By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings remain right there with the Chicago Bears at the top of the NFC North Division following a gritty win over the Arizona Cardinals at Mall of America Field. The reward is a short practice week to prepare for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The NFL announced the change to scheduling in the offseason that every team will play a primetime game. The Vikings were fortunate enough to get its Thursday game at home following a Sunday home game.
The Buccaneers enter the Thursday contest with a 2-4 record. The Bucs are 1-1 following their Week 5 bye. The two wins have come against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1 and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6; both home games. The four losses have come against the New York Giants in Week 2 and Dallas Cowboys in Week 3 on the road, and the Washington Redskins in Week 4 and New Orleans Saints in Week 7 at home.
Buccaneers on Offense
The Buccaneers are not one of the stronger offensive teams in the league. There are a lot of young playmakers still developing as NFL players. They currently rank as the 20th best offense in the league with 346.7 yards of total offense. The passing game is 15th with 245.5 yards per game and the running game is tied for 17th with 101.2 yards per game.
Quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receiver Vincent Jackson have developed good chemistry. The fourth-year signal caller has steadily improved. He has a 91.2 quarterback rating after Sunday’s loss to the Saints. He threw for 420 yards, including 216 to Jackson. Mike Williams and Dallas Clark complement Jackson in the passing game. They have combined for 23 catches for 950 yards.
Rookie Doug Martin is the leading rusher with 408 yards in 100 attempts. His career-high for yards in a game is 95 set in Week 1. He is fourth on the team in receiving with 13 catches for 145 yards. LaGarrette Blount is the backup, but he has just 25 carries on the year. He gashed the Vikings for 67 of his 71 yards in the second half of last season’s meeting at Mall of America Field. He also scored a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winning score with 31 seconds remaining.
The strength of the offensive line is the left side with Donald Penn at tackle, Carl Nicks at guard and Jeremy Zuttah at center. Nicks was one of the Buccaneers big free agent signings last offseason. The Buccaneers averaged six yards per rush when running to that side prior to Sunday’s loss.
The matchup the Vikings need to exploit is left defensive end Brian Robison vs. right offensive tackle Demar Dotson. Dotson is a fourth-year player that has just 28 NFL games of experience, including seven starts. He has started five of the six games this season for the Buccaneers. Robison recorded three sacks during Sunday’s win. An immobile quarterback combined with an inexperienced blocker could allow Robison to pick up a few more on Thursday.
Buccaneers on Defense
The Buccaneers have the 25th ranked total defense allowing 399 yards per game. The run defense, led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, is third in the NFL with 76 yards per game and the pass defense is 31st with 323 yards per game.
The Buccaneers weakness in stopping the pass may be in its pass rush. The team drafted a pair of high profile collegiate pass rushers in the 2011 draft, University of Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Clemson University’s Da’Quan Bowers in the second. Clayborn is currently on season-ending injured reserve and has been on the physically unable to perform list since the offseason. Michael Bennett leads the team with four sacks. As a team, it has eight total, which ranks 29th in the league.
The best individual players on the Buccaneers are safeties Ronde Barber and Mark Barron. Barber, a converted cornerback, is one of the best players in Buccaneer history. He leads the team with three interceptions. Barron is a ball-hawking, hard hitting safety. He can make plays at just about any level of the defense.
The matchup the Vikings need to exploit is the receivers against No. 2 cornerback E.J. Biggers. Biggers is starting opposite Eric Wright because of the suspension to Aqib Talib. Biggers ranked as one of the worst cornerbacks in the league last season. Jerome Simpson will most likely be matched up against Biggers. He has a size and speed advantage over the Buccaneer corner.
Buccaneers Players to Watch
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson: The big free agent signing in the offseason is the veteran playmaker of the Buccaneers offense. He leads the team in receptions and yards. He is a big body receiver that can make plays in the short, intermediate and deep passing game. He is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards.
Linebacker Lavonte David: The rookie from the University of Nebraska leads the team with 49 total tackles. He is not a big linebacker nor does he possess a lot of flash, but he does a very good job of sealing the backside from cut back runs and covering running backs and tight ends man-to-man.
The home team is 5-1 on Thursdays this season. The only road win was a lopsided victory by the Giants at the Panthers. The favorite entering the game is 4-2 on Thursdays this season. The lone two underdog wins were the St. Louis Rams over the Cardinals and the Tennessee Titans over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both stats favor the Vikings. They are at home and will be the favorite.
The Vikings control their own destiny in the NFC North Division standings, but Christian Ponder is going to have to be better than he was Sunday. He said on Paul Allen’s KFAN radio show Monday morning that he is looking for progression and “that’s going to happen.” Thursday’s game against the Buccaneers will be a gauge for his development.
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. His work can be found on Examiner.com.