Third-Down Failures Doomed the Vikings Against the Bucs

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For the Minnesota Vikings’ defense, the team’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a tale of two halves. On Tampa’s first six drives, the Vikings allowed only 29 total yards and one first down on 20 offensive plays. On the Bucs’ subsequent five drives (excluding the one-play drive to end the first half and three kneeldowns at the end of the game), the Buccaneers gained 231 yards and 15 first downs on 44 offensive plays.

The crux came on Tampa’s third-down success. They failed on their first six third-down attempts, going 1/7 in the first half. Then the Bucs turned around and converted on five of their 10 third-down attempts in the second half, a number that includes a two situations where they converted on fourth down and a kneel on the final play of the game.

Brian Flores’ defense is known for its aggressive nature. So why did it feel like the Bucs could nickel-and-dime their way down the field for the entire second half? The Bucs had only four drives in the second half, and they turned them into drives of 16, 5, 10, and 10 plays. I went to the tape to identify the differences between the first and second half and see if there is anything that can be improved upon by Minnesota’s defense moving forward.

flooding coverage leads to offensive confusion

The Vikings consistently showed aggressive fronts on third down during the game. On Tampa’s first third down, they showed their Bengal front, with eight players on the line of scrimmage. However, instead of sending the house, they decided to drop out of it and put eight players in coverage while only rushing three.

On the play below, you can see that Mayfield wants to throw to Deven Thompkins, who starts in the slot at the top, as a hot route. However, he has to clutch the ball when Patrick Jones is in the spot he wants to throw. Danielle Hunter does a great job beating the RT and forcing a holding penalty, and Mayfield ends up checking down with no one else open while the defense rallies and makes the tackle:

When the Bucs got the ball in the red zone due to a fumble, Minnesota’s defense held firm. The Vikings initially showed a Bengal look before the Bucs’ motion, and they back out of it once again, rushing only three. The eight players in coverage force Baker to hold on to the ball again, as he has just three receivers running routes. Hunter was able to work directly through the RT to bring Mayfield down for the sack.

Adding one more play for emphasis, below you can see Mayfield look to hit Mike Evans (on the outside of the bunch up top) on a slant, but he clutches the ball because Josh Metellus follows his eyes to that route. Jones and Hunter create a pile at the line of scrimmage that flushes Mayfield out of the pocket, and Metellus is able to finish the play by stopping Baker.

There’s a clear throughline on all three of the plays above. The Vikings presented a look that the Bucs weren’t expecting, and it caused Mayfield to clutch on to the ball. That allowed Minnesota’s front to get pressure and force Baker into either checking down or scrambling, leading to third=down failures.

Decisive QB Play Led to Coversions

The third-down tide turned just before the half, where the Bucs were able to convert the play below. Watching the play, you can see a markedly different approach from Mayfield, as he begins to throw as soon as he hits the top of his drop. That’s because he has a matchup he likes — the Vikings have responded to motion by WR Chris Godwin by pushing Metellus outside in an inverted Tampa 2 look. Godwin has free access on the slant, and Hunter, who dropped to provide an additional body in coverage, just misses deflecting the throw:

Once the second half got rolling, the Vikings decided to dial up the pressure. On the play below, the Vikings are in their Bengal front and run their “Hawk” blitz, which I go over in detail here. They get immediate pressure with an unblocked Hunter, but Mayfield does a good job of getting the ball off quickly. The issue on this play for Minnesota is rookie CB Mekhi Blackmon is slow to react, and does not contest a slant to Mike Evans. The first-down marker is at the 35-yard line, and Blackmon only makes contact with Evans at the 37 after he has already reeled in the pass. As I discussed in the article above, Blackmon needs to keep his eyes on Mayfield and drive to contest any throw in off coverage.

The Vikings also run their Bengal Hawk blitz on the next play, and they get another classic response, with the Bucs running a screen. On this type of play, the hope is that the defense will rally and tackle, but an unblocked Byron Murphy is unable to tackle Thompkins short of the first down.

This play reminds me a little of the early Mike Zimmer Vikings, where teams would throw screens against their Double A Gap mugs. That worked as a response early in his tenure, like on this TD to Albert Wilson in 2015. However, once Zimmer got his principles instilled in the defense, they were virtually impossible to run screens against in their Double A looks, due to some great tackling from CBs. Hopefully Minnesota is able to shore up this issue moving forward.

The best moments the Bucs had against the Vikings on third down were with quick, decisive plays from Baker Mayfield, plus a couple of mishaps from Minnesota’s DBs. It’s important to remember that sending pressure puts the onus on the secondary to execute. Considering that the Vikings have a number of inexperience players in the secondary, some growing pains like on the plays above are to be expected.

Getting pressure matters

This point may seem obvious, but there was a clear difference in the Bucs’ ability to execute when the Vikings stressed Mayfield in the pocket. A blemish showed up in the red zone when the Vikings dropped into coverage but couldn’t get after him like in the first three plays above. The Vikings take away Mayfield’s first option on the third-and-goal play below, but his OL gives him a clean pocket. Eventually, both Jones and Metellus get dragged to the left by watching Mayfield’s eyes, and that leaves an open window for Baker to complete a TD to Trey Palmer.

When Mayfield felt pressed, he was unable to convert successful plays. Here on a third down earlier in the game, the Vikings drop into coverage again, but Benton Whitley is left unblocked by the protection, and while Mayfield avoids the sack, his process is messed up and he decides to throw the ball away.

Finally, we see a successful play for the Vikings when the send a true blitz, with six rushers and zone behind it. The Bucs have longer-developing downfield routes, with no option open immediately, and Jordan Hicks is able to get in Mayfield’s face. That causes him to pull the ball down, and the play is over at that point as he gets chased out of bounds.


The Vikings opened the 2023 season with a very disappointing loss to the Bucs. While the offense’s three turnovers in the first half prevented them from pulling away, the defense’s inability to get off the field allowed Tampa to take the lead and bleed the clock out in the second half.

Schematically, there isn’t a smoking gun that the Vikings can point to moving forward to explain their problems, but that’s the nature of the NFL. Ultimately, it will come down to the players executing. Particularly, there were opportunities for DBs like Josh Metellus and Mekhi Blackmon to play routes tighter and break up completions that converted for first downs.

The Vikings will continue to run the blitzes and coverages above throughout the season. The hope is that, with time, they will correct their mistakes and will execute like they did in the first half more often than how they played in the second half.

Dalton Risner Is Ready To Go
By Silas Bobendrier - Sep 22, 2023
Cam Akers Isn’t Going To Change Everything
By Rob Searles - Sep 22, 2023

Justin Jefferson Walks So Jordan Addison Can Run

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Addison knows why he has gotten so open on his two explosive plays. “I say 18,” said the rookie out of USC. “The defense is focusing […]

Continue Reading