Facing the Minnesota Vikings on their first nationally televised game in the Greg Schiano era, will the Bucs wilt under the spotlight or will they live up to their potential?
Tonight, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the Minnesota Vikings in Minnesota. An away game on a short week after a disappointing close loss. What could possibly go wrong? The short week is tough on players' bodies, but having to travel to the game and practicing just once before playing again? Well, that's just devastating.
The quality of play on Thursday nights has certainly shown that so far this season, with few intriguing matchups and even fewer intriguing games. The Bucs and Vikings are in position to change that trend, and looking at the talent on both sides this should at least be a close game.
So far, though, the road team on Thursday Night's has been...unlucky, to say the least. The visiting team is 1-5 this year. Going back through the 2010 seasons, the road team has won just five times in total -- and one of those wins came against last year's Bucs, by the time they had given up trying to play any kind of game loosely resembling football.
Series: Minnesota Leads 31-21
Last Meeting: Buccaneers beat Vikings 24-20 after 17-0 deficit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Game vs. Minnesota Passing Defense
In recent weeks, the Tampa Bay offense has been explosive. Scoring 66 points over the past two games, the Bucs have done well for themselves, yet they've faced two awful defenses in the process. That won't be the case tonight, as the Minnesota Vikings have been stout this year. Allowing just 131 points on defense, 6th in the NFL, and 4.8 yards per play (compared to Tampa Bay's 6.2), the Vikings have one of the better defensive units in the NFL.
This is especially true on passing defense, where they'e allowed just 5.4 net yards per attempt. Meanwhile, the Bucs are passing at a clip of 8.0 net yards per attempt. Something will have to give there. The clue to that may be a clash of styles: the Bucs barely have a short passing game, but they repeatedly take shots down the field, counting on their big wide receivers to come down with the ball.
The Minnesota pass defense, though, is built specifically to stop that. They're one of the last teams to still play a real Tampa 2 defense, and they want to do one thing first: stop the big plays. And if the Bucs can't complete their deep passes, they will struggle to produce through the air. One other reason the Bucs won't be able to go deep often: Jared Allen. Donald Penn has done well so far this season, and he's even matched up well with Allen in the past, but the veteran remains a deadly pass rusher and he won't be held in check the entire game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Game vs. Minnesota Run Defense
The Bucs haven't been overly productive on the ground this season, but they have certainly improved in recent weeks. Doug Martin has become more productive, although the Bucs have refrained from running him into the ground, and he's averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry over the past two games. Tampa Bay won't need that kind of production from the rookie, but they will need a consistent run game to beat the Vikings.
On that front, the Minnesota run defense may be a little more obliging. Although they have an impressive sixth ranked run defense by Football Outsiders' rankings, they've allowed a massive 309 yards on the ground over the past two weeks - hardly the hallmark of a top-notch run defense. The Bucs should be able to run on this defense, and that could be the key to a victory.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Minnesota Vikings Passing Game vs. Tampa Bay Pass Defense
Christian Ponder got off to a hot start this year but has since cooled down considerably, throwing seven interceptions over the past three games against two mediocre defenses, and one good defense (Arizona). Most disturbingly for the Vikings, Ponder managed just 43 passing yards last Sunday.
Fortunately for them and unfortunately for the Buccaneers, the Tampa Bay pass defense has been, shall we say, porous. Frequent coverage breakdowns and some lackluster play in the back seven as well as a suddenly absent pass rush have led to gaping holes and plenty of big plays. That's good news for an anemic Minnesota passing game.
In addition, the Vikings have one great weapon: Percy Harvin. The fourth-year wide receiver has been an absolute terror this season, managing a ridiculous 577 yards through the air this season. And then he also contributes as a kick returner (35 yards per return) and a running back (73 yards). Harvin is a well-rounded threat, and will be tough to stop for the Bucs, who must tackle well and not allow his short receptions to turn into big plays.
Minnesota Vikings Running Game vs. Tampa Bay Run Defense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the best run defense in the NFL by quite a distance, while the Minnesota Vikings have the best running back in the NFL by quite a distance. Despite suffering a devastating knee injury late last season, Adrian Peterson is completely back to form and looks like his usual dominant self. While Percy Harvin is a big-play threat, Peterson is what makes that offense go - and the Bucs will do everything they can to stop him.
That's a lot easier said than done, however, as that has been every opponent's game plan when facing Minnesota. So far, none have managed to keep him contained. Peterson is a dominant force who will be tough to stop and has even become a part of the passing game this season.
However, the Bucs' run defense isn't just any run defense: it is by far the best run defense in the NFL. As long as their front seven tackles well, they can stop any running game. This is truly a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and this matchup will be the most intriguing matchup in the game.
Connor Barth has missed his last two field goal attempts, but that's hardly something to worry about. Michael Koenen has been a steady force on kickoffs, but he'll have to boot all the kicks out of the endzone this week as Percy Harvin is a force on kick returns having already returned one for a score this season. The Bucs do one other thing well: they block punts.
Unfortunately, the team appears to be terrible at everything else, including punt returns, kick returns and to a lesser extent punt and kick coverage. Outside of Harvin's kick returns, tough, I wouldn't expect special teams play to be featured heavily.
This should be an intriguing matchup, despite the fact that Minnesota has a much better record than Tampa Bay. Both teams have kept most of their games close, and the strengths and weaknesses of each team match up well. This shouldn't be a high-scoring game, but it should be an intriguing defensive battle.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 17, Minnesota 23