PITTSBURGH -- Despite entering Sunday's game here against the undefeated Minnesota Vikings sporting the No. 3 statistical ranking in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers' mighty defense was maligned by some local observers, and justifiably so, for its glaring inability to shut down opponents in the fourth quarter.
And while most veteran Pittsburgh defenders insisted after Sunday's improbable 27-17 victory that they largely ignored the criticism, a few players candidly allowed they took the jabs a little personally.
"We're a defense that prides itself in a lot of things, and one of those things is being able to close out games to get a team down and then bring the hammer down on them," said outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, whose 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown set off a frenetic final 6:30 in which the teams combined for three touchdowns, none of them by the offenses. "We're always trying to take the ball away. And when we take it away, we try to help the offense by scoring with it."
Woodley, who suggested that he is "a little disappointed'' in collecting only two sacks so far this season after a breakout 11½ sacks in 2008, also scored a key touchdown on a fumble return against Baltimore a year ago.
In holding off a Minnesota rally, and winning for a fourth straight time after a shaky 1-2 start, the defending Super Bowl champions did more than help an offense that for much of the game failed to take advantage of field position. Particularly in the fourth quarter, the Steelers' defense was the offense.
In fact, the defense accounted for more points than the offense (14-13), and scored twice as many touchdowns (2-1) as a Pittsburgh attack whose lone foray into the end zone came on a 40-yard reception by rookie wide receiver Mike Wallace just before halftime.
In addition to the two touchdowns -- Woodley's fumble return and an 82-yard interception runback by reserve inside linebacker Keyaron Fox that killed a late Minnesota threat -- the proud Pittsburgh defense also held Minnesota to a third-quarter field goal after the Vikings gained a first-and-goal at the half-yard line.
Steelers players quietly questioned the Vikings' choice of plays on that series, throwing the ball twice in a row after putting it in the hands of tailback Adrian Peterson, arguably the premier runner in this universe, on first down. But nobody in the Pittsburgh locker room debated the significance of that drive.
"It was absolutely huge in us winning," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who led all defenders from both teams with 15 tackles, while adding a sack, a quarterback hurry and a pass deflection. "I mean, they're 1 yard from taking the lead, and you're thinking, 'Oh, well, [we're going to get] Peterson four times in a row. And they end up kicking a field goal and we keep the lead. That was a turning point."
No play was more transformative, however, than Woodley's long fumble return. Trailing 20-10 with just 6:23 to play, Minnesota reached the Pittsburgh 8-yard line with a third-and-goal. Vikings quarterback Brett Favre dropped into the pocket and was sacked and stripped by defensive end Brett Keisel. Woodley scooped up the fumble on the run and rambled 77 yards up the right sideline behind an escort of blockers.
The touchdown was reminiscent of the 100-yard interception return by NFL defensive player of the year James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII. A fatigued Woodley said that had he had another yard or two to navigate, he might not have made it.
The same was true for Fox, who scored his first touchdown since he was a part-time tight end in high school, and was only in the game as a base defender because starter Lawrence Timmons suffered an ankle injury on the previous series. Fox, a special teams ace, had to cut short a media session and excuse himself early from interviews because he felt ill surrounded by so many reporters.
"Man, I feel lightheaded," said Fox.
Little wonder, since the final minutes of the taut game were dizzying, indeed.
After the Woodley runback lifted Pittsburgh into a seeming insurmountable 20-10 lead, Vikings explosive rookie Percy Harvin returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown that whittled the margin to 20-17. The Pittsburgh offense was then able to run just five plays before Ben Roethlisberger was sacked and Daniel Sepulveda punted to Minnesota with 3:21 to play.
In hurry-up mode, Favre, who rarely tested the Steelers' secondary deep during the game, moved the Vikings to the Pittsburgh 19-yard line with 1:15 remaining. But on second-and-3, Favre tossed a screen pass to tailback Chester Taylor. The ball squirted through Taylor's hands, and straight to Fox, who immediately picked up blockers as he labored up the sideline.
"In my mind, I was thinking, 'Block that guy. And block this guy.' Anything to make things a little easier for me, you know?" Fox said.
This has been anything but an easy season for Pittsburgh's defense, especially in the fourth quarter. The Steelers lost at Chicago, 17-14 on Sept. 20, after leading the Bears 14-7 in the final period. The following week, they squandered a 20-9 fourth-quarter lead at Cincinnati, losing 23-20. And on Nov. 4, the Steelers surrendered 21 fourth-quarter points to San Diego, to turn a rout into a squeaker.
Including Sunday's victory, the Steelers have doubled the point total of their opponents in the first three quarters of games (134-67), but have been outscored by more than 2-to-1 (62-30) in the fourth period.
Still, it was fitting that the Steelers, who moved to 4-0 all time against 6-0 teams, won with clutch defense.
The Pittsburgh defense limited the wondrous Peterson to 69 yards on 18 carries, and he had nine carries for 2 or fewer yards, including four carries for negative yardage. Favre threw for 334 yards -- his highest total ever in a game in which he failed to throw a touchdown pass -- but was sacked four times and mostly opted to throw underneath the Pittsburgh zone coverage.
Summed up Farrior: "We can hold our heads high, [because] this definitely was a day for the defense."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.