Three Keys: Vikings at Buccaneers

Currently, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings are heading in different directions. The Bucs have lost three of their last four games, and there are rumors of discord between Tom Brady and Bruce Arians. Meanwhile, the Vikings have gone 5-1 since the bye, and there has even been some quiet chatter about Mike Zimmer garnering Coach of the Year consideration. Despite these trends, the Vikings will have a difficult time with the Buccaneers tomorrow.

Key #1: Gary Kubiak vs. Todd Bowles

Like many Vikings fans, I’ve had both praise and criticism for Gary Kubiak this season. At times, the Vikings’ offense looks truly unstoppable. When Kirk Cousins is sharp and Dalvin Cook is gaining big chunks of yards, the Vikings’ offense is as good as any in the NFL. When they’re off, though, it can be pretty ugly. The run game is anemic, and the passing game becomes predictable and bland. We expect the Vikings to struggle running the ball against the Buccaneers defense, so Kubiak needs to ensure that the passing game avoids predictable blandness.

Todd Bowles has done a nice job coordinating the Bucs’ defense. They’re allowing, on average, a mere 74.2 rushing yards per game, the best in the NFL. The Vikings know this, and they would be wise to adjust accordingly. Rather than use the run to set up the pass, Kubiak should use the pass to set up the run. Lean on Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson until the Bucs commit to slowing them. At that point, start integrating Cook. If done right, the Vikings can score on the Buccaneers. They’re allowing 23.3 points per game, a number that is merely above average.

Key #2: Cameron Dantzler vs. Mike Evans

Everyone knows that Cameron Dantzler played excellent on Sunday. His progress will be put to the test on Sunday. Part of what makes Tampa Bay so formidable is their vast array of elite pass catchers: Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, and, of course, Mike Evans. The Vikings won’t be able to shut down all of these weapons, so they should instead focus on eliminating a couple of them.

Dantzler’s progression opens the possibility of slowing Evans. If Zimmer feels confident in Dantzler Island, then there are more opportunities to get creative with blitzes and double teams on other players. At least on paper, Dantzler seems to match up well. It’s a battle between two long, physical players; one has been elite for several seasons, the other has a couple elite games. It’s going to be a fascinating matchup.

Key #3: Tom Brady vs. Bruce Arians

A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. These are the words of the Lord. Christ’s words are true in a spiritual sense; Christ’s words are true on the football field.

Coming into the season, many expected Arians to adjust his offense to fit Brady’s strengths. Pat Shurmur always used to say that “it’s about the players, not the plays.” In other words, smart coaches focus on identifying what their players do well and then adjust their plays accordingly. So far, Arians has often struggled to prioritize his players instead of his plays. He’d be wise to alter his approach so that he doesn’t squander a roster that has a legitimate chance at competing for the Super Bowl.

Of course, the Vikings should be hoping that Arians refuses to let Brady shine. If the Bucs are indeed a kingdom divided against itself, then they’ll beat themselves on Sunday.

The Crystal Ball

Admittedly, I was nervous last week. There were times when it actually looked like the Jags were going to win. The Vikings prevailed, though, keeping their season alive and TVG’s predictions close to respectability. The Vikings are 6-6; our predictions sit at 5-7. If I’m right, both the Vikings and TVG will head into next week at 6-7.

This week’s game seems clear. My heart is pulling me in one direction, but my brain is pulling me in a different direction. Tampa Bay is just going to be too much for these Vikings to handle. Their defensive strength will likely nullify our offensive strength, leaving the Cousins/Kubiak combo in a bit of an awkward spot. We expect the defense to struggle with the Bucs’ offense. There are just so many weapons for Brady, who just so happens to be the best QB to ever play. This is a game where we are going to really, really miss Danielle Hunter.

The Vikings have had several good, competitive games against top-tier teams, so we’re predicting a close one.

Offseason Prediction: Vikings 27 – Buccaneers 24

Updated Prediction: Buccaneers 31 – Vikings 27

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