Despite starting former Viking Chris Hovan at nose tackle, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a tough defense, losing eight games by seven points or less but ranking fifth in the league last year. That tells you the team’s problem is the offense.
Tampa Bay has the unproven Brian Griese at quarterback. Tampa coach Jon Gruden touts Griese’s completion percentage of 69.3 last year, but practically every quarterback’s accuracy was up last year due to the league’s renewed enforcement of defensive contact with receivers after five yards. Gruden runs an extremely complex offense and this will only be Griese’s second year running it. I just don’t buy Griese as a winning quaterback. This is his eight year in the league and he’s yet to prove himself.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line is questionable as well. Griese was sacked 26 times in 11 games last year. The Bucaneers’ depth chart reveals a young offensive line: Left tackle Anthony Davis and right guard Jeb Terry each have two years experience. The veterans on the line include right tackle Kenyatta Walker (5 years experience), center John Wade (8 years), and left guard Matt Stinchcomb (7 years) but Stinchcomb is listed as questionable for today’s game with a lower back injury, so if he doesn’t play, he’ll be replaced by rookie Dan Buenning. Six year pro Anthony Becht is their starting tight end.
Griese has some nice targets to throw to. Michael Clayton had an outstanding season as a rookie last year, catching 80 balls for nearly 1200 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s joined by veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.
The team took Carnell "Cadillac" Williams with the 5th overall pick in April’s draft and plan to make the most of him. Williams can get to the edge and then accelerate downfield and the Bucs have not run him much inside. He’s untested as a receiver.
Look for the Bucaneers to run the ball a lot, primarily to the outside and force the Vikings young defensive ends to play contain and test our linebackers, particularly E.J. Henderson.
The Vikings will need to contain Williams and put the pressure on the Bucs young offensive line by bringing the heat on passing situations and force Griese to try and beat us. I don’t believe he can.
On offense, the Vikings will need to be patient and take what the Bucs give us. As Vikings offensive coordinator Steve Loney points out, "I think their defense is based in part on the premise that an offense has a hard time marching down the field for 80 yards. You’re going to get impatient and force something, and that’s going to create a turnover or failed third down that causes you to punt. They count on you self-destructing as much as they count on themselves succeeding."
Look for the Vikings to run at Chris Hovan and away from the Bucs standout defensive end, Simeon Rice. Hovan’s fellow tackle, Anthony McFarland had only 9 tackles in 8 games last year. I like the match up of rookie Viking guard Marcus Johnson against Hovan. If the line can create some openings for Michael Bennett and put a block on a linebacker, Bennett could be off to the races.
Also look for the Vikings to create some mismatches with the Bucs linebackers by sending Bennett out for short passes in the flat or running Nate Burleson or Travis Taylor on drag or crossing routes to take advantage of the Bucs’ older and slower linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarels.
Since this will likely be a close game, it is crucial that the Vikings offense remain disciplined and not shoot themselves in the foot with stupid penalties, an aggravating tendency we’ve witnessed all to often in the past.
The difference may well come down to special teams. The Vikings are essentially trying out another punter with untested rookie Chris Kluwe. The Bucs, meanwhile, have former Packer Josh Bidwell, who had a 42.3 yard average last year while putting 23 inside the 20. The Vikings appear solid with former Bear Paul Edinger at kicker while the Bucs have former Giant and Dolphin Matt Bryant at kicker. In his three season in the league, Bryant has made 80% of his field goals and 96.7% of his extra points. The Vikings coverage units will need uncharactersitically tight play and contain kick returner Torrie Cox, who had five returns last year of more than 40 yards.