The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play their first road game of the 2017 season on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The hosting Minnesota Vikings will be without their starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, while the visiting Buccaneers will line up without three defensive starters. All of that makes rookie running back Dalvin Cook the game's obvious focal point.
Two weeks into his pro career, Cook looks like a second-round steal, ranking third in the NFL with 191 rushing yards and averaging 5.6 yards per tote. He's already broken off two runs of more than 30 yards, helping the Vikings' offense surprisingly lead the league with 14 gains of 20-plus yards. With Bradford out, Minnesota will once again start Case Keenum, and while Keenum has a good track record against the Buccaneers, his team will almost certainly look to establish the running game first.
"Bradford played terrific in that first [Vikings] game against the Saints," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "He played as good as a quarterback can play and had tremendous numbers. As far as Keenum, he didn't play as well as Bradford played when they played the Steelers last week but he's beat us two years in a row. He's played very well against us the last two years. So of course we're on high alert for that. Dalvin Cook, we know how talented he is and we knew that in the draft. He's a guy that we liked a lot and he's off to a fast start. He's explosive, he can break tackles, he can break away, he can catch it out of the backfield, so he's a good player."
Cook will face the league's top-ranked rush defense, though that's obviously mitigated by a small sample size. Not only is the NFL season only two weeks old, but Tampa Bay has played only once thanks to the Hurricane Irma-induced postponement of the opener in Miami. The Bucs came back from a long break to hold the Chicago Bears to just 20 yards on 16 carries as part of a 29-7 win. A lot of rest and good health probably helped with that dominant effort, but that's not something the Bucs can boast anymore.
Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander (hamstring) and cornerback Brent Grimes (shoulder) suffered injuries in the opener that will keep them out of Sunday's game in Minnesota, and a virulent flu bug swept through the team this past week, taking out (among others) starting defensive tackle Chris Baker. After filling in nicely in the middle for about half of the opener after Alexander's bit of misfortune, rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith will start in that key spot on Sunday and be asked to reprise his debut performance.
"We're very happy with Kendell, the fact that he can play multiple spots," said Koetter. "He started the [last] game at SAM, finished the game at MIKE. He played on special teams. For a guy, especially coming off ACL surgery at the end of last season, to be doing what he is, is really remarkable. Not just the physical part, but mentally I haven't seen a lot of rookies come in and be able to play multiple positions. Kendell's ready for whatever role he's asked to play and he just needs to keep it up."
Before he was injured, Alexander started a four-takeaway first-half barrage against the Bears with his first interception of the season. That run of turnovers set up 20 of the Bucs' 29 points and was probably the game's deciding factor. Facing a very good Minnesota team on their turf, the Buccaneers know that they will probably half to take the ball away again in order to double up their win total.
"If you can make the quarterback get off his spot, if you can make the receivers get off their spots, you're increasing your odds," said Koetter. "Turnovers are the name of the game – not turning it over on offense and getting them on defense. We were pretty fortunate in that department last week; we'd like to do it again."
Unlike in Week One, Tampa Bay's inactive list is more than half filled with injured and/or unavailable players. That starts with Alexander, Baker and Grimes and also includes defensive end Jacquies Smith due to illness. The final three inactives are center Joe Hawley, tackle Leonard Wester and tight end Antony Auclair. Ryan Smith will step up to replace Grimes. Veteran defensive tackle Clinton McDonald was already considered a co-starter with Baker. Second-year linebacker Devante Bond, who spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve and is just returning from a knee ailment, is expected to make his NFL debut.
The Buccaneers and Vikings kickoff at 1:00 p.m. ET at U.S. Bank Stadium. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.