so than when Everson Griffen got round the back of Big Ben as he searched for an equalising throw from seven yards with seconds left, punched the ball from his grasp and watched as his Norseman comrades plunged on it gleefully to claim their first victory of the season.
Several other Vikings defenders left their mark on the game. Jared Allen was back to his old form in generating three of Minnesota’s four sacks. The other was claimed by linebacker Chad Greenway who paired it with an interception for the first time in this, his 100th NFL game. Across from him Erin Henderson quietly accounted for nine tackles while cornerback Josh Robinson led the team with twelve as Roethlisberger regularly zinged passes to the sidelines. Robinson, however, won’t want to remember the moment early in the second half when Roethlisberger went deep, Brown was beyond him with a chance to make a diving touchdown catch and Robinson tugged him over in a way that would have brought him a straight red card on FA Cup final day. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell pushed the ball in for the touchdown two plays later to make the score 20-17 to the Vikings, but that was the last time the game looked close until the dying moments.
From the outset it had felt like Minnesota’s game to lose. With less than three minutes gone kicker Blair Walsh set a new all-time record for the Vikings in only his 20th start with his twelfth successful kick from over fifty yards. Four minutes later Greg Jennings caught a short pass on the left sideline deep in his own territory, turned inside a late-arriving Cortez Allen, faked a second defender onto the floor, and left two more defenders crashing into each other, before outracing Allen’s attempt to ankle tap him and a leap by Troy Polamalu to score a highlight reel 70 yard touchdown.
Pittsburgh answered with Bell’s first career score, the newbie looking like a veteran as he paused for Heath Miller’s block to clear his path before somersaulting over the line. The fact that this was Pittsburgh’s first rushing touchdown since week 15 of last season illustrates how badly they’ve needed him to recover from a foot injury. Early in the second quarter however, the NFL’s most established running back, Adrian Peterson, showed the newcomer what he has to measure himself against as he zoomed the ball to the house over 6o emphatic yards on the first play after a turnover.
The Steelers made it back to within yards of the Minnesota line, but could only kick a field goal before a game changing moment went begging. The Pittsburgh defense went into the encounter with no turnovers generated, but now Lamarr Woodley forced scrambling QB Matt Cassell, deputising for the injured Christian Ponder, into a fumble. Going into half time down only one score would have boosted morale, but instead the ball skidded to an alert Jerome Simpson who not only claimed it, but turned it into a first down, made an acrobatic catch seconds later to get his team within range and then watched as Blair Walsh popped over another kick for a 20-10 half time lead.
Even when that difference was brought back to three points, Peterson once again displayed his Rolls Royce credentials, gliding effortlessly through a gap for a first down, then accelerating like the lord of the manor down a driveway cleared by great landscaping from Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt for a majestic touchdown. Moments later Greenway was accepting Roethlisberger’s untimely gift, Lamarr Woodley swapped sports in frustration to throw Kyle Rudolph out of bounds for both an Ippon and a fifteen yard roughness penalty and Cassell calmly found Jennings in the back of the end zone for an unassailable looking 34-17 lead with twenty minutes still to play.
It’s testament to the Steelers’ character that, even in the face of their worst start to a season since 1965, they clawed their way almost the whole way back. Roethlisbeger connected with Jerricho Cotchery to keep hopes flickering and they suddenly fanned into life when the otherwise exemplary Walsh failed to give Minnesota another three points from 44 yards out. Dinking, spiking and dunking, Roethlisberger contrived to grind out fifty tough yards and if Markus Wheaton could have avoided slipping or held on when diving full length Wembley might even have witnessed its first International Series overtime. As it was, Minnesota deservedly held fast and will be hoping that their London experience will, like the enormous fiery horn blown by boxer David Haye to start the night’s proceedings, be the herald of future success.