PITTSBURGH - The Steelers linebackers are starting to perfect the long defensive return. James Harrison's memorable 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII may have started a nice trend for the Steelers, who scored two long touchdowns off of Brett Favre turnovers in the fourth quarter to beat the previously unbeaten Minnesota Vikings, 27-17, before a record crowd of 65,597 fans at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley scooped up a Favre fumble and rumbled 77 yards, and backup linebacker Keyaron Fox took a deflected Favre pass 82 yards for the clincher.
"Any time a defensive guy gets a ball in practice, we all turn around and start looking to get a block,'' Steelers defensive captain James Farrior said. "The coaches have been preaching that to us. It has to be a natural play. Our guys did a great job of blocking today, and we got two.''
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Keyaron Fox returns an interception 82 yards for the Steelers in the closing minutes to ice Sunday afternoon’s win over the Vikings.
The big defensive plays helped the Steelers improve to 5-2 heading into their bye week and dropped the Vikings to 6-1. The Steelers, who next play at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9 in Denver, also won their eighth straight home game dating back to last year.
The big defensive plays came at the most opportune times for the Steelers, who were struggling offensively to score points. The Steelers' offense scored one touchdown, fumbled in the red zone and had another touchdown called back on a penalty.
"When you get a couple of splash plays defensively - you put 14 points on the board defensively - you can overcome a lot of errors,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The 14 points by the defense was actually more points than the Steelers' and Vikings' offenses scored.
"[Defensive coordinator Dick] Lebeau noticed the week of the Super Bowl that we were catching interceptions but not returning them,'' Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "He showed us all the plays where no one ran and blocked. We as a defense started focusing on transitioning to offense after a turnover.''
On the first big play, the Steelers led, 13-10, and were on their heels after Favre drove the Vikings from their own 3-yard line to the Steelers' 8. After having a touchdown taken off the board due to a tripping penalty, the Vikings faced third-and-goal with 6:42 left in the game.
Favre dropped back to pass and was stripped of the ball by Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. The ball bounced behind the line of scrimmage, and Woodley picked it up at the 23 and returned it 77 yards to give the Steelers a 20-10 advantage.
"My thought process [was to] fall on it or pick it up,'' Woodley said. "I decided to pick it up. I was taking a chance. But then, when you pick it up, you might as well get what you can get and make [something] out of it. I made a touchdown out of it.''
The euphoria at Heinz Field was short-lived, however, when Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards to cut the lead to 20-17. It was the second straight week the Steelers allowed a kickoff return for a score.
"Everybody's mind set on the sideline was, 'We're going to win this game. We don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to win this game,''' Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said. "I think everybody, collectively, thought that.''
"We were trying to keep the TV ratings up,'' Keisel joked.
The Vikings, who had come back in the fourth quarter to win two earlier games this year, then looked in great position when the Steelers managed just one first down on their next possession. Favre returned to the playing field with more than 3 minutes remaining, needing just a field goal to tie the game.
Favre drove the Vikings into field-goal range with 1:15 left. But on second-and-3 from the Steelers' 19-yard line, his pass went through running back Chester Taylor's hands and into the arms of Fox, who was in the game because Lawrence Timmons had suffered an ankle injury.
"They were trying to run a screen,'' Fox said. "Once I had the ball, I knew I had a good chance to score because of the guys in front of me.''
With Clark leading the way, Fox, a free agent pickup from the Kansas City Chiefs last season, went 82 yards - the sixth longest interception return in Steelers history - to seal the Steelers' victory. It was Fox's first return for a touchdown at any level.
The Fox and Woodley touchdowns also helped the Steelers, at least for a day, forget about the fourth-quarter defensive problems they experienced earlier this season. The Steelers defense also held the Vikings to a field goal in the third quarter after they had a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line and held standout running back Adrian Peterson to 69 yards rushing on 18 carries.
"We gave up a lot of points in the fourth quarter this year,'' Woodley said. "But we've been getting better and better. Last week (27-14 win over Cleveland), we made some improvement, and this week we made big improvement.''
Game notes: Favre threw for 334 yards on 51 attempts. The Steelers scored their first touchdown on a 40-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace in the second quarter.