The Vikings nearly delivered a knockout before having to hold off a furious comeback attempt by the visiting Steelers on Thursday night. Down 29-0, the Steelers scored 28 of the game's next 35 points and had a chance to put themselves in position tie the score on the game's final play. With three seconds left and 12 yards from paydirt Ben Roethlisberger found Pat Freiermuth in the middle of the end zone. But safeties Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods were able to jar the ball free from Freiermuth's grasp, preserving the Vikings' 36-28 victory.
Dalvin Cook spearheaded the Vikings' strong start. Cook, who played despite dealing with a dislocated left shoulder, rushed for 205 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. Pittsburgh's comeback was led by Roethlisberger, who went 28 of 40 for 308 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Both teams missed field goals after moving the ball on their opening drives. But the Vikings cashed in on their next four drives that included touchdowns by Cook and receiver Justin Jefferson. Jefferson's 14-yard touchdown catch opened the scoring. Cook's 29-yard touchdown run stretched the Vikings' lead to 16-0 with less than 10 minutes left in the first half. Cook gave Minnesota a 23-0 halftime lead on his 7-yard touchdown run with 2:20 left until halftime.
Cook gashed the Steelers to the tune of 153 yards on just 14 carries during the game's first 30 minutes. The two-time Pro Bowl running back accounted for more than half of Minnesota's 300 total yards during the first half. Minnesota's defense bewildered a Pittsburgh offense that gained just 66 yards on 26 plays during the first half. The Vikings' defense recorded four sacks of Roethlisberger in the first half while holding Najee Harris to just 17 yards on seven carries.
The score was 29-0 before the Steelers scored their first points of the game on Harris' 3-yard touchdown catch from Roethlisberger with 2:11 left in the third quarter. Harris found the end zone less than three minutes later on a 1-yard run that was set up Ahkello Witherspoon's interception of Kirk Cousins. After a quick three-and-out by the Vikings' offense, the Steelers scored their third unanswered touchdown when James Washington pulled down a 30-yard strike from Roethlisberger. It remained a two-score game, however, when the Steelers' offense came up short on their two-point try.
Minnesota responded with K.J. Osborn's 62-yard touchdown grab that extended the Vikings' lead to 16 points. Cousins, who received stellar protection on the play, lofted a perfect pass to Osborn, who outmuscled Cam Sutton for the ball before racing into the end zone.
Pittsburgh refused to go away, however, as Witherspoon's second pick on Minnesota's ensuing possession set up Roethlisberger's 15-yard touchdown pass to Freiermuth. It became a one-score game when Roethlisberger connected with Diontae Johnson on the two-point try. The Steelers' defense then forced a punt before Pittsburgh moved from their own four to the Vikings' 12-yard line. The Vikings made sure the Steelers wouldn't get any closer when Harrison and Woods combined to break up Roethlisberger's pass on the game's final play.
Here's a closer look at what transpired in the Twin Cities.
Why the Vikings won
The Vikings did just enough in the game's first 39 minutes in order to come away with the win. Minnesota jumped all over Pittsburgh in the first half, as the Vikings' offense had 12 plays there gained at least 10 yards. Cook received gaping holes from his offensive line, while Jefferson's peerless route running played a crucial role in Minnesota's first-half success.
Throughout the first half, the Vikings' constant pre-snap motion on defense often led to confusion from Pittsburgh's young offensive line. That confusion led to several clean shots on Roethlisberger, who suffered a nasty blindside sack from Harrison during the first half. Minnesota's defense held Pittsburgh's offense to just 1 of 7 on third down during the game's first 30 minutes.
While the Steelers outplayed them in the second half, the Vikings still made enough plays to hang on for the win. Bashaud Breeland's third-quarter interception of Roethlisberger set up Greg Joseph's third field goal that made it a 29-point game. Osborn's touchdown proved to be the game-winning score, while former Steeler Jordan Berry's 53-yard punt pinned the Steelers down on their own 4-yard line to begin their final drive of the game.
Why the Steelers lost
The first half was eerily similar to Pittsburgh's Week 12 blowout loss in Cincinnati. The second half mimicked the Steelers' Week 11 road loss to the Chargers, a game that saw Pittsburgh nearly overcome a 27-10 deficit before losing a 41-37 decision. In all three games, the Steelers put themselves in too big of a hole too early in the game. The Steelers' porous run defense was once again exposed by the Vikings and Cook, who became the first player this season to run for over 200 yards. Pittsburgh's defense, which played most of the game without T.J. Watt (who suffered a groin injury during the first half), was unable to sack Cousins, who failed to complete half of his 31 pass attempts.
On both sides of the ball, the Steelers woke up late in the game. Pittsburgh forced two turnovers and two punts on its last five defensive possessions. Offensively, the Steelers gained over 300 total yards in the second half that included 94 rushing yards from Harris. But the Steelers' struggles in the trenches on both sides of the ball -- a recurring theme this season -- was once again the main factor in Pittsburgh's most recent loss.
Pittsburgh appeared to be playing for pride when Harris scored the Steelers' first touchdown that made the score 29-7 left with 2:11 left in the third quarter. But Witherspoon's first interception opened the floodgates for the Steelers, who scored touchdowns on three of their next four possessions to give themselves a chance to tie the score on the game's final drive.
Play of the game
The play of the game has to be Smith and Woods' pass breakup on the final play. The play secured the Vikings' sixth win of the season while snapping Minnesota's two-game losing streak.
"We keep asking ourselves why we keep putting ourselves in this position. ... That's been us all year. Living and dying by that last drive. We've got to figure out." -- Cook, to Fox Sports' Erin Andrews, about the Vikings needing to hang on for the win after leading by 29 points.
"Just to be blunt, we're getting handled up front on both sides of the ball and that makes it difficult to do what we desire to do. It makes it difficult to maintain balance. It makes it difficult to dictate to our opponents what happens and what happens next. It's going to be tough sledding for us until we get better in that area. We're not good in that area. We were JV again tonight. And I'm talking about up front both sides. ... We've got to be better than we were." -- Mike Tomlin on the state of the Steelers' offensive and defensive lines.
Pittsburgh will face Tennessee (8-4) in its second-to-last home game of the 2021 season. Following their Week 13 bye, the Titans will host the Jaguars this Sunday. The Vikings will head to Chicago to face the Bears in what is the second-to-last road game for Minnesota. Chicago (4-8) will face the Packers in Green Bay on Sunday night.