After losing Aaron Smith for the season two weeks ago against the Lions, I said the Steelers defense would never this season look like the dominating unit from a year ago that could win games almost entirely on their own.
And with their first real test, facing an undefeated team that featured the league's leading rusher, the 2009 defense put up a performance to rival that of any from the championship unit a year ago.
Granted, the D gave up 334 yards passing to Brett Favre (albeit on 51 pass attempts), but they forced two game-swinging turnovers for touchdowns and made a key third down stop on the 1-yard-line (it can't be denied that Brad Childress helped on this last one with cretinous playcalling). Subtracting his two longest rushes of 19 and 15, Adrian Peterson's other 16 carries went for 34 yards. Purple Jesus is bound to break a few (his biggest gain came on a pass reception) but even his longest rushes were under 20, while he was contained otherwise. This was a run D that many had expected to take a huge step back without one of their key contributors.
That isn't to say the defense played perfectly. There were a few breakdowns in coverage on 3rd and longs that will need to be addressed in the bye week. Both happened on the Vikings side of the field, but the throws to Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice set up long Minnesota drives. The one along the sideline to Rice, initially ruled incomplete, could have led to a score that would have given the Vikes the lead. In both cases, these were the result of huge gaps in zone coverage that shouldn't exist on such obvious passing downs.
The pass rush, while able to sack Favre four times (two of which were by James Harrison - giving him eight through seven games), had a disconcerting number of blitzes where they generated little to no pressure on the Vikings backfield. That inconsistency may have something to do with the Steelers corners playing a little farther off receivers than they should have most of the game. Except for the occasional gunsling on one-on-one coverage, the Vikes tried to dink and dunk with receiver screens for most of the game, which was for the most part successful.
For what is becoming an all-too-frequent trend, a comfortable lead was cut by the play of the special teams. After surrendering kick returns for TDs each of the last two games (more than they allowed all of last season), coverage has to be a big focus going into a game facing Eddie Royal in two weeks in Denver. Jeff Reed, meanwhile, is far more deserving of criticism for his kick going to the side on the 15 on Harvin's return than his perfunctory shoulder tackle attempt. Factor in Logan's late stripped fumble on the punt return against the Chargers, and the special teams have accounted for three scores by the opposition in the last five games. inexcusable.
Rashard Mendenhall easily spoiled what had been a very impressive game (10 rushes for 69 yards) against a top 10 run defense with a foolish leap over the defense inside the 10 that resulted in a fumble that could have been disastrous for the team. With a 13-10 lead and nowhere close to the goal line, Mendenhall's jump was as pointless as it was risky. The team has a chance to extend its advantage. Taking a two-yard gain at the 8 is preferable to trying to stretch it to three-yards by exposing the ball to an easy strip.
Big Ben didn't have the passing stats many predicted for him in this game given Antoine Winfield's absence. Childress may not be able to figure out that running Adrian Peterson three times inside the 1 might be a good idea, but the coverage schemes were well designed in this game (though I doubt he was actually responsible for these). Excepting the end of the half drive, Ben didn't have a lot of deep pass attempts. Credit to Santonio, though, for one of his smarter games of the year, extending one reception for a 45-yard gain (which was sadly wasted by Mendenhall's fumble). It could have looked better statistically if his touchdown grab in the first quarter wasn't erased by a retarded offensive pass interference call on Heath Miller on the play.
This win changes the trajectory of the entire season. Like I said during the week, going into the bye at 5-2 enables them to make a run at a first-round bye. A win at Denver in two weeks is another huge step to that end. Patching some of the prevalent recent mistakes with running back fumbles and special teams will have them ready for the challenge.