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Vikings Can Prove They Belong by Beating the Bucs

It’s not an easy matchup

Kansas City Chiefs v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Vikings now occupy the last seed in the NFC playoff tournament, and have won five of their last six games. Beating the Packers and even 1-point losses to the Titans and Seahawks early in the season might suggest the Vikings have some playoff-worthy potential, but going 4-1 against the bottom-dwellers of the league - Jacksonville, Detroit, Carolina, Chicago, and Dallas - with mostly narrow victories, suggests a team not much better than those non-playoff teams.

But then again, Seattle hasn’t beat a team with a winning record, Chicago beat Tampa Bay- which has only beaten two teams with winning records. The Packers have only beat one, the Rams only two, and the Saints only one (TB twice). The Saints also needed overtime to beat the Bears and Chargers, and beat the Panthers by just 3.

So the Vikings need not bow their heads to any team in the NFC. The biggest difference between the Vikings and other playoff teams is that the Vikings lost to a couple non-playoff teams - Atlanta and Dallas - otherwise they’d be 8-4 and still in the hunt for the 1st seed.

But that’s how it works in the NFL normally. Good teams don’t always beat other good teams consistently, but they do take care of business against not-so-good teams. And so the Vikings enter week 14 with the 7th seed and something to prove. Slipping past the Jags and Panthers, after losing to the Cowboys, isn’t gonna make them a legit playoff team. As it stands, the Vikings have about a 40% chance of making the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight. But beating the Brady-led Buccaneers would nearly double that chance to around 80%, and allow them to leapfrog the Bucs into the sixth seed in the process.

The Vikings narrative would then begin to change from bad start and narrow victories over bad teams, to a team approaching the post-season with momentum- winning 6 of their last 7, playing well, and having already defeated two playoff teams since week 8.

Beating the Bucs

But the Buccaneers are a tough matchup for the Vikings. It’s a tough matchup because the Buccaneers defense is the best in the NFL against the run, Tom Brady can still be deadly when he has time to throw, the Vikings don’t have a good pass rush, and the Bucs have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown going against the Vikings’ young cornerbacks. Rob Gronkowski and Ronald Jones II are both solid weapons too.

The Buccaneers are also coming off a bye-week, which they needed to help get right after losing 3 of their last 4 games- including their last two. Tom Brady and company - and there are a lot of proven vets on that team - are not likely to come out of their bye-week flat. More likely they’ll be ready and waiting to hit the field and begin the Super Bowl push so many had them pegged for at the beginning of the season. Blowing out the Vikings would do a lot to get them energized for the rest of the season and post-season, and clearly they’d like nothing better on Sunday. They’re 6.5 point favorites at home as I write this.

Evan Winter over at Bucs Nation has a good post about the importance of the red zone and 3rd down matchups in this game, and like most games how well each team executes in those situations could determine the winner. The Vikings are ranked a bit higher than the Bucs in both situations, on both sides of the ball, but not by much.

What To Expect from the Bucs

Offensively, the Bucs operate with a Bruce Arians scheme, which likes to take deep shots. The problem, however, is that Tom Brady has just a 75.1 passer rating on throws 20+ yards down the field. And since week 8, much worse. At age 43, it’s a fair question whether that’s a strength of his game anymore. Bruce Arians said he did some self-scouting over the bye-week, including charting which plays worked best for them, so that could lead to some changes, and perhaps more short/intermediate rhythm passing routes - similar to Brady’s days in New England.

A big point of emphasis from Arians after the bye-week is the need to start games faster on both sides of the ball, so I would look for a lot of energy from the Bucs early on in this game. Keeping pace allows Tampa to run the ball more, which they’d like to do. They’re currently 29th in the league in rushing attempts, and 5th in pass attempts.

Defensively, the Bucs like to blitz to create QB pressure, and have the highest blitz rate in the league this year - blitzing roughly 40% of the time. That’s nothing new for the Vikings and Kirk Cousins, who has been blitzed on about a third of his drop-backs this season. He actually has a higher passer rating when blitzed (107.7) than when he’s not (102.2).

What To Expect from the Vikings

Tom Brady’s passer rating when pressured (49.0) is 60 points lower than when he’s kept clean (109.0) this season. That stat alone suggests an imperative for the Vikings on Sunday: get pressure on Brady. That’s not something they’ve been good at all season. For Brady, he’s usually more disrupted when the pressure comes up the middle, compared to off the edge. Whether that comes from shooting linebackers from a double-A gap look, or other twists or stunts, or different alignments up front, the Vikings will need to keep Tom Brady off-balance. The interior line is the weak-link in the Bucs pass pro, so the Vikings will need to find a way to exploit that somehow. The Bucs’ weekly PFF pass-blocking grade is highly correlated with their wins and losses.

I expect the Vikings to go with two-deep safety coverage most of the game to help protect their young corners against the Bucs seasoned receivers, although I could see with Cam Dantzler’s progress since he returned from injury (he has the lowest passer rating allowed when targeted among CBs since week 8), that they may shift safety attention away from him or in the box, as needed.

The key will be how well Tom Brady and his receivers can execute vs. the Vikings coverage, as I doubt the Vikings pass rush will be able to press the issue much, particularly with quicker passes.

Tom Brady vs. Kirk Cousins Since Week 8

But execution for Tom Brady and his receivers has become an issue in recent weeks. Brady and Cousins have performed very differently since mid-season this year. Since week 8, here are how they’ve compared in several key QB metrics, (along with rankings among QBs with 50%+ of top attempts).

  • Passer Rating with Clean Pocket: Brady: 102.1 (13th of 25). Cousins: 141.0 (1st).
  • Adjusted Completion Percentage: Brady: 71.4 (23rd of 25). Cousins: 82.2 (2nd).
  • Deep (20+ yard) Passer Rating: Brady: 31.7 (17th of 18). Cousins: 127.8 (2nd).
  • Passer Rating Under Pressure: Brady: 45.0 (20th of 25). Cousins: 68.8 (9th).
  • Yards per Attempt: Brady: 6.7 (18th of 25). Cousins: 8.5 (3rd).

Apart from his clean pocket passer rating, Brady is down there with Carson Wentz in the rest of these QB metrics since week 8. Of course people have been calling Brady’s demise for years, but in reality he’s played better the last half of his career than his first half. Nevertheless, age happens and deep ball accuracy is where it often shows up first in a QB. I looked at these same metrics for Brady last year, same weeks, and they were similar. I also looked at how he finished the last four weeks of the season last year - not much change - except his Deep Passer Rating went up to 112 - but on only 2 completions and 8 attempts over the last four games. Clearly Brady has a better receiver group now than he had last season in New England, but his metrics haven’t improved. Comparing last season overall to this season, they’ve mostly worsened. That says something. Blaming it on a new scheme and receivers doesn’t make sense, because why would it get worse as the season progresses? Logically it would improve as he became more familiar with both.

One thing Mike Zimmer could potentially have in his back pocket for Sunday is his Drew Brees defense. Zimmer has been able to hold Brees to relatively low production in recent matchups, and if the Bucs move to more of a short passing game, as the Saints do with Brees, he could use that against Brady.

Kirk Cousins, on the other hand, has elevated his game since his early season struggles with interceptions. He’s been able to move the chains at times with his feet, and is proving a bit more adept moving in the pocket to extend the play when he’s faced pressure. He’s also been able to produce two game winning drives in the last two weeks, in addition to all his other top stats over the past month or so. Tampa’s pass defense hasn’t been particularly stout this season, and less so in recent weeks against some top offenses, so Cousins should be able to do some damage through the air on Sunday. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gary Kubiak dialed up some screens to combat blitz packages from the Bucs. If Irv Smith Jr. is able to go, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more double tight-end, or RB/TE/FB sets with him and C.J. Ham to both help in the run game and matchup against LB Devin White in coverage, who’s allowed 65 receptions on 73 targets this season.

Individual Matchups

In addition to all of the above, look for some key individual matchups to play a role in the outcome:

Dalvin Cook vs. Lavonte David

Dalvin will be a focus for the whole Buccaneers defense on Sunday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lavonte David is tasked with basically shadowing him, run or pass. How well he’s able to stop Cook could play a role in how successful the Bucs are in stopping Cook.

William Gholston vs. Dakota Dozier

While the DE/OT matchups may get more attention, I expect Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill to hold up just fine against the Bucs edge rushers - Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. Gholston is actually their highest PFF-graded pass rusher, although he’s not as stout against the run. He may match up against Dozier much of the day, and could make it a long day for him. Dozier is coming off his worst PFF-graded game of the season, so it’ll be interesting to see how he does against Gholston, both in pass pro and run blocking. Dozier can handle size and strength reasonably well, but has more trouble against more athletic tackles. My guess is that Dozier matches up better against Gholston and his length - Dozier has roughly 34” arms too - and can hold his own, particularly run blocking.

Justin Jefferson vs. Sean Murphy-Bunting and Antoine Winfield Jr.

I suspect Jefferson will see a certain amount of Murphy-Bunting across from him on Sunday, which is fine. He’s not a great corner by any means, and has struggled of late as well. He’ll probably get some over-the-top help from Antoine Winfield Jr., but he’s just 5’10” and a better run than pass defender. I suspect Gary Kubiak may use some route combinations to single up Jefferson against Murphy-Bunting on some deep routes, and I’m sure Cousins will like that matchup when it comes.

Jeff Gladney vs. Chris Godwin

On the other side, the Bucs often have Chris Godwin in the slot, and he’ll be a challenge for Jeff Gladney. We’ll get a good sense of how Gladney is progressing in his matchup against Godwin. I’m guessing Godwin will win his share, but can Gladney limit the damage?

Tom Brady vs. Mike Zimmer

How well Brady is able to execute against Zimmer’s defensive scheme will be key. Can the pass-rush disrupt Brady enough times to kill some drives? Can the Vikings coverage hold up well enough to get off the field? Can they get some run stops to create 3rd and long? Can Zimmer’s defense limit the damage in the red zone? Can it create some turnovers?

Bottom Line

This game will likely come down to a couple intangibles, and a couple traditional keys to victory.

The first is whether the Bucs can stop the downslide they’ve seen on both sides of the ball since week 8. Team PFF grades on both offense and defense have declined noticeably since then. Coming off their bye-week- presumably rested and recharged - may be just what they need (especially with a lot of older players) to get back on track. On the other hand, it could be that with more tape out there on this new Bucs team, opponents are beginning to figure them out, making it more difficult for them to execute.

For the Vikings, although they’ve had ugly wins - largely because of turnovers and special teams miscues - they’ve generally been on the upswing since week 8. But can they remain so against a playoff-caliber team? The offense has been remarkably consistent scoring points, averaging just over 27 per game, with not much variation, while the defense has been allowing fewer points per game. But can the Vikings young defense continue to improve, against a top QB with a host of weapons, and help make it easier for the offense to win ?

Turnovers have been a factor for both teams in recent weeks, with the Bucs offense committing more of them during their recent slide. Tom Brady threw 7 INTs in the last four games, including four in the last two, going 1-3 over that stretch. That’s been a key factor in their 3 most recent losses, and the INTs have been ugly ones. The Bucs’ takeaway rate has been pretty consistent over the past ten games, with either 1 or 2 takeaways per game, and a 1.6 per game average over that stretch. The Bucs are 6-0 when they win the turnover battle, 0-3 when they lose it, and 1-2 when they tie.

For the Vikings, they’ve had 9 turnovers in their last four games, but still managed to go 3-1 over that stretch. Part of the reason is the Vikings have been able to step up their takeaway rate. They were averaging less than one turnover a game prior to their bye-week, and have averaged 2 per game since then. The Vikings are 1-6 in games they lose the turnover battle, 1-0 when they tie, and 4-0 when they win it.

I expect the Bucs will come out raring to go after a week off, particularly with ‘starting better’ an area of focus for the coaching staff during the bye-week. For the Vikings, they’ll need to weather that initial storm and continue to execute for 60 minutes, taking care of the ball and avoiding costly miscues. The key for the Vikings is to play a clean game - cleaner than they’ve done in recent weeks - particularly when it comes to turnovers. If they can do that, they can upset the Bucs at home just as they upset the Packers at home.


The Vikings are 6.5 point underdogs on the road against Tampa Bay. Will they:

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  • 50%
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