Keys to a Vikings Win over Buccaneers in Opener and Jeff Diamond’s Pick

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The Vikings opener is coming up on Sunday, and it should be an exciting atmosphere at U.S. Bank Stadium as the Vikings begin the defense of last season’s NFC North title against the reigning NFC South champion Buccaneers. 

Keys to a Vikings Win over Buccaneers in Opener and Jeff Diamond’s Pick

This game brings back fond memories for me of the 1998 opener, which was Randy Moss’ Vikings debut, and he and Cris Carter each caught two TD passes from Brad Johnson in the 31-7 rout that started us on a terrific 15-1 regular season. 

The Vikings are a six-point favorite against the Bucs, who were 8-10 last season which won the NFL’s worst division, the NFC South. Dallas quickly jettisoned Tampa Bay in a 31-14 wild card playoff that was Tom Brady’s final NFL game (barring an unexpected return).

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Baker Mayfield is attempting to resurrect his career as Bucs QB on a cheap, one-year deal. The Bucs’ offensive line and last-ranked run game were a problem last season. Brady’s passing to excellent wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin carried the offense, but the team’s strength was in its ninth-ranked defense. It will be a challenge for the Vikings offense to generate a lot of points against the Bucs after Coach Kevin O’Connell did not play his starters in the three preseason games.

O’Connell’s strategy worked well last season when the Vikings whipped the Packers 23-7 in the opener at home. Kirk Cousins told the media this week that he was surprised the team played such a “clean game” in that opener after not playing starters in preseason other than in joint practices where the QB is not supposed to be hit and tackling is forbidden (and the Vikings did have four days of joint practices with the Titans and Cardinals during their just completed training camp). 

The Vikings appear to be the healthier team going into the opener with all players practicing, while the Bucs have three players listed as not practicing or limited, including two starters who were their top two draft picks in April—defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and right guard Cody Mauch. 

Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Buccaneers:

1. The offensive line—especially the interior group (center Garrett Bradbury, right guard Ed Ingram, and left guard Ezra Cleveland)—must play well against a strong front seven. Nose tackle Vita Vea, edge rusher Shaq Barrett, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David are all former Pro Bowlers. 

Danielle Hunter Trade Rumors
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The Vikings O-line—with help from an excellent blocking tight end in Josh Oliver and fullback C.J. Ham–needs to open holes for running backs Alex Mattison and Ty Chandler. That will put the offense in better down-and-distance situations and set up the Vikings’ prolific passing game, provided Cousins has adequate protection. Tackles Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw are the strength of the O-line, and they will be tested by Barrett and his fellow outside backer Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. 

2. The Vikings always need to target their All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson 10-15 times in a game, but the other skill players must be productive as J.J. faces constant double teams. K.J. Osborn, Jordan Addison, T.J. Hockenson, Mattison, and Chandler need to make plays to take some pressure off Jefferson, and Oliver is a big potential target for Cousins. The Bucs have fine starting corners in Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, along with ex-Golden Gopher Antoine Winfield Jr. as an excellent safety, so it will be interesting to see how the Vikings receiving corps fares in this game and a good warm-up for facing Philadelphia’s excellent corners Darius Slay and James Bradberry next week. 

3. Win the turnover battle: the Bucs were middle-of-the-pack with 20 takeaways last season, but after not much hitting in camp, turnovers are a concern in the first real game. The Vikings ranked plus 2 in turnover ratio in 2022, with the defense ranking eighth with 25 takeaways to partially offset so many yards allowed (31st). They need to continue playing opportunistic ball on defense.  

4. Stop the Bucs run game that ranked last in the NFL to set up going after Mayfield. Vet defensive linemen Harrison Phillips, Dean Lowry, and Jonathan Bullard must make run stops and free up linebackers Brian Asamoah and Jordan Hicks and safeties Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum to contain Bucs lead back Rachaad White.  

5. This is a game that Danielle Hunter can dominate as he is likely to match up with second-year right tackle Luke Goedeke (who likely will get help from the tight ends and backs). If defensive coordinator Brian Flores can find ways via the blitz to single up Hunter on Goedeke, that certainly should work in the Vikings favor.

1 Primary Position
Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores chatting with Tatum Everett on February 15th, 2023. The Vikings hired Flores from the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a linebackers coach for one season.

6. Speaking of Flores, I think one of the most intriguing elements of this game and the season ahead is how Flores’ aggressive schemes work to stop the run and pressure the quarterback through lots of blitzing. That also puts pressure on the Vikings young corners to be on their game when they face excellent receivers, such as this week with Evans and Godwin (and next week with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith of the Eagles). 

A lot is riding on starting corners Byron Murphy and Akayleb Evans, along with rookie third corner Mekhi Blackmon (who will play outside with Murphy in the slot on obvious passing downs). It also will be interesting to see how much Flores uses three safeties with Josh Metellus or Lewis Cine joining Smith and Bynum. It’s a concern if the inconsistent and often hurt corner Andrew Booth is called upon. 

7. Special teams can be a Vikings difference-maker in this game. The Vikings have a slight edge at kicker with Greg Joseph over the Bucs’ Chase McLaughlin, who is kicking for his eighth team and will have to deal with the loud crowd. Chandler on kickoff returns and Brandon Powell on punt returns bring speed and agility for the Vikings. 

Jeff’s Prediction: This is a game the Vikings need to win with a difficult road test on a short week coming up next Thursday against NFC favorite Philadelphia. I see a close game against the Buccaneers in which Cousins and Jefferson will connect for a couple of TDs as the Vikings make enough plays on offense while Hunter and the defense force two Mayfield turnovers. The Vikings win 27-20 to get the season off to a good start.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. Nick Bosa’s five-year, $170 million extension with the 49ers might be what Jefferson and his agents were waiting to see as they seek to make J.J. the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback. Perhaps this will be the impetus to get Jefferson’s extension done. 

2. There are plenty of exciting games this opening weekend, including these six matchups that interest me the most (not including Chiefs vs. Lions since that game has already been played): 

Bills at Jets (Monday night): Aaron Rodgers’ Jets debut at home against the defending AFC East champs led by Josh Allen is must-see TV (plus seeing Dalvin Cook in Jets’ green will be fun to watch). The Jets top-five defense held the Bills offense to 17 and 20 points in their 2022 season split. Rodgers’ offensive line is a concern, and I see the Bills winning a close game.

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Packers at Bears: The Jordan Love era begins for the Packers against a Bears team that looks improved via free agent and draft additions but needs Justin Fields to make major strides as a passer this season. The Packers win a close one with their defense leading the way. 

Cowboys at Giants (Sunday night): This should be an exciting prime-time game between long-time divisional rivals. The Cowboys look like the better team, as Micah Parsons and the defense will get after Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley and Company. But Dak Prescott has to do a better job of avoiding interceptions (15 last season to tie for the league lead) beginning with this matchup.  

49ers at Steelers: Niners second-year QB Brock Purdy is the player to watch as he comes off his elbow injury and faces an aggressive Steelers D led by edge rusher T.J. Watt. Steelers second-year QB Kenny Pickett will find it tough to crack the 49ers top-ranked D from last season. Too much talent overall for the 49ers, who should have Nick Bosa in the lineup on a limited basis after missing camp, but he’ll still make an impact as a pass rusher. 

Dolphins at Chargers: Two playoff teams from last year who lost in the wild card round meet in what should be a high-scoring game between teams with potentially high-scoring offenses. This is a tough one to call, but I’ll go with Justin Herbert and the Chargers at home.

Bengals at Browns: QB Joe Burrow says his calf is fully healed, and that’s enough for me to pick the Bengals (who are my pick to win the AFC but lose to the Eagles in the Super Bowl). Cincinnati’s defense is underrated and will contain Deshaun Watson and the Cleveland offense. 

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl