The 6-6 Minnesota Vikings escape the surprisingly tolerable December in Minneapolis (three cheers for global warming!) by visiting the 7-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in what will serve as an equally critical must-win game for both organizations. With both clubs on the outside, looking in for their divisional crowns, every win to close out the year will be paramount in hopes of clinching an NFC wild-card spot. Considering both of these teams have been heading in opposite directions over the past few weeks — Minnesota has won five of their last six while Tampa Bay has lost three of their last four — Tampa’s Week 13 bye couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With an extra week to do some much-needed self-scouting, as well as to prep for one of the hottest teams in the league, the Bucs will certainly have their work cut out for them against the Vikings.
I, like most of you, couldn’t resist tuning in to the last time the Buccaneers took the field during their Week 12 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs. It should go without saying that Chapter IV of Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady was must-see television, as the showdown between two of the game’s marquee quarterbacks drew an incredibly large viewership of over 23 million people. And after watching the shellacking that Tyreek Hill and the Chiefs offense put on Todd Bowles‘s defense, particularly in the opening quarter, it’s fair to say that Andy Reid had the Tampa Bay defensive coordinator’s number that day.
Unfortunately for Bowles and the Tampa defense, Kansas City’s exposure of their secondary wasn’t anything new for the NFC South club. Even though the Buccaneers have the NFL’s best front at stopping the run, led by former Nebraska Cornhuskers teammates Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David, the back end has a propensity to give up the big play through the air. As we’ve seen throughout the Vikings’ recent hot streak, Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak still believe that running recently-extended Dalvin Cook, arguably the most fragile running back in the NFL, into the ground to the tune of just over 30 touches per game over the past six weeks. Something will have to give on Sunday as the league’s sixth-best rushing offense goes up against the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense.
Now, I’m not here today to argue whether running Cook into the ground is an effective, sustainable strategy for the Vikings (Hint: It’s not). All I’m saying is that Kubiak and the Vikings will need to get comfortable being uncomfortable against Tampa Bay’s tenacious and speedy league-leading front seven. Same can be said regarding Todd Bowles and his defense. As I’ll dive into some of Tampa’s tendencies below, will the extra week of looking in the mirror force the Bucs get out of their comfort zone as they take on the Vikings?
Let’s start by looking at Tampa Bay’s defense against rookie sensation Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers back in Week 4. Forcing the Chargers into a 3rd and 7, Bowles elects to blitz the rookie Herbert, tasking his rookie safety, former RowTheBoatSkiUMahGoGophers Antoine Winfield Jr., with single-high responsibilities over the top. The remaining Tampa Bay defensive backs are responsible for man-coverage, in hopes of making Herbert process quickly and get the ball out before he would like with the ensuing blitz.
Instead of getting home, the blitz is picked up and Bowles’s rookie safety gets sucked in on his potential man-coverage assignment with LA’s running back. Winfield makes the wrong read here, anticipating that the running back will leak out of the backfield for route. When Winfield realizes that the Chargers running back is responsible for picking up the blitz, it’s too late.
The Chargers receiver, Jalen Guyton, torches the Tampa Bay nickel back and has nothing but green grass as he saunters into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown, capitalizing on Winfield Jr’s mishap and Bowles’s aggressive blitz play call.
Next, we’re taking it to Tampa Bay’s Week 10 tilt. With Matt Rhule and Joe Brady’s Carolina Panthers offense moving the ball with relative ease against Bowles’s aggressive defense in the first quarter, the rookie head coach and offensive coordinator catch Bowles, yet again, in an advantageous look against the blitz with single-high man-coverage on 1st and 10 just outside the red zone. Curtis Samuel‘s motion on the jet play-action confirms the man-coverage as Tampa Bay cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting vacates with Samuel, tipping Tampa Bay’s upcoming safety blitz with Winfield.
Even though he’s unable to get home on the safety blitz, Winfield is close to wrecking the play by just narrowly missing on the deflection from Teddy Bridgewater‘s pass. This is a perfect play ball, throwing directly into the blitz on the receiver screen to D.J. Moore. Carolina’s left tackle and guard are able to pull and kick out the remaining threats in space, Tampa Bay defensive back Ross Cockrell (who ends up getting pancaked by the Carolina left tackle) and safety Jordan Whitehead (who gets eaten up by Carolina’s left guard).
With the Carolina’s big uglies up front executing flawlessly on their kick out assignments, all Moore has to do is outrun Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul en route to pay dirt, which he predictably does. Easy pitch-and-catch resulting in another touchdown at the expense of an aggressive blitz call from Bowles.
Lastly, we’re going to dissect the aforementioned showdown between the Chiefs and Buccaneers from Week 12. Even though Tyreek Hill completely undressed Bowles and his Tampa Bay defense in the first half, going for over 200 receiving yards and two scores, Bowles just can’t help himself. With the Mahomes and the Chiefs threatening inside the red zone on this 2nd and 4 midway through the third quarter, Bowles dials up yet another press-man coverage across the board with Winfield as the single-high. Hill is isolated one-on-one on the short side of the field.
As we saw throughout the first half, Hill wins outside leverage against Tampa Bay cornerback Carlton Davis on the fade route. Mahomes doesn’t have to bother manipulating the single-high safety in Winfield as he’s already too far removed from the most dangerous threat on the field. All Mahomes has to do is load up his bazooka and thank Todd Bowles for the early Christmas present of a single-high press-man defensive play call inside the red zone.
Hill comes down with his third touchdown of the day as Davis is left puzzled, anticipating the sky to be filled with hats being thrown down onto the field from the few thousand fans allowed inside the stadium after giving up the hat trick to the Cheetah. Hopefully some of you had Hill going in your fantasy leagues this day!
After reviewing Bowles’s tendency for playing the aggressor as a defensive play-caller, you have to imagine that it was a long two weeks of going back to the drawing board for him and his staff. Will Bowles give his rookie free safety Antoine Winfield Jr. a little more support going forward, starting with Week 14 against the Vikings? Or continue to suffer the consequences of giving up the recurring big play once his rookie safety fails to cover up the entire back half of his defense?
As for Kubiak and the Vikings offense. The Vikings have started to put more and more on Kirk Cousins‘ plate recently, allowing him to let it rip 40-plus times in back-to-back weeks against Carolina and Jacksonville. This is the first time that Zimmer has trusted Cousins to throw it as many times since 2018, under former pass-happy offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Kubiak will need to continue to trust Cousins with the ball in his hands, despite Zimmer’s inevitable bitching and moaning about doing so.
With Tampa Bay’s league-leading run defense, Zimmer will have no choice but to be comfortable getting uncomfortable, especially if his defense fails to show up against Tom Brady and his star-studded offense.