The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a Week 7 heart-breaker to the New Orleans Saints but don’t have much time to sit around sullen and dejected. The team will travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings on Thursday night and have plenty to prepare for.
Not only are the Vikings a surprising 5-2 this year, but the team possesses a dual threat on offense in running back Adrian Peterson, who is third in the NFL in rushing, and wide receiver Percy Harvin, who is second in the league in receptions.
The Buccaneers also have nine-game road losing streak hanging on their backs. Tampa Bay’s last win away from Raymond James Stadium came during Week 2 last year, ironically enough a come-from-behind win over the Vikings. Since they’ve been beaten, on average, by 20 points per game on the road.
To halt the losing streak, Tampa Bay is going to have to halt Peterson and Harvin and find a few ways around some of the other obstacles on the Vikings roster.
Here’s how the Buccaneers should set up a game plan for the Vikings:
Make Christian Ponder Win the Game
It may be counter intuitive to have the third-ranked rushing defense in the league and then formulate a game plan that consists of focusing on the weakest area of the team, Tampa Bay’s 31st-ranked pass defense, but that’s exactly what has to happen Thursday.
The Buccaneers are giving up a stingy 76 rushing yards per game on defense and have allowed just one runner—the Washington Redskins’ Alfred Morris—to eclipse the 100-yard mark.
In Minnesota, the run defense will have to face one of the top running backs in the league over the last six seasons in Adrian Peterson, who’s also the fourth-ranked running back in the league this year with 652 yards on the ground.
Over the last four games, Peterson has averaged 5.4 yards per carry and has gone over 100 yards in a game twice. While the biggest area of strength for Tampa Bay is its run defense, it may be necessary to throw more weight towards stopping the run on Thursday just so Peterson can’t win the game for the Vikings.
Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder has to be the one who beats Tampa Bay. If the Buccaneers can contain Peterson and force Ponder’s hand, there’s a good chance they can pull off the upset on the road.
After starting the season turnover free through the air in his first four games, Ponder’s thrown six interceptions over the last three contests, two in each game. While he’s maintained a 65 percent completion rate over those last three games, he’s made many mistakes.
The mistakes were so prevalent against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7, that Minnesota limited Ponder to 17 passing attempts, and just seven in the second half.
Ponder’s been getting himself in trouble when he’s on the run. Both interceptions against the Cardinals were forced by Arizona’s pass rush pushing Ponder out of the pocket in evasion mode. If Tampa Bay can get pressure on Ponder, he’ll become a much less accurate passer and will make mistakes.
Keep Josh Freeman Patient
Not only has Minnesota only given up eight touchdown passes this year, but cornerback Chris Cook did a fantastic job in Week 7 holding one of the league’s best receivers, Larry Fitzgerald, to four catches and 29 yards.
The Vikings are planning on shutting down Vincent Jackson in the same manner.
"We basically have the same type of game plan (for Jackson)," Cook told ESPN 1500. "Just take away the big plays to him and take away the big passes down the field to those guys."
Freeman’s made a name for himself over the last three weeks going deep to not just Jackson, but also Tiquan Underwood and Mike Williams. The Vikings will have to do more than just stop Jackson, but it’s apparent that cutting the top off and making Tampa Bay beat the short is exactly what Minnesota plans to do.
Freeman has to be patient and take those short offerings and keep hammering at them until something big turns up. Only two quarterbacks in the league have more completions on passes of 20 yards or more and no one has more passing yards.
Freeman won’t get many opportunities to go deep on Thursday. When he gets one, he must be precise. Until then he must be patient.
Win the Penn vs. Allen Debate
Debates are all the rage as elections near next month.
Calling the fierce battle left tackle Donald Penn will have with Vikings defensive end Jared Allen a debate is a bit of a misnomer, but the two will be clashing all night.
According to Pro Football Focus (pay wall), no defensive end in the league has brought more pressure on quarterbacks from the right side of the defense than Allen with 33 total pressures. Allen has six sacks, eight quarterback hits and 19 hurries already on the season.
Penn’s only allowed one sack (only eight offensive tackles with 150 passing snaps or more have allowed fewer) this year and 11 hurries. Penn’s done a marvelous job at keeping Freeman clean in 2012 and will have to do so again Thursday.
These two have squared off recently—Week 2 of last year—with Penn seemingly the victor as he only gave up one sack to Allen in that contest. However, Penn also allowed two of his seven quarterback hits last year to Allen, and the Vikings defensive end hurried Freeman twice too in that game.
With Minnesota attempting to take away deep lanes, Freeman should throw a bunch of quick routes Thursday, which will help Penn. There should also be a few times where Freeman will have a chance to go deep. Since they’ll happen less frequently than usual, Penn must keep Allen off Freeman and allow him an extra second or so in the pocket to throw.