The Vikings and Buccaneers are fast at work preparing for their Thursday night showdown at Mall of America Field. Both teams had quick turnarounds after playing home games on Sunday. Here are a few subplots to watch this week…
1. Quick Turnaround, Short Week
The Vikings and Buccaneers are both coming off 7-point games that will have concluded just 4 days prior to kickoff of their matchup in Minnesota. The short week presents challenges for both teams as they prepare for the game. But there’s an additional challenge for the Buccaneers because they’ll jump on a plane Wednesday afternoon, spending valuable time during the short week up in the air and away from home.
According to Mike Garafolo of USA Today, since the NFL Network started its late-season Thursday broadcasts in 2006, road teams are 20-35 in the games. Garafolo notes that the figure includes Thanksgiving games (the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions are a combined 5-7 as home teams) but excludes season openers because they’re not played on short weeks. It also includes a New York Jets victory against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto that was a neutral-site matchup, not a true away game.
2. Looking For A Bounce-Back Performance From Ponder
There’s no hiding from the fact that Vikings QB Christian Ponder is coming off a poor outing against the Arizona Cardinals. Ponder himself was critical of his own performance following the game, and you can sense from listening to him speak with reporters that it bothers him to no end. The key now is to do something about it.
Past performances indicate that Ponder will indeed bounce back. We’ve seen Ponder bounce back from poor moments in games to lead the Vikings to points. Ponder had two INTs in the middle of the Titans game in Week 5, but responded in the 2nd half with a pair of TDs in leading the Vikings to victory.
You can count Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier as one who believes Ponder will respond on Thursday night following the effort on Sunday.
“When you look at moments where he’s struggled, and then you’ve seen him bounce back, even after the first interception to come back and take us down for a score when he threw the pass to Percy [Harvin] for a touchdown, those are signs that he’s maturing as a quarterback,” Frazier said. “He’s able to put bad plays behind him and that’s what you have to be able to do at that position. That’s important to our team, it’s important to him. I am. I’m confident that he’ll just continue to get better as time goes on.”
3. Strength vs. Strength: Vikings Rushing Offense vs. Buccaneers Rushing Defense
Adrian Peterson showed on Sunday against Arizona that 8- and 9-man fronts weren’t enough to slow him down. The Cardinals presented that road block for much of the game, yet Peterson still ran for 153 yards and 1 TD on 23 carries. Expect the Buccaneers to devise a plan to slow down #28.
Tampa Bay has done a good job of stopping opponents from the running the ball this season. They’ve allowed just one opposing rusher – Washington’s Alfred Morris – to top 100 yards this season and they rank #1 in the NFL by allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. Also, no team registered more opponent’s rushes of negative yards than Tampa Bay (37).
Although it’s not a tangible factor you can assess during the game, preparing for an opponent on a short week – with travel thrown in for Tampa Bay – and then playing two games within 4 days of one another is a significant subplot to this matchup.
4. Playing At Home, Can Vikings Defense Slow Down Freeman-to-Jackson Combo
Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman has played as well as any QB in the NFL the past two weeks, throwing for 748 yards with 6 TDs and just 1 INT the past two games. He’s taken just 2 sacks and has 8 completions of 25+ yards in that same span. While you certainly don’t anticipate Tampa Bay abandoning the run on Thursday night, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them try to attack through the air with a QB who is on a roll.
Freeman’s top target this season has been his newest target – free agent signing Vincent Jackson. The 6-5, 230-pound pass-catcher is one of the League’s best, and Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier said on Wednesday that his route running is one thing that stands out about him. Jackson leads the Buccaneers in targets (60), receptions (27), receiving yards (586), receptions of 20+ yards (10) and receiving TDs (5). When Freeman goes to Jackson, it’s for the big play. He had a 95-yard grab last week against the Saints, and 25 of Jackson’s 27 catches have gone for a 1st down or TD.
The Vikings have done a nice job of neutralizing top threats. They held Detroit’s Calvin Johnson to 5 receptions for 54 yards and zero TDs in Week 4, Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to 24 yards on 15 carries, and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald to 4 receptions for 29 yards. Defending Freeman-to-Jackson will be as tough a task as they’ve had this season.
5. Can Tampa Bay Slow Vikings Pass Rush?
The Vikings pass rush relentless pursued (and sacked) Cardinals QB John Skelton last Sunday. The defensive line was particularly productive, registering 6.0 of the Vikings 7 sacks on the day. DEs Brian Robison (3.0) and Jared Allen (2.0) got to him often, DT Kevin Williams tallied a key sack late in the game and then CB Antoine Winfield got a big on a 4th and 2 in the 2nd half.
Can Tampa Bay slow the NFL’s 3rd best pass-rushing defense? The Vikings have 22 sacks on the season, tied for 3rd, and no team has more sacks than their 72 since the beginning of 2011.
But Tampa Bay can pass protect. They have a mammoth offensive line, as their smallest lineman is C Jeremy Zuttah at 6-4, 308 pounds. Three others are 6-5 and their RT – Demar Dotson – is 6-9, 315 pounds. On top of that, Freeman is a big, strong athlete in the pocket and can be hard to bring down. The Buccaneers have permitted just 9 sacks through the first 6 games, which ranks tied for 4th best in the NFL.
6. Vikings In Prime Time
Most coaches and veterans will insist that a prime time game is “just another game.” Frazier explained to reporters on Tuesday that Thursday’s game is important to him because it’s the next game, not because it’s a prime time game.
That’s the prudent way for coaches and players to frame the game. But we don’t have to be prudent about framing the game. We can be excited to watch the Vikings play in prime time.
Thursday’s matchup between the Vikings and Buccaneers is one that features former NFC Central rivals. The Vikings and Buccaneers battled as division opponents from 1977-2001. As for playing on Thursday night, the Vikings own a 5-6 record in such games, are hosting their 1st NFL Network game in team history, and are playing in only their 2nd ever game on NFL Network, with the 1st being at Green Bay in December of 2006. This game will also mark the 1st prime time game at Mall of America Field since Green Bay visited in October of 2009.
The Vikings are 57-55 all-time in prime time games.
7. Matt Blair Goes Into Vikings Ring of Honor
It will have no bearing on Thursday’s game, but it’s appropriate to mention that former linebacker Matt Blair will become the 20th member of the Vikings Ring of Honor on Thursday night during a halftime ceremony honoring his career.
Blair played 12 seasons (1974-85) with the Vikings and ranks 2nd in franchise history with 1,452 tackles. He was a 2nd-round pick out of Iowa State and immediately made an impact on the Vikings defense, helping the team to Super Bowl IX as a rookie. Blair played on 2 Super Bowl teams with the Vikings, and the club won NFC Central Division titles and went to the playoffs in 6 of his first 7 seasons in the League. Blair had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, illustrated by his 20 blocked kicks. Alan Page (nine) is the only defensive player in club history with more Pro Bowls to his credit.
The Vikings Ring of Honor recognizes Vikings legends for their contributions to the success of the team on and off the field. Members of the Ring of Honor are recognized with a banner on the facade of Mall of America Field’s upper deck, forever living in Vikings lore.
Tags: Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Brian Robison, Christian Ponder, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Leslie Frazier
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