The Vikings (5-2) are headed to prime time on Thursday night, as the will play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4), a division rival from days long passed.
The Bucs are coming off of a devastating last-second loss to New Orleans, while the Vikings continue to overcome adversity and turn heads during a supposed “rebuilding” year.
Just as a loss would cause lost hope in Tampa, a win here would really get Minnesota’s fan base buzzing about the possibility of a postseason appearance. Let’s take a look at what all might end up deciding the outcome of this Thursday Night showdown.
The Passing Offense
You wouldn’t know it from watching last week’s game against Arizona, but the Vikings do not have the worst passing offense in the NFL. At 203.4 yards per game, however, the Viking shave slipped to an NFL ranking of 27th.
Christian Ponder’s quarterback rating of 87.5 places him as the 14th ranked passer in the NFL, just ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Kevin Kolb. While he is currently the sixth most accurate passer in the league (67.0% completion), Ponder’s limited production stems a complete absence of a downfield attack. Ponder has completed only one passing play over 40 yards in the first seven games, with Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Cassell being the only quarterbacks to have no 40-or-greater plays on their 2012 resume.
It seems that this “regression” is most apparent when Ponder is feeling pressure from the pass rush (imaginary or otherwise) which is directly attributable to the performance of his offensive line which, unsurprisingly, seems to correlate perfectly with the talent they are lined up against.
Luckily for the Vikings, they should get a break this week as Tampa Bay has had a very difficult time getting to opposing quarterbacks this season. They have only eight sacks through six games. That stat should unsurprisingly give a hint as to why their passing defense is giving up 323 yards per game, which is 31st in the NFL.
With Percy Harvin hungry to continue his ridiculous 2012 campaign (2nd most catches in the league) and Jerome Simpson perhaps finally getting into the mix, Ponder and his offense are poised for a huge rebound in front of a national audience. Caution should be used, however, as the Bucs have scooped nine interceptions already this season… from seven different players.
The Edge: Vikings
The Rushing Offense
Adrian Peterson tied Robert Smith’s franchise record for 100-yard games in last week’s display of his power running abilities. Peterson is tied with Marshawn Lynch for third place in the NFL’s rushing leader standings, and is only eight yards out of first place. No player at any position in the NFL has more runs for 20 or more yards than Peterson does. Adding Christian Ponder, Percy Harvin, and Toby gerhart into the mix gives the Vikings a 7th ranked rushing offense that is producing an average of 132.3 rushing yards per week.
This is the bread and butter of the Vikings offense, and few teams do it better, but with Peterson only getting healthier it could very well be that by the end of this season we will be able to say that no teams do it better.
This week could prove to be a challenge, however. Tampa Bay has invested plenty of picks and money into the middle of their defense in recent years, and it is showing. They are only allowing 76 yards of rushing per contest (3rd in NFL) and only 3.1 yards per rushing attempt (1st). They have also only given up three runs greater than 20 yards, and no big plays that gained over forty.
Ponder’s ability to exploit a weak pass defense could very well define the Vikings success on the ground, but with Adrian Peterson seeing action in front of a home crowd, it is hard to imagine that the Bucs won’t be seeing their rush defense drop by a ranking or two after Thursday.
The Edge: Vikings
The Passing Defense
With a quarterback rating of 91.2, Josh Freeman is only outside of the NFL’s top ten quarterbacks by a hair. He is right behind Eli Manning.
Newly acquired Vincent Jackson seems to be generating some chemistry with his new quarterback (27 catches, 586 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Mike Williams has also rebounded with solid numbers this season (19 catches, 368 yards, and 3 touchdowns). Outside of these two, however, the Bucs don’t have anyone to be really scared of in the passing game other than perhaps rookie running back Doug Martin.
Part of the success that Tampa has found in the passing game is a result of Freeman getting good protection, and doing a great job of avoiding the rush. The Bucs have only given up 9 sacks this year (tied for 4th in the NFL) which presents a very different matchup for Jared Allen and Brian Robison than they got last week against Arizona.
The Vikings have generated 22 sacks this year, despite shying away from the blitz for the most part, and that has them tied for the third most sacks as a team this year. The emergence of Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, and Harrison Smith has made the Vikings secondary a formidable unit with the resurgence of Antoine Winfield adding to the fun.
The Vikings are giving up an average of 219.4 yards of passing to opponents this year, which gets them a ranking of 11.
(Editor’s Note: If the Vikings end this season with a top ten passing defense, this hack blogger should have to ________FILL IN THE BLANK_________ in celebration. Go ahead, fill in the blank.)
The Vikings have the tools to shut down Freeman and his top two wideouts, but it seems a near-certainty that there will be an eventual breakdown on defense that gives the Bucs some golden opportunities. With growing comes some pains.
Oh, and Freeman is offering up less than one turnover per game this season. He knows how to take care of the football.
The Edge: Bucs
The Rushing Defense
Rookie running back Doug Martin is paired with bruiser LeGarrette Blount in what should prove to be a respectable matchup for any defense, including the Vikings.
The Bucs are ranked 17th in running the football, with 101.2 yards per game being generated, but I have to say that I have watched Martin closely and he has run with a lot more confidence (and production) over the last two weeks. Blount, on the other hand, is wildly inconsistent and struggled at the goalline last week… where he is supposed to be great.
One worry here, after what RGIII did to the Vikings, is Freeman’s mobility. He has displayed this in the past, but the truth is that the Bucs have not embraced this aspect of his game in 2012. He has ran the ball 15 times this season for only 36 yards, but the Vikings have to keep in mind that the guy is capable of taking off.
The Vikings run defense was off to a great start this season, but two weeks ago RGIII made them look foolish, and last week they made themselves look foolish by failing to make tackles on a consistent basis. Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was responsible for five missed tackles all on his own last week as LeRod Stephens-Howling slipped past our defenders on a regular basis.
So, after struggling for two weeks in a row, the Vikings are ranked 12th in the NFL in stopping the run. Which, still, that’s isn’t too shabby. Assuming that Cardinals outdid the Chargers this week by giving that little running back nicknamed “Hyphen” some slippery goo to spray himself down with (or that the Vikings linebackers just had a bad day, either one) I think they will look forward to getting back to basics against Martin and Blount.
The trenches, no matter which team is on the field, are where this game is going to be won. The Bucs have a good O-Line, but I still think the run nowhere for most of Thursday night.
The Edge: Vikings
The Special Teams
No kicker in the NFL has as many touchbacks as rookie Blair Walsh does at 27. He is also 3rd in the NFL with field goals made and has accounted for 63 Vikings points this season.
On top of that, the Vikings have the league’s best kick returner (minimum of 10 returns) in Percy Harvin with an average of 35.1 yards per return. Marcus Sherels is also the fifth best punt returner (10 return min.) with an average of 12.3 yards.
The Bucs, however, have done a great job of containing opponents return men. Kicker Connor Barth has been mildly inconsistent, Michael Koenen remains one of the league’s best punters, and the Bucs haven’t been able to settle on any return man options… mainly because none of them have really been any good.
Harvin is eager to return one after having his touchdown called back last week and Blair Walsh is on fire. The Bucs might have the better punter, but the Vikings have the better everything else.
The Edge: Vikings
A short week can make for some tired players, whose dings and dents slow them up a little more than usual, and I find Thursday Night Football to always have a sluggish feel to it. I think this is a fairly close matchup as it is, but I’m guessing this will be a low scoring affair and will feel like a really close game all night long.
ADAM: 16-13, Vikings
BRETT: 28-20, Vikings