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What happens on third down and in the red zone will determine the Bucs-Vikings matchup

Tampa Bay needs to be on point in big situations.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Detroit Lions
How the Bucs perform in crucial moments will determine who wins between Tampa Bay and Minnesota.
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Football is a complicated sport. But it’s also simple.

The point of the game is to score more points than the other team. That’s easy enough, right? Sure. Scoring those points, however, is a different story.

That’s why you have to make sure you execute when it matters most. This ideology will be on display in a major way this week when the Minnesota Vikings come to Raymond James Stadium to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Whatever happens on third down and in the red zone —for both teams— will determine the game.

This is the simple side of things. Everyone knows you have to convert as many third downs as possible and that you need to score touchdowns when you’re inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. If you don’t do those two things, then you’re going to have a hard time scoring points.

Tampa Bay has a tough challenge in terms of the Vikings, who are an elite team on both sides of the ball inside the red zone. The defense boasts the third-lowest conversion rate and currently allows the fifth-fewest total red zone touchdowns, the lowest first down percentage, and the second-lowest yards per play mark in the NFL. Minnesota gives up the second-fewest points per red zone trip and the third-fewest touchdowns per red zone trip. Turnovers are a big part of the equation, too, evidenced by the Vikings’ eighth-highest turnover percentage that includes the second-most interceptions.

It won’t get any easier on offense. Minnesota owns the league’s third-best red zone touchdown rate, they average the most yards per play and the highest first down percentage, and are tied for the fifth-most total touchdowns. When you break it down to a per-drive basis, Minnesota leads the league in both points scored per red zone trip and touchdowns scored per red zone trip.

And it’s easy to see why they’re so damn good on offense. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen turn into a three-headed monster inside an opponent’s 20. Cousins leads the league in completion percentage (71%) and has the fifth-most touchdowns (19) among quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts. Cook has the most rushing yards (159) and is tied for the most rushing touchdowns (10). Thielen has the most receptions (14), most receiving yards (111), and most receiving touchdowns (11) among wide receivers with at least nine targets.

Carolina Panthers v Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins is having a very good year.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The good news is that the offense is 18th in total plays ran inside the red zone, so the Vikings don’t get there as often as your average team. They make it count though, which is what is important.

And when you look at the Bucs’ red zone defense, “making it count” is what opponents tend to do.

Tampa Bay is currently tied at No. 20 in terms of red zone trips allowed on defense, but opponents are converting their trips into touchdowns at a 63.2% rate, which is good for the league’s 15th-highest conversion rate. So, the Bucs are allowing opponents inside the red zone at a below-average rate, but are allowing touchdowns at an above-average rate. They are slightly above-average in points allowed per red zone trip, but are a tad bit below-average when it comes to touchdowns scored per red zone trip.

We know that the Bucs run defense is a solid unit and will likely hold its ground against Cook and co., but how will the secondary hold up against Cousins, Thielen, and the rookie sensation Justin Jefferson? A good pass rush would certainly help, but there’s a problem: The Vikings have yet to allow a sack in the red zone all season long and the Bucs only have three sacks when they’re backed up against the end zone.

The Bucs’ red zone offense versus the Vikings’ red zone defense will be a great battle to watch. The Bucs hold the sixth-highest red zone touchdown rate, which is highlighted by Tom Brady’s 23 passing touchdowns and Mike Evans’ 9 receiving touchdowns, which are good for second-best and third-best, respectively. It’s obvious that connection is the driving force behind the league’s sixth-highest red zone touchdown rate that includes the fourth-most total touchdowns and 10th-highest first down percentage.

Oh, and the Bucs are just one of four teams that have yet to commit a turnover in the red zone.

As important as all of this is, it’s even more important that you are able to get inside an opponent’s 20 to begin with. You have to convert on third down if you wish to do so on a consistent basis, which is where another big-time matchup lies.

The Vikings third-down defense is very good, just like their red zone defense.

“They’ve done a good job on third down [and] getting teams in a little bit longer situations,” Bruce Arians told reporters on Tuesday. “They’ve got a great blitz package – Mike Zimmer is one of the best there is [and] one of the guys I respect the most in this business. They have a heck of a third-down package and they know what they’re doing in the red zone.”

Minnesota holds the sixth-lowest third down conversion rate in the NFL, which isn’t good news for a Tampa Bay team that averages seven yards to go on third down. But there is good news in the form of Minnesota being the seventh-worst team in terms of third down distance. The Bucs are also an excellent team on third down despite the average distance. They are ninth in first down percentage, dead last in turnover percentage, have scored the seventh-most touchdowns, and have allowed the third-fewest sacks.

The Vikings offense is good on third down, as well. They are tied for the ninth-best conversion rate, despite averaging a distance of 7.4 yards to go on third down. Tampa Bay’s defense has had a tough time getting opponents off the field on third down and it’s shown as the Bucs have dropped out of the top-10 and down to 13th overall in third down conversion rate.

Tampa Bay can’t afford to mess around in clutch situations on Sunday. The Vikings have had their issues, but their ability to make things happen when they matter will make them a tough opponent. If Tampa Bay doesn’t get it done in these two areas, then all bets are off.