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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings

Vanquishing the Vikings: What the Bucs need to do in order to beat Minnesota in Week 14

Coming off a much needed bye, will the Buccaneers make the adjustments they need to in order to beat a hot Vikings team?

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) passes in the second quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars
| Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back, everyone. With Week 14 on the horizon, the Bucs are in prime playoff position. After following this team for years, it feels really nice to finally have a chance to say that.

However, through the first 12 weeks of the season, the Bucs look like one of the most hot and cold teams out there. They never formed an identity on either side of the ball, and things really started to come apart on the defensive end before the bye.

While the Bucs may currently be in the playoffs if the season ended today, it doesn’t. With a loss against Minnesota, the playoffs may be something that ends up being out of reach, especially because the Vikings would hold the same record and would have the tie-breaker.

In my view, this upcoming game is a must-win. Unfortunately for the Bucs, the Vikings are much improved from the beginning of the season. While they did start 1-5, they came out of their respective bye and have won five of their last six.

However, despite this recent success, it should be noted that they did lose to the Dak Prescott-less Cowboys and took the one win Jaguars to overtime. Through the course of the season, their signature win looks to be their 28-22 win against Green Bay back in Week Eight, which is a team that the Bucs cleaned up with ease.

While the Vikings offense is definitely run through Dalvin Cook, Kirk Cousins shows up when he needs to and has shown that he is more than capable of running this offense.

In order for the Bucs to avoid another “YOU LIKE THAT!” kind of game from this guy, they’ll need to make sure they can slow down Dalvin Cook, and force Cousins into the mistakes that have plagued his career.

While this Bucs team is much different from those days, I don’t think Bucs fans have ever gotten over that game, especially because that clip is shown everywhere and has gained meme status. Even with Cousins being on a new team, that taunt echoes in my head every time I see him.

I would love nothing more than for the Bucs to absolutely obliterate this team and shake that infamous post-game exclamation, so let’s take a look at what they’ll need to do that.

Offense

Run it early and often

The Bucs offense as of late has been pretty slow to start, which they cannot afford to do against decent competition. I don’t know what it’s going to take, especially because they have all of the tools to be successful.

Against the Vikings, I think they should have a chance to clear up some of these issues, especially in the run game.

While I have called for them to run the ball almost every week now, it’s primarily because the teams that they face often are weak against the run. The Vikings are no exception.

In 13 games, Minnesota has allowed 120 or more yards rushing seven times. While the 4.3 yards per rush allowed isn’t the worst in the league by any means, they have shown that they can get carved up on the ground.

There’s a few reasons for this. One is that the Vikings like to play a lot of two-high safety, meaning that there’s going to be one less guy in the box. On top of this, the absence of Anthony Barr (and Eric Kendricks last week) has left guys like Eric Wilson getting a lot more playing time.

While Wilson isn’t a bad linebacker, he just isn’t good at stopping the run. According to Pro Football Focus, he is actually one of the worst run stopping linebackers in the league, putting together a 39.9 overall score in that area.

Watching the tape, I often see him with his eyes in the backfield which can get him caught on blocks once the line works its’ way to the second level. Once he’s walled off, big gaps open up.

Additionally, sometimes their defensive ends get upfield and it can leave wide open cutback lanes, like we see here:

So I don’t know what the keys are for these run defenders since I am not a coach for the Vikings, but from watching this, I see a few things that allowed Ezekiel Elliot to get 15 yards on this run.

It looks like the three defensive lineman on the left side of the line are supposed to be covering the primary run gaps on the backside. When the end Ifeadi Odenigbo (95) gets taken upfield, he gets taken out of his gap responsibility and it allows a wide open cutback lane.

Simply based on the way the line crashes down in those gaps, that would lead me to believe that Eric Kendricks (56) had the play-side A gap and that Wilson (50) had the play-side B. However, if Kendricks was quicker in reading the cutback, he could’ve stopped this play for a modest gain.

In either case, this was a more than successful run play for the Cowboys, and this is no isolated incident. In the games that I watched, the Vikings allowed a few big runs in all of them, because of mistakes like this.

With Eric Kendricks popping up on the injury report after missing Week 13, there may be even more of a reason to keep the ball on the ground as he is their best run stopper (and overall player) at the linebacker position.

Use more play-action

I feel like I’ve been harping on it all season and it’s for good reason. The Bucs are one of the best play-action teams in the league, but they use it so infrequently that it never turns into a big advantage.

Arians and Leftwich have cited that the running game needs to get going before this can be successful, but that’s just not true. In any defense, defenders have run reads that they have to get through before they defend the pass.

When a second level player like a linebacker or box safety sees run blocks and a potential handoff, they’re bound to come up a few yards before they realize that it’s a fake. This leaves so much room behind them, especially if the deep coverage is already dropping back.

Since there’s so much room back there, there’s typically going to be someone open and it can lead to easy short gains, or huge chunk plays.

I mean, just look at how easy it can be:

The Vikings look to be in Cover 2 here (which they are in a lot), which means that all of these second level guys are going to be zoned in the middle of the field.

When Andy Dalton fakes the handoff and comes back around, he sees Michael Gallup (13) wide open. The reason he’s open, is because the linebackers all came up and slanted towards the run fake, leaving the entire middle of the field open for business.

This is probably one of the easiest throws of Dalton’s career, and it didn’t take anything special to make it that way.

I mean, just look at how easy this is:

No matter what coverage the Vikings are in, there’s no way that they can stop this every time it’s used. On this particular play, the Vikings send two extra guys on a blitz and have everyone else in Cover 1.

Since the two corners are inside the numbers, they’re going to be playing with outside leverage to keep everything contained in the middle of the field, funneling any deep routes towards their safety up top.

Since they are using this kind of leverage, it’s way too easy to create space on an in-breaking route like Davante Adams does here. While Aaron Rodgers still has to be weary of underneath coverage, the fake takes that right out of the equation.

When the run fake occurs, the two linebackers that aren’t blitzing, move up to stop the run and it forces them out of position once they’re able to read the pass. On a typical pass play, these two linebackers have a few options after their assignments stay in to block. They can either blitz, spy, or drop back and play zones in the middle of the field.

If these two weren’t drawn in by a run fake, there’s a good chance that they would’ve dropped back into coverage, making this throw much more difficult for Rodgers. However, since the fake drew them in, there was no way that they were going to try to drop, simply because it was too late.

Instead of sending verts up the field on every down, forcing Tom Brady to fit the ball into tight windows, just give him something easy once in awhile. Not only will it get the ball moving, but it lowers the chance that he’ll throw a mistimed interception.

As we’ve seen with many teams across the league, play-action can be extremely successful. It’s up to the Bucs to get with the times and toss in a lot more of these kinds of plays, it can only be helpful at this point.

Defense

Pressure Kirk Cousins

So like I said before, this entire offense is built around Dalvin Cook and his ability to absolutely shred defenses week after week. However, when Cook isn’t tearing it up, the offense turns to Cousins and the weapons that he has around them.

While they are a run-first team, this is not because of the lack of talent that they carry at the quarterback or wide receiver positions. Cousins, while not the most prolific QB in the NFL, still does carry the ability to get hot and slice up a defense, especially when he isn’t under pressure.

I mean, how could he not? With weapons like Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., and Cook, if he wasn’t succeeding, they’d be looking for a new quarterback.

The good thing for the Bucs though, is that when Cousins is under pressure, he turns into Jameis Winston. Alright alright...here’s what I mean by that.

When Cousins comes under pressure, he’s always looking to make a big play. Sometimes he succeeds, other times, he’ll also just throw away a game.

Here’s an example of that:

So here we see the Vikings running a play-action screen, at least from what it looks like based on the center’s movement towards the sideline and Cook’s route.

Kirk drops back and immediately feels pressure from his left and his front. Instead of tossing it at Cook’s feet or taking the sack, he lofts it up and it turns into an easy six points for Jacksonville.

Very Jameis-like in my opinion, sort of looks like the interception Winston threw in Week One last season against the 49ers.

Even when Kirk doesn’t throw an interception while being pressured, he has the propensity to miss wide open downfield targets, especially because he is limited in his mobility. Here’s a look at that:

This is slightly reminiscent of the previous play we looked at, especially because of where the pressure comes from. However here, he has an escape route to the right where he could scramble a bit and look downfield.

Instead of moving anywhere, he sits like a statue and attempts to hit a well-covered comeback route. If he did scramble a bit to his right, he would’ve had the time to see the wide open receiver who is streaking across the middle of the field.

What could’ve been a huge play, ends up being an incomplete pass (and almost an interception). If he were not pressured, I assume he would’ve thrown that pass with ease, however the pressure makes it so that he isn’t even able to see it.

For the Buccanners, we can only hope that they’re able to create pressure. This aspect of their game has been very hot and cold (like the entire rest of the team I guess), however, they definitely showed a lot of progress against the Chiefs last week when rushing with four.

On top of this, the Vikings offensive line isn’t all that great, which I expect will create a myriad of opportunities to force Cousins into bad throws, like the two we see above. According to Pro Football Reference, Cousins has been pressured on 25.4% of his dropbacks this season, which is good news for Tampa Bay as that is quite high.

Cover the flats

I know that I’ve been talking about Dalvin Cook this entire time, yet, I didn’t choose him as a key to stop. The reason for this, is that Cook will get his carries regardless of rushing success. Another reason, is because the Vikings haven’t run very well against the top run defenses in the NFL.

According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Seattle are all top-15 in the category, and Cook had less than 100 yards rushing in all of these games. Even against Carolina, Cook only had 61 yards on 18 carries, and they’re the 20th ranked rush defense in DVOA.

Of these teams, Chicago is the highest ranked rush defense that the Vikings have faced this season when looking at DVOA, and they are fifth. If you’ve been paying attention at all to the Bucs defense, their strength just so happens to be against the run, and they find themselves ranked first in DVOA in this area.

So this brings me to the one area that the Bucs should key on, and that’s in covering the flats.

The Buccaneers have had questionable success in defending the flats, especially when we look at how teams have easily picked up third and shorts by throwing to this area.

When the Bucs are in Cover 3, which they are in far too often, the outside corners sit about eight yards off the line of scrimmage, and the flats are left wide open, especially if the underneath curl/flat zone cover can’t get there quickly enough.

The reason that this is a big deal when playing the Vikings, is because they run A LOT of play-action boots and often pick up first downs with guys in the flat. Here’s a look at that:

The Packers look to be in Cover 4 here, which only leaves three guys underneath in coverage. When Kirk fakes the handoff, any underneath zone defenders are drawn in and it leads to a wide open Kyle Rudolph in the flat.

Once Cousins comes out of the fake and turns around, it doesn’t matter that there’s pressure in his face because there’s a wide open receiver just a few yards away from him.

Plays like these aren’t spectacular big hitters, but they keep an offense moving down the field and it ends up being far too easy for an offense to score if they pick up enough of these.

While the play-action boot is a big reason for covering the flats, another, is Dalvin Cook coming out of the backfield. While he doesn’t always put up huge numbers in the passing game, he will if the flats are left open all day.

No matter what, the Bucs will need to cover up these opportunities to ensure that they don’t give up the easy stuff.

Conclusion

This is yet another big game for the Bucs, especially as they have dropped three of their last four and need to get back to their winning ways.

Not only is is demoralizing (to players and fans) to lose time and time again, but it’s also hurt their playoff position. Another loss and it could really spell trouble for their chances to even clinch a wild card spot.

This Vikings team is very beatable, and we have seen a number of teams have success against them this season. While they’ve definitely buttoned some things up, they still provide plenty of opportunities to come away with a win.

When the Bucs have the ball, they need to use Ronald Jones II and get the play-action game more involved (even if Jones isn’t having success).

When they don’t have the ball, they need to put the entire game on the shoulders of Cousins, because if not, their offense has shown efficiency simply through play calling. If the game is on all on him, pressure should do a good job of slowing him down and forcing him into turnovers.

No matter what happens, the Buccaneers need to win this game. If not, I don’t know how good I would feel about the remainder of the season.

What do you think it’ll take to come out with a win? Do you think it should even be close? Let us know in the comments below!

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