For the first time since January, the Vikings are preparing for a real game on Sunday- kicking off their 2023 campaign at US Bank stadium against an old NFC Central foe- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs are once again Brady-less, with Baker Mayfield taking over as their starting quarterback, and I suspect there is a certain amount of fear and loathing about this season in Tampa Bay. The forecast for the Bucs this season, based on their 6.5 over/under win total, ties them with several other teams for the second most likely team to have the first pick in the 2024 draft.
But while the Bucs may not have all the pieces to be a playoff team this season, they’re not terrible either. They have a lot of good defensive players- especially in their defensive secondary- and head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can be aggressive with his scheme. The Bucs also have offensive weapons in wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and a top left tackle (he used to play right tackle) in Tristian Wirfs.
Tampa Bay Starting Lineup
Below is the projected starting lineup for the Bucs with overall PFF grades for each player from last season.
As you can see, the Bucs have some good players on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense. They may have probably the best safety/outside corner combination in the league when healthy, and also a top linebacker in Lavonte David and big Vita Vea at nose tackle. Rookie Calijah Kancey is something of a wildcard, and Shaq Barrett can be disruptive as well.
Offensively they have weapons in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the question is whether Baker Mayfield can get much out of them. Tristian Wirfs is solid at left tackle (which he switched to this year) but the rest of Bucs’ offensive line is questionable.
This issue for the Bucs is that while their defense can keep them in games, can their offense produce enough to win them? The prevailing view is no, based on betting market projections, but that’s not to say they’re terrible either- especially on defense.
The key for the Vikings is not to give up anything easy on defense, while giving the defense all it can handle. The best way for them to do that is to keep the pressure on Mayfield in the passing game, hoping that will lead to mistakes, while looking to challenge rookie slot corner Chrisitan Izien as much as possible. Putting Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison in the slot may be the best way to accomplish that, although I’d expect the Bucs to effectively double Jefferson wherever he goes. The Vikings could also have some success running off-tackle (and away from Vita Vea). But the Bucs match up fairly well against the Vikings defensively, as they have the cover guys to challenge JJ and company. Lavonte David is 33 years old now, and at 6’1” is at a size disadvantage against TJ Hockenson. The Bucs could also have strong safety Ryan Neal move down and cover Hockenson, but that could lead to more open space for JJ, Addison, and KJ Osborn.
What I’m Looking For
Early games in the NFL often have more mistakes and surprises than later in the season, as players get the rust off and coaches have more un-filmed looks and plays to spring on early opponents. How well teams are able to respond to those surprises can be key, as some teams, particularly those with younger players or a new scheme, simply haven’t installed enough to effectively counter every unseen look they encounter.
Of course I’m also curious to see the new looks the Vikings will have this year, particularly on defense but also how well the offense is able to execute from double tight-end sets. Defensively, in addition to seeing how effective Brian Flores’ blitzes will be, I’m also curious to see how well the defense responds to the expected counters to his blitzes, whether screens, pitches, sweeps, or long balls. Tackling well will be crucial in stopping most of those counters.
I’m also curious to see how the Vikings’ new players perform. From Marcus Davenport and Byron Murphy Jr. to Jordan Addison, Josh Oliver, Dean Lowry, and Ivan Pace Jr.. How each player performs the first time out in the regular season may not be indicative of how they’ll fare the rest of the season, but it will be interesting to see how they respond in their new role, new scheme, and new team.
The Vikings are currently 5.5 point favorites at home against the Bucs. It’s been as high as 6 points since the schedule first came out. My bet is that they’ll win and beat the spread.
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What will be the result for the Vikings on Sunday?
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Vikings win and beat the spread
Vikings win but don’t beat the spread