After a 1-5 start, the Minnesota Vikings have clawed their way back to a .500 record. While their in-season turnaround has been surprising, the Vikings haven’t shown obvious signs of improvement. After squeezing out two close victories against inferior competition they aren’t being given much of a chance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
That’s because Sunday’s matchup features a team that is well equipped to be the Vikings’ kryptonite. As an aggressive team that is in the upper echelon of playoff contenders, the Buccaneers will be favored and should be a team that puts the Vikings back in their place… but that’s a good thing.
Over the past month, the Vikings have been able to take advantage of teams with obvious flaws. The Green Bay Packers couldn’t stop the run, so Dalvin Cook ran them over. The Detroit Lions were coached by Matt Patricia, so Mike Zimmer out-coached him. The Chicago Bears didn’t have an offense and got outscored. The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars are bad football teams. You get the idea.
But everything about this game in Tampa seems to tilt into the Bucs favor, and it starts with their fantasy football roster they call an offense.
Bruce Arians and Tom Brady have been at odds over the past couple of weeks, but the Buccaneers’ offense presents plenty of problems for the Vikings on Sunday and none may be bigger than the presence of Rob Gronkowski.
After spending 2019 as a FOX analyst and WWE 24/7 champion, Gronkowski has re-emerged to reprise his role as Brady’s favorite target. His overall line of 505 yards and four touchdowns doesn’t seem impressive but was capped in an early-season timeshare with O.J. Howard, who suffered a torn Achilles’ in October.
Since Howard went down, Gronkowski has put up the fourth-most yards among tight ends and ranks as Pro Football Focus’s eighth overall graded tight end during that time. While the Vikings could counter this with the presence of Eric Kendricks, the status of his calf injury is unknown. When Kendricks’ calf flared up during warmups last Sunday, it led to the Jaguars taking advantage and handing Tyler Eifert a season-high six catches and 45 yards. As one of the greatest tight ends of all-time, Gronkowski could certainly threaten to do better.
But should Kendricks play, there are still other issues. Cameron Dantzler has been a revelation since returning from a concussion in Week 11, grading as PFF’s third-highest graded corner and allowing a 17.3 passer rating when targeted, sixth among qualifiers. While it’s impressive, Dantzler has been doing this while being matched up with the likes of Michael Gallup, D.J. Moore and DJ Chark, who are talented but nothing like the Vikings secondary will see on Sunday.
After being forced to start Breshad Perriman last December, the Buccaneers bought themselves insurance by adding Antonio Brown to a receiver corps that already includes Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Even going deeper to Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson, the Tampa Bay passing offense is ridiculously rich with weapons and should be able to take advantage of a unit that could also be down Jeff Gladney (calf) on Sunday.
This isn’t even bringing into account the quarterback, who is legitimately nicknamed “The G.O.A.T.” Brady hasn’t looked as magical at times in Tampa Bay, but he’s still a quarterback that thrives with a clean pocket. On the season, Brady has posted a 109.0 QB rating with a clean pocket, but that number drops to 49.0, the 11th lowest rating in the NFL when he’s under pressure.
Unfortunately, the Vikings have been producing a lot of the latter scenarios during their revival. In the past three games, the Vikings have pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 24% of their dropbacks. While that may work against the likes of Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater and Mike Glennon, they won’t be as lucky against Brady as Andre Patterson acknowledged during his weekly press conference.
The Vikings will probably need to win in a shootout, but even the Tampa Bay defense poses big problems with what the Vikings want to do. With Zimmer’s desire to run until Cook can’t stand, he’ll likely try to run into the teeth of a defense that currently ranks No. 1 in stopping the run.
This spells bad news for Cook, who is going up against a defense that also contains downhill thumper Devin White. While White has the speed and physicality to help stop the run, he’s had his issues in coverage, which is prime to be taken advantage of by the Vikings tight ends — if they had any.
With Irv Smith Jr. still nursing a back injury and Kyle Rudolph (foot) popping up on the injury report, the Vikings have had to rely on Tyler Conklin and their fullbacks to fill the void. Even if they attempt to find a way to put Brian O’Neill, who played tight end at Pittsburgh, in a couple of jumbo sets, odds are he’ll be occupied trying to figure out a defense that blitzes constantly.
As our Sam Ekstrom pointed out, teams are blitzing the Vikings at an outstanding rate. In the past two games alone, the Vikings have faced 43 blitzes after seeing no more than 13 in any of their first 10 games. Unfortunately, they’ll see more of the same on Sunday against a Tampa Bay defense that blitzes 39.8% of the time — the sixth-highest clip in the NFL.
With Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett lining up at outside linebacker, the Buccaneers have the speed to take advantage of O’Neill and Riley Reiff on the outside and try to force Kirk Cousins into making mistakes. In another unfortunate turn of events, the Bucs are really good at that too.
With Antoine Winfield Jr. being used in the same way that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles used Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona, Tampa Bay ranks fourth in the NFL with 14 interceptions. The type of pressure that the Bucs are looking to create should spell bad news for Cousins as well, who has produced a 71.0 quarterback rating when pressured.
Mix in a special teams unit that has been playing like it’s been drinking on the sideline between series, and you have all the makings of a disaster in Tampa Bay.
But in that lies the one positive for the Vikings.
Throughout this winning streak, it’s been easy to wonder when the bottom will fall out. They play a 1990s style of football that has worked against inferior opponents but hasn’t garnered the same success against playoff contenders. But that hasn’t meant they haven’t come close.
The Vikings came within a point of defeating the Tennessee Titans earlier this year, and a couple of weeks later they came within inches of defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. Although they didn’t come away with a win, it showed that they’re at least capable of contending in a wide-open NFC.
This brings us to Sunday’s game. If the Vikings are able to pull a win off against the Buccaneers, they become an incredibly dangerous team. The Vikings would become a team that can adapt against top competition and has several pieces that are learning how to play in less than ideal circumstances.
This will come in handy in a year where home-field advantage likely won’t exist during the playoffs and feature teams that the Vikings have already produced good tape against. For a team that has suffered an identity crisis, Sunday’s game could be the biggest test to determine if the Vikings are for real.