A big day for RB Warrick Dunn could give the Bucs the offensive balance Head Coach Tony Dungy believes is needed this weekend
Make no mistake, this is a big game, and not just because it serves as somewhat of a second season opener. Considering that either Minnesota or Tampa Bay has won the last three NFC Central Division championships, and that only one game has separated the two teams each of the past two years, this one would be circled on the calendar no matter what month was showing.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' annual trip to Minnesota has tended to fall early in the season – it has taken place no later than October 3 the last four years – but that hasn't removed its must-win atmosphere. And the Bucs have come up on the short end of that battle three years in a row.
"We've always looked at it (as a big game)," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "They've won quite a few division championships since I've been here, and they've been the team that we've had to beat. We've played them twice when they've been undefeated. It's always a game that you point to."
Now, Tampa Bay heads up to Minneapolis in September again, but this time to face an uncharacteristically winless Vikings squad (0-2). Oddsmakers like the Bucs' chances of breaking that three-game losing streak in the Metrodome and Tampa Bay certainly relishes the thought of putting such a dangerous rival in a deep hole.
The team's records, however, are meaningless to the Buccaneers. As Dungy points out, his Bucs were at the end of a four-game losing streak when they upended a then-unbeaten Minnesota team, 41-13, in Tampa late last October. Overconfidence is just one of the many potential pitfalls the Buccaneers are hoping to avoid in Minneapolis this weekend. Dungy outlined some other sizeable ones..
The Big Hole
The Bucs were down 7-0 to the Vikings last October in the Metrodome before 25 seconds had elapsed from the game clock. Two years ago, they were losing 21-0 after one quarter and were too far down to complete a comeback in an eventual 21-14 loss.
"The problem for us the last three years is that we've played good games down here, but up there we've gotten down early," said Dungy. "We've tried to fight back and never been able to make it. We've got to play our game on their turf."
The Big Layoff
Since Tampa Bay's bye week fell right after the unexpected weekend off following the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, the Bucs haven't taken the playing field since September 9. The Bucs came out of their season opener in Dallas with a win and a few areas that clearly needed polishing. Whether or not the Bucs have adequately addressed issues such as a sluggish running game, red zone turnovers and special teams miscues without any live action to test them is hard to determine.
"I don't think we can use that as an excuse," said Dungy. "We've got to look at it as, we're rested up, we're healthy and we're prepared. We've got to go up there and be ready to start off fast and be sharp. We have put ourselves in holes every time we've played up there, recently. You can't afford to do that, so we've got to be sharp and we've got to get our focus back in practice this week."
The Big Weapon
Carolina and Chicago put Minnesota in its 0-2 hole by, apparently, denying the signature big play in the Vikings' passing attack, particularly the kill shots usually applied by WR Randy Moss. It's certainly not a new idea, but teams in recent years have had difficulty achieving success with that plan. The Bucs believe they need to follow the Panthers and Bears' lead.
"I think everybody goes in with that approach," said Dungy. "We've gone in with that approach up there and Moss has still caught six for 150 and two touchdowns. I don't think it was a novel approach, but they did take away the deep balls and held them out of the end zone."
The Big Sleep
Complacency. That's not generally a characteristic of these Buccaneers, and Dungy wants to make sure that the Vikings' 0-2 record doesn't lead to its germination.
"Just because they've lost two games doesn't mean they're not a good team," he said. "I think if we look at it that way, that this is an 0-2 team, we'll go up there and get beat. But if we get ready to play the Minnesota Vikings as we know them, then we're going to be fine. I think we've got enough guys in the locker room that will do that."
The Big Rush
Minnesota's pass defense ranks 20th in the league and is now without its best player, Pro Bowl S Robert Griffith (fractured fibula). Last year, the Bucs averaged 272 net passing yards in two games against the Vikings and 146 in their other 14 regular season contests. After Dallas conceded the short route all afternoon in the opener and focused heavily on the Bucs' running game, both Dungy and Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen admitted that they should have further exploited the soft coverage.
Yet it might be a mistake to go into the Metrodome with a pass-happy mentality. Griffith was a heavy-hitter, a la John Lynch, in the Vikings' run defense, and will probably be sorely missed. And, on the Metrodome turf, Dunn has proven to be an explosive weapon. Dungy is hoping to see more balance in the Buc attack this week, more input from the running game.
"They're not going to do much differently," he said. "They signed Henry Jones and there's a good chance he could play, but they're going to do what they do. We've got to get going. We've got to continue to throw the ball like we did in Dallas, and we've got to get our running game so we're not sitting on a 60, 70-yard rushing day."
Of course, the fact that Dungy and his Bucs are fully aware of the potential problem areas facing them in Minnesota should be encouraging. The coach believes his team can avoid all of those pitfalls and leave Minneapolis with smiles on their faces for the first time in four years. Actually, just getting back to live action is going to be enough to induce a few happy faces.
"I think all of us are going to enjoy being out there," said Dungy. "Not playing for three weeks, you realize that it's not a given in this country that you can do anything, and certainly not a given that you're going to play NFL football every week. There's injuries, we've had a player die, we've had games cancelled. I think you've got to enjoy the moment, realize that God's given you an opportunity, and really enjoy it."