S John Lynch plays a key role in both the run and pass defense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in Raymond James Stadium, taking on an offense that has averaged 376 yards per game this season. The Vikings are the league's leading rushing team, yet they are somehow more frightening through the air.
S John Lynch may be the Buc defender most concerned by that dual threat, as he plays a big part in both the run defense and the efforts to deny the deep passing game. While Lynch has fielded questions concerning the Vikings' offense all week, he saved his most specific statements for Saturday morning, after a walk-through at the Buccaneer complex.
Lynch, one of the NFL's hardest hitters and the hammer in the Bucs' run defense, knows his squad must stop the run first. That could be tough with the Vikings enjoying perhaps the best results they've ever gotten out of eighth-year scatback Robert Smith.
"I'm really impressed by Robert Smith," said Lynch. "The way he runs, he takes a lot of hits, but he always gets up. He manages to make positive yardage on the tough runs, but he's also a threat to break a long one at any time. When he was young, you felt like if you could really hit him, you'd knock him right down. But he's stronger now.
"And his receivers are blocking downfield this year. I think somebody got to them. He used to be on his own when he'd break one in the open, but now those guys are really blocking."
Lynch echoed the thoughts of his defensive teammates, who have spent the week telling anyone who would listen that, despite the Vikings' high-profile passing attack, stopping the run is job one.
"We've got to be able to stop the run, and when I say stop the run, I mean not giving up any big plays," said Lynch. "We have to do that, and we have to be able to do that when we're in seven-man fronts."
By that, Lynch means that he won't be able to be 'in the box' as much as he or the team would like. The four defensive linemen and three linebackers form the usual seven-man front, but when the defense can bring one of its safeties up into the linebackers' area, they can form an eight-man front that is tougher to run against. That's particularly true when the eighth-man is Lynch, but the Bucs' safety has had fewer opportunities to get up in the mix this year than usual.
"I think that had a lot to do with who we were playing early in the year," he said. "New England runs a lot of empty backfields in their offense, then we played Chicago and the Jets, and they did, too. When they spread us out, I'm going to be out of the box playing in our cover-two. Some teams had success running against us that way, but we've started to counter that."
Smith isn't the only issue when discussing the Vikings' running attack. QB Daunte Culpepper is a hard-running, 266-pound nightmare for defenses when he chooses to scramble, as evidenced by his 40-yards-per-game rushing average.
"He can flat-out go," said Lynch. "I don't think he's going to juke you on the run, but he has that burst straight upfield. Our linebackers don't get run away from often, and he did that on that first run in Minnesota."
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, Culpepper's arm is more of a threat to the Buccaneers than his feet, and he has compiled a passer rating of 99.6 in his first season as a starter, leading Minnesota to a 7-0 record. Lynch hopes the Bucs' earlier experience with Culpepper will help them shut him down.
"I make an analogy to baseball," said Lynch. "A guy comes up from the minors and has success right away. Nobody has a book on him yet. Then players see him a few times and get to know him better…that can be good or bad for the new player. In this case, Culpepper just keeps getting better and better. But the more you watch him, you become more familiar with what he does."
Culpepper may see Lynch and other various Bucs more than he wants to. Though he didn't reveal Tampa Bay's defensive game plan, Lynch would have to agree that blitzing is a common tactic against inexperienced hurlers. It might be even more important against the Vikings.
"Sometimes with these guys, blitzing is not a bad idea because it gets the ball out of his hand and they can't go downfield," said Lynch.
When the Vikings do go downfield, they often do it even if the play appears to be covered.
"They have the mentality that it doesn't matter if guys are back there, they're going to throw it up," Lynch said. "We've got to get up and compete. Randy Moss is so good at (going up for the catch). He makes it look easy, but it isn't. The only way to discourage that is to pick it, because, right now, in their minds there's three things that can happen: they'll catch it, they'll knock it down or they'll get a PI (pass interference). They're happy with that."
Minnesota's game-winning touchdown in the 30-23 Vikings win on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago was just such a play, with Moss out-battling CB Donnie Abraham for the ball. Lynch described the play on Saturday and concluded that Abraham had played the pass very well.
This time, perhaps, Abraham or Lynch will break the pass up. There's a good chance that the Vikings will throw it up for Moss again. In fact, Minnesota is not likely to beat the Buccaneers simply by fooling them.
"We're pretty familiar with what they do, and they're pretty familiar with us," Lynch concluded. "On top of that, we played just two weeks ago. I don't think this is a going to be a game of seeing which team can out-scheme the other, but of who makes the plays."