- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Dome ball wasn't supposed to be for the Steelers. Sunday's venture into the Metrodome was only Pittsburgh's fifth indoor game since 1997, and one of those trips was this year to the sometimes-dome, sometimes-open air Reliant Stadium.
But for the Steelers, desperate times required desperate responses. Learning from their 19-point loss to the Colts in the RCA Dome, the Steelers used a better version of the silent count for their offense while Dick LeBeau, their defensive coordinator, came up with blitz schemes he couldn't dust off in the winds and snows of outdoor games in the East.
The result was an 18-3 domination of the Vikings that made Minnesota look like the visiting team. For once, a dome felt like home for the Steelers.
"Whoever said this was the loudest place wasn't even close," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "The big thing was we went to a silent count. The offensive line did an awesome job. Their offensive line probably had more false starts than we did."
Before the start of the game, the message boards lit up saying that Vikings fans are the NFL's loudest. Each offensive line actually tied for four false starts apiece, but the mistakes made by both teams made referee Ed Hochuli more active than any of the players. Hochuli called more penalties (25) than there were points (21). The Vikings were called for three neutral zone infractions by defensive linemen.
As weird as it sounded, the Vikings lost the dome-field edge in the first half when they blew three chances to score touchdowns from the red zone. Credit LeBeau with calling the right blitzes to confuse veteran quarterback Brad Johnson.
Trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, the Vikings got a huge break on a weird play. Punt-returner Antwaan Randle El called for a fair catch inside the Steelers 5, but when the ball bounced behind him away from the goal line, he moved to block a Vikings defender. The ball hit Randle El in the helmet and Vikings linebacker Raonall Smith recovered at the Steelers 4. The officials took more than five minutes sorting out the call before finally giving the Vikings the ball.
But with aggressive blitzes, the Steelers held the Vikings to a field goal, tying the score at 3. The key was Pittsburgh stopping rookie halfback Ciatrick Fason for a 1-yard loss on third-and-goal from the 1. It was an omen of bad things to come for the Vikings.
"Obviously in the first series, we made some plays on third downs," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "I don't know if there really was a key."
The only way the Vikings got into the end zone was in the fourth quarter when Michael Bennett was tackled in his own end zone by Steelers linebackers Larry Foote and Jerry Porter for a safety. The red zone for the Vikings was either red with a stop sign or yellow with penalty flags.
"We came after Brad from a lot of different angles," Porter said. "We used stuff we haven't shown all year. We mixed up our blitzes so the quarterback didn't see the same one twice."
Johnson was one of the reasons the Vikings had won six in a row to propel themselves into the playoff race. He manages the game without making mistakes. But the Steelers forced the mistakes Sunday and the big culprit was safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamulu fouled up the Vikings' blocking schemes by running up to the line of scrimmage and keeping Johnson guessing. Sometimes he'd blitz. Sometimes, he'd run up to the line, turn around and drop into a deep zone.
Here's how bad things got: The Vikings had a second-and-goal at the Steeler 6-yard line early in the second quarter. Johnson was on a roll, running the best drive of the game, overcoming two false starts by his offensive line (one by guard Adam Goldberg and one by right tackle Marcus Johnson). Remember, the Vikings were the home team, and the Steelers were coaxing them into false starts.
"When you have an offensive line scared of the pass rush it is going against, you get false starts," Porter said. And eventually, you get a key mistake, and Johnson made one. Pressured on second down from the 6, Johnson tried a two-handed shovel pass to Koren Robinson. Porter had enough time to see both hands go around the ball and saw Johnson's eyes look to Robinson. He moved in position for the drive-killing interception.
But it got worse. Johnson threw a prayer before halftime into the end zone under pressure that was intercepted by cornerback Deshea Townsend. A third-quarter scoring chance dried up when Paul Edinger's 32-yard field-goal attempt was blocked. It wasn't the Vikings' day.
"I can't remember the last time I have thrown an interception in the red zone," said Johnson, who completed only 16 of 30 passes for 143 yards and two interceptions. "I think it's been like five years or so. They made the red zone plays, especially the one at the end of the half. I had a shot to Marcus Robinson and I tried to take it. I got hit and the ball went straight in the air. We had the ball in the red zone four times today. We had one field goal, two interceptions and a blocked kick."
The Vikings' inability to do anything against the Steelers' defense gave Pittsburgh time to get into a rhythm against a Minnesota defense that has toughened up. Pat and Kevin Williams are tough to run against. Erasmus James is becoming a formidable pass-rusher. The linebackers are active. The secondary can be tough.
Credit the Steelers for being patient. They waited for big plays and were rewarded. The game-opening drive that resulted in a field goal was spurred by a 50-yard crossing pattern to Steelers tight end Heath Miller. Randle El broke a 72-yard punt return to set up a 3-yard Roethlisberger touchdown run.
"We are one of those teams that could hit a bit play at any time," Roethlisberger said. "With Willie Parker back there, you never know when he can bust one deep. Our receivers are so explosive. When the line gives me time, and I can have a chance to get it down the field, I know they are going to make a play."
Believe it or not, the Steelers lead the league in 40-yard plays. Parker broke a 49-yard run, and Randle El came up with a 28-yard reception.
"That's their offense," Vikings safety Darren Sharper said. "They run a ball-control offense. Once they get up with the lead, it makes their offense go even better. They run the ball, they dink the ball, they keep the chains moving. To beat Pittsburgh, you have to get up on them with the lead and make them throw the ball. You have to make them do things out of their character."
Of course, the Vikings' inability to get touchdowns in the red zone prevented them from holding a lead and getting the Steelers out of their game. Roethlisberger threw only 15 passes, completing 10. Parker rushed for 81 of the Steelers' 142 yards. With the lead, though, the Steelers dominated the second half and limited the Vikings to only 16 offensive plays.
"I thought our defense played really well," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "I could see them in the fourth quarter get a little frustrated. I know it was tough on them. They were holding them to three-and-outs. Maybe they would make a couple of first downs and then they would hold them on third downs. Then we would go three and out."
Both teams left the Metrodome with uncertainty surrounding their playoff chances. The Steelers finish easy, against the Browns and Lions, but they don't actually control their playoff fate. With five conferences losses, Pittsburgh would lose out in some three-way ties (when the Jaguars are included). The Vikings are 8-6 and still hope to make their season-ending home game against the division-leading Bears meaningful.
"Right now, we created the situation for ourselves, we know what's at stake," Cowher said. "We understand that. Are we playing our best football right now? No. But I think we are getting close. I think we are doing a lot of things we want to do. We're not turning the football over. We are tackling crisper. Our kicking game is coming around. We are heading in the right direction."
Linebacker Larry Foote and Polamalu joked about quotes posted by Cowher from this week's interviews. According to one story, Brad Johnson said the Steelers defense didn't have Joe Greene. "They don't have Fran Tarkenton or Chuck Foreman," Foote said after the game. And as domes go, for the Steelers, the Metrodome was no RCA Dome. This game turned into a fun experience.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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