While the Vikings' passing game hasn't yet hit its heights of recent seasons, Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy expects his team's hands to be full on Sunday
Tony Dungy and the rest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have endless loops of videotape on the Minnesota Vikings, their long-time NFC Central rivals. The team's video department can break those tapes down into any number of specific permutations, so there really is little need for what is often referred to as 'TV scouting' – watching a game broadcast on network television.
Still, this Sunday was the Buccaneers' bye week, and there were the Vikings on national television, playing the Chicago Bears. Two division opponents, one of which was the Bucs' next foe – might as well watch the game, Dungy figured, to see if something significant occurs.
It took about 15 seconds for that something to happen.
Minnesota safety Robert Griffith, a Pro Bowler last year and one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs this side of John Lynch, suffered a fractured right fibula on the game's opening kickoff that will keep him out an undetermined length of time. The Vikings then went on to lose a tight, 17-10 decision to the Bears to drop to 0-2 in 2001.
"I thought it was going to be a tough game for them going to Chicago – we got beat there last year – and it turned out to be just that," said Dungy. "Minnesota had the upper hand the whole first half but couldn't put them away. That's what happens – you hang in there close and a couple of plays make the difference."
Dungy absorbed all of this, watching his former boss and still close friend Dennis Green, the Vikings' head coach, calmly try to rally his team to victory. Rather than feel sympathy for his friend, Dungy seemed certain that Green would bring a formidable and focused team into their game with the Buccaneers on Sunday in Minnesota.
"Losing Griffith is tough," said Dungy. "He's their best defensive player, and to have him get hurt on the opening kickoff is rough. I'm sure they had to make a lot of defensive adjustments, and that just goes on top of all the other adversity they've had this year, losing players before the season, et cetera. But that's when Denny seems to be at his best, rallying the troops."
Since Minnesota edged Tampa Bay for the NFC Central crown last fall, the Vikings have lost both of their starting offensive tackles, as Korey Stringer died tragically following a training camp practice and Todd Steussie was let go for salary cap reasons. In addition, RB Robert Smith retired and defensive stalwarts John Randle and Dwayne Rudd also departed.
Still, the Vikings blazed through the 2001 preseason with a 4-0 record, outscoring their opponents, 100-59. The last time Minnesota put together an undefeated preseason, in 1998, it went on to a 15-1 regular-season record and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
However, the Vikings lost their regular-season opener to the visiting Carolina Panthers, 24-13 and, after surrendering a 10-0 lead in Chicago on Sunday, are now 0-2 for the first time since 1984. Now they will try to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1967, Bud Grant's first year as the head coach.
"I think we're going to see their best shot on Sunday," said Dungy. "Obviously, they're not going to want to go to 0-3, so I think they're going to regroup very well."
Dungy and Green remain close and talk often during the season, though they declare a moratorium on the phone calls on weeks of Buc-Viking clashes. Still, Dungy can easily guess that Green is devising ways to attempt to counter the apparently successful defensive approach teams are using against the reworked Vikings offense this fall. Without Smith, who led the NFC with 1,521 rushing yards in 2000, Minnesota is seeing more defensive effort concentrated against its big-play receiving duo of Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
"I think people are taking the approach that they're going to take away the big-play deep ball," said Dungy, who generally has his defense following that approach anyway. "Now, the other guys have to step up – people like Michael Bennett, Byron Chamberlain and Jake Reed. People are saying, 'We're not going to let Carter and Moss beat us in the passing game.' They're forcing them to be patient, and it's something they're going to have to adjust to.
After two games last season, Carter and Moss had combined for 370 yards and one touchdown on 21 receptions. So far this season, that duo has 12 receptions for 166 yards and one score. The Bucs would love to keep those two somewhat in check for a third straight game, but also know that Carter and Moss put up a combined 22 receptions for 341 yards and two touchdowns in a two-game split with Tampa Bay last fall.
Todd Toriscelli could learn to like this. James Cannida, on the other hand, might find it a bit lonely.
When the Buccaneers take the field on Monday for their first practice of the Minnesota week, only Cannida will be the only player not to knock helmets out behind One Buc Place. Furthermore, Cannida's name is the only one to appear on the team's injury report to begin the week.
Though that report is not officially submitted to the league office until Wednesday morning, Toriscelli indicates that the defensive tackle's knee sprain is the only injury worth mentioning as the Bucs head into what is now NFL Week Three.
Cannida will be listed as 'out' on the injury report and the most likely target for his return is the week of the Pittsburgh game, which will be played in Tampa on October 31. No other Buc has an ailment even requiring a 'probable' status on the injury report. Among the previously injured Tampa Bay players who head into this week's workouts with no restrictions include WR Keyshawn Johnson (deep thigh bruise), S Dexter Jackson (hip flexor strain), C Jeff Christy (knee sprain), G Ross Hochstein (foot fracture), Dwight Smith (foot sprain) and Ellis Wyms (foot sprain).
That's what 21 days without football will do for you. From a trainer's standpoint, it proved to be a blessing in disguise.
"I suggest that the NFL consider playing games every 3 weeks," joked Toriscelli.
Of course, it's a much easier Monday than usual for Toriscelli's crew not only because the banged-up players from previous games received an extra week of rest but also because there was no game on Sunday to create a fresh crop of pulled muscles. That's in stark contrast to the Vikings and their loss of Griffith.
With the team rested and healthy, Dungy will lead the squad through an hour-long workout on Monday afternoon, roughly three times as along as the Bucs usually go to start the week. With no injured players needing down time and seven of the last 12 days set aside for rest and recovery, the team is more concerned with efficiency than fatigue.
"We're definitely rested up and we'll be as healthy as you can be," he said. "Our task is going to be to get that game sharpness and make sure we come out of the blocks ready to go. We will have the rest and the energy, but we'll have to be sharp."