Most reasons for optimism were on the offensive side of the ball, as the Steelers once again rallied back from an early deficit to keep the final result in doubt until the final minutes.
The Steelers’ attack seemed rejuvenated by the debut of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, plus the continued return to health of Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller. With a full complement of offensive weapons at his disposal, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 36 of 51 passes for 383 yards – a total boosted by the comeback effort, but honest production nonetheless.
Bell himself was a revelation, displaying a welcome niftiness to go with impressive instincts and linear explosiveness. All three of those abilities were evident in his 8-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter. Although the Michigan State product still appeared to be hobbled by his pesky midfoot sprain, Bell showed enough for the Steelers to dream on.
The Vikings defense had to account for an actual running game in addition to the presence of Miller and receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, which left slot man Jerricho Cotchery often open. Roethlisberger found Cotchery five times for 103 yards, including a fourth-quarter touchdown that pulled the Steelers within 10 points.
Brown was also a force, hauling in 12 passes for 88 yards, while Miller (six receptions for 70 yards), Sanders (four for 57) and rookie Markus Wheaton (three for 26) were contributors to a suddenly frisky Pittsburgh offense.
But for all of the positives on that side of the ball, the offensive line struggled to consistently protect Roethlisberger. Big Ben was sacked five times and hurried on countless other occasions, which made the game-ending strip-sack by Minnesota’s Everson Griffen a sadly fitting way to squelch the Steelers’ rally.
Mike Adams was especially ineffective at his tackle position, although David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert also continued to disappoint. The Vikings’ Jared Allen spent about as much time in the Pittsburgh backfield as Roethlisberger, who is looking at another wasted season in his competitive prime.
For as poor as the offensive line performed, the entire defense was nearly as ineffective. Missed tackles were an issue Sunday, especially on Greg Jennings’ early 70-yard catch-and-run and Adrian Peterson’s 60-yard gallop through the Pittsburgh secondary.
Peterson gashed the Steelers for 140 yards on 23 carries, but that wasn’t as troubling as how the rest of the Vikings’ offense ran wild. The Matt Cassell-to-Jerome Williams connection was good for seven receptions and 124 yards, as Pittsburgh couldn’t get enough pressure on Minnesota’s backup quarterback to make him uncomfortable.
Although the Steelers’ latest loss may be more on the defense than the offense, all that matters is the team’s unsightly 0-4 record. Counting the preseason, the black and gold haven’t finished on the winning end since last winter.
Pittsburgh didn’t look like one of the NFL’s worst clubs Sunday at Wembley Stadium, but the franchise’s worst start in 35 years casts a pall over any rays of light shining through.