The Minnesota Vikings defensive line put on an incredible performance, but it was all for naught as the offense, special teams and rest of the defense found ways to sap any positives by way of penalty after penalty. That story framed the Vikings 26-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field.
The Vikings committed at least 14 penalties, but only 12 were accepted for 136 yards. The Pittsburgh Steelers gained four first downs from penalties alone, whilst the Vikings only generated one from Steelers penalties. Pittsburgh didn’t play a tight game either, with ten penalties (for 72 yards) of their own.
The defensive effort was spearheaded by Everson Griffen, who earned two sacks as well as two tackles-for-loss as well as a number of quarterback pressures. Not only that, he inspired the normally stalwart Alejandro Villanueva to commit a penalty of his own, which ended up leading to a punt.
Linval Joseph knocked down Ben Roethlisberger as well, and tallied four tackles in the run game. Defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson rotated on snaps and though neither were spectacular, both had excellent individual plays that contributed to a defensive line that only allowed Le’Veon Bell 3.3 yards a carry.
Brian Robison contributed to the penalty problem with an encroachment penalty that revived an otherwise dead drive but aside from that had an excellent game shutting down the run and beating Marcus Gilbert inside on passing plays. Danielle Hunter started over him and though he didn’t grab a sack, he still consistently caused problems for Roethlisberger and forced a near-interception.
Unfortunately, the secondary — who otherwise could be said to have done well by limiting an arguably Hall of Fame quarterback to 6.9 yards per attempt and only 212 yards to wide receivers — committed a good portion of the defensive penalties, with a pass interference calls on both Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes helped set up both Pittsburgh touchdowns.
A defensive holding call on Terence Newman almost set up a field goal, but a false start penalty put Pittsburgh out of field goal range.
While linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks put on good displays, it was never enough to keep Pittsburgh from exploiting the penalty errors of their compatriots.
The offense, with Case Keenum at the helm, struggled to get going. One touchdown drive featuring excellent running from Dalvin Cook and a great deep reception from Adam Thielen turned out to be an isolated result. Pass protection was hairy all day, with two sacks and at least four other quarterback knockdowns to go with a number of quarterback hurries impacting Keenum’s comfort in the pocket and time to throw.
Keenum attempted a number of tight windows, but couldn’t complete those passes; six different Steelers defenders recorded pass deflections and Keenum only completed 54 percent of his passes on the day. There were a number of highlight pitch-and-catch moments featuring Stefon Diggs, but more than one had been taken away by a penalty-happy offense. One of those was a questionable call on Diggs himself for offensive pass interference.
The official NFL play-by-play logs five penalties to the offensive linemen, with one declined and another at the Vikings’ own goal line, without much meaningful impact. A third penalty, on guard Nick Easton, was not a particularly clear call but the other on Easton certainly was.
The beleaguered line featured iffy performances from both Easton and newly-signed Mike Remmers at right tackle, but tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Joe Berger had poor games as well. Without the stability that a solid pocket provides, there was little chance that backup quarterback Case Keenum could engineer a winning drive.
The playcalling certainly didn’t help, with consistently conservative playcalling on second down while the Vikings needed to gain points quickly, but it was a combined effort that held back the offense — including mistakes from Keenum, too.
The special teams units weren’t free of error either, as a missed extra point ground some salt in the wounds and an illegal formation penalty on a field goal allowed Pittsburgh to retry what would have been a missed kick. A fake punt that was a pass intended for quarterback-turned-tight-end Blake Bell fell incomplete and set up the Steelers for a kick of their own.
Overall, the Vikings had their fair share of poor play when they weren’t committing penalties and perhaps didn’t stand much of a chance if those had been cleaned up. But the hallmark of the game — and what the coaches will likely be focusing on — will be how the Vikings found ways to let the refs join the fans in the stands in waving yellow flags.