DE Simeon Rice expects the Vikings' running game to come around, but wants to keep that from happening this weekend
After defeating a 7-0 Minnesota Vikings team in November of 1998, then repeating that same feat last October, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are accustomed to taking down their northern rivals when they're peaking.
But the Minnesota team the Bucs will face this Sunday is a different animal.
A wounded animal. And one that is defending its home.
Thus, Tampa Bay is leery of reversing its feats of 1998 and 2000 and providing Minnesota with its first victory of the season. Just like the Buccaneers of those two seasons were not automatically awed by the high-flying, undefeated Vikings, neither is this year's squad expecting anything less than a stellar performance from the currently 0-2 Vikes.
That is particularly true of the Bucs' defense, which is fully aware of the danger posed by the Minnesota offense and its QB-WR-WR trinity of Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss and Cris Carter.
"(Culpepper) is still completing 60% of his passes and they're still moving the football," said Bucs LB Derrick Brooks. "They just haven't scored the touchdowns they're used to scoring in the past. They're wounded, but they're not out. They're still a good football team."
Indeed, Minnesota ranks fourth in the NFC in total offense after two weeks, having put up 341 yards of offense per game. The Vikings also rank fourth in both rushing and passing yards, even if those per-game totals of, respectively, 106 yards and 234.5 yards, aren't quite up to the lofty Minnesota standards of recent years. As Brooks attested, it's putting the ball in the end zone where the Vikes have struggled, putting up just 23 points in two games and ranking 12th in the conference in that category.
According to Rice, the Vikings haven't suddenly lost their ability to score in bunches. They're simply trying to adjust to some key personnel changes, including the retirement of RB Robert Smith, last year's NFC-leading rusher, and the loss of both starting offensive tackles, Korey Stringer and Todd Steussie. Stringer died tragically during the Vikings' training camp and Steussie, now with Carolina, was a salary-cap hit.
"There running attack isn't what it used to be," said Rice. "They can't do some things in the passing game with the dump-downs and the screens they used to do with Robert, but nevertheless it's still an explosive offense. They just don't have all the dimensions, at this point, the way they want them. But in the coming weeks, they should be getting started towards where they're trying to go.
"Just not this week."
Culpepper, in fact, is the Vikings' leading rusher through two games, picking up 99 yards on 20 carries. Rookie Michael Bennett, drafted in the first round to replace Smith, has carried the ball just 27 times in the team's two losses, gaining 93 yards.
Culpepper – who Rice calls a 'fantastic quarterback' – also has the Vikings' only rushing touchdown of the season, and the Buccaneers are all too familiar with how dangerous the 6-4, 260-pound double-threat can be. Tampa Bay's last trip to the Metrodome got off to a dismal start when, after a fumble on the Bucs' opening drive, Culpepper scrambled 27 yards for a touchdown on the Vikings' first play from scrimmage.
The Bucs rallied hard after that play, tying the game in the first quarter and later taking a brief fourth-quarter lead before Minnesota went on to win, 30-23. That get-down-early pattern also befell the visiting Bucs in 1998 and 1999.
"I think last year we went up there and had a couple of turnovers early in that game," said DT Warren Sapp. "The first play from scrimmage was a 27-yard scramble by Daunte for a touchdown. After that, we settled him down and kept him in the pocket, but we can't give up plays and points like that to this ball club. They are just going to take advantage of that and put us in a position where we're behind."
Usually, the Vikings do that with their passing attack, such as in 1999 when three quick touchdown passes in the first quarter put the Bucs in a 21-0 hole that seemed insurmountable in the noisy din of the Metrodome. In fact, the Bucs dominated the rest of the game, but couldn't quite complete the comeback in a 21-14 loss.
So job one this Sunday is avoiding such an immediate deficit, a task sometimes easier said then done when facing players as explosive as Moss.
"We've just got to guard ourselves against falling into that trap early like we've done in the past," said Brooks, perhaps recalling the 61-yard touchdown catch Moss stung the Bucs with in the opening moments of that '99 game. "I think if we do that, we'll win."
Sapp also is wary of the big passing gain early on.
"That's their signature play," he said. "That's the one play that puts them where they want to be. If they don't have that then they're going to have to do some other things well."
Precisely, some observers would say. The general perception is that the two teams that put Minnesota in its 0-2 rut, Carolina and Chicago, have done everything possible to guard against the long pass play, assuming the Vikings' running attack would be lessened this year. Against a Buccaneers' defense that always emphasizes a denial of the big play, the Vikings may try harder to establish a running attack early.
"That's exactly what we want," said Sapp. "We're going to come up and make the tackles. We'll see if they have the patience to play for four quarters like that. It's tough. It's not their style, that's our style to keep it in front of us and make the tackles. We'll see what they're going to do."
Though it is only the third week of the season, this would appear to be a critical game for the Vikings, as a loss could drop them three games behind Green Bay (if the Packers defeat Carolina) and 2.5 behind the Bucs.
"They're at home and they want to get a lot of things corrected," said Rice. "Their mindset is probably such that they need this victory. Our mindset is that we've got to have it. With that going into it, it's going to be a big game. It's going to be a fight to the end, and the team that stays the most focused, the team that stays together the most, is going to go out there and shine.