The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings are old NFC Central foes, veterans of the rugged defensive battles often waged in the "Black and Blue" division. Thursday night's prime-time matchup between the two on the national stage could very well be a throwback to those times, given that the Buccaneers' defense leads the NFL in tackles for loss and the Vikings' crew is tied for third in producing sacks.
That storyline might be a bit too easy, however. The Buccaneers ride into Mall of America Field having blasted for nearly 1,000 yards in their last two games, with a big-play passing attack that is chewing up yardage in big chunks. Meanwhile, Minnesota's attack features the NFL's third-leading rusher, a young quarterback who is coming into his own and a special weapon that might be the most versatile threat in the league.
Oh, it might turn into a low-scoring struggle on Thursday night, but it's going to take some pretty remarkable defensive efforts to make that happen.
First of all, the Vikings, who sport the NFL's 17th-ranked pass defense, will have to contend with a quarterback who has thrown for more than 1,000 yards in his last three outings. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman is coming off a 420-yard day in which he matched Drew Brees bullet for bullet, and Head Coach Greg Schiano says he's only getting better.
"The offense overall has played better every week," said Schiano. "Josh is part of that offense and he's performing at a high level. He's running the offense, which really excites me. He's really getting a feel for not only throwing and those things, but getting us into the right plays, whether it be run or pass, and identifying certain things that are tips and keys for the offense to be able to run efficiently. It's development that you can see right before your eyes, which is a good thing."
More than half of Freeman's passing yards last Sunday went through #1 wideout Vincent Jackson, who set a franchise record with 216 yards on seven grabs. Jackson has scored four times in the last three weeks and he's a player defensive coordinators clearly have to make a top priority when facing the Buccaneers.
"It starts with his God-given ability; he's very gifted," said Schiano of Jackson. "On top of that is his work ethic, his preparation. This guy is a true pro and you see that on the field on Sundays. You go for a while and it's quiet, and then all of a sudden he explodes. To me, that's a sign of a guy who plays each play as hard as he can. He just keeps playing, and eventually the plays come to him."
Fresh off a game against the NFL's passing attack, the Bucs now have to face arguably the best running back in the league over the past half-decade. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson has stunned the rest of the NFL with his amazingly quick recovery from a torn ACL last December, and he's back in his usual territory on the league charts, ranking third with 652 rushing yards. Tampa Bay has the NFL's third-ranked rush defense, so it won't be easy for either side, but this might be its most difficult task of the year.
"He looks great, unfortunately," said Schiano, wryly. "He's really taken the ball and he's running with an attitude again. Good for him. That will make for a great game tonight. You'll see a lot of guys that love to play the game and play it the right way, play it hard. It will be a big challenge to stop him."
The great Minnesota offenses of the '90s and early '00s posed a difficult problem for opponents, as wide receivers like Randy Moss and Cris Carter appeared to be the main problem, but too much focus on them opened the door for Robert Smith to run wild. The current Viking attack is developing in a similar way, but with reverse emphasis. Peterson is clearly issue number one, but he opens up opportunities for wide receiver Percy Harvin. And the Minnesota staff knows how to take advantage of those opportunities and Harvin's versatile skills, bringing him at defenses from all angles.
"It's tough because he can do a number of things ,and they position him in almost every skill position you can be in," said Schiano of Harvin. "He can be a running back, he can be a wideout, he'll be in tight where the tight end aligns sometimes. If you keep your eyes open and you try to watch him in the game, you have to really look for him. The fans have to look for him, so what do you think the defense has to do? We have to know where the heck he is at all times. He's a dynamic player who's probably playing as well as any offensive player in the league right now."
The Bucs hope to be able to stop both Peterson and Harvin, or at least keep their damage to a minimum. On the other hand, if another shootout develops, it's clear they have the weapons to contend. These two former Black-and-Blue foes might be ready to put on quite an offensive show Thursday night.
Tampa Bay will have an additional resource to content with the Vikings' offensive stars, as DE Da'Quan Bowers was activated from the reserve/PUP list on Thursday afternoon. He has also been kept among the team's 46 active players for the game, so he should make his 2012 debut after returning from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in May.
The Bucs are keeping eight defensive linemen active tonight with Bowers' return, which equates to one fewer defensive back, in this case CB Myron Lewis. In addition to Lewis, Tampa Bay deactivated RB Michael Smith, DB Keith Tandy, LB Najee Goode, C/G Cody Wallace, WR Chris Owusu and TE Danny Noble.
The Vikings declared the following players inactive: QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, WR Jarius Wright, CB Brandon Burton, S Mistral Raymond, LB Audie Cole, G Mark Asper and TE John Carlson. Raymond and Carlson were out due to injury; Jamarca Sanford replaces Raymond as the starting strong safety.
The Bucs and Vikings will kick off their prime-time contest at 8:20 p.m. ET. The game will be televised by the NFL Network and will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Buccaneers.com will post a running blog of all the action on Sunday, and will also provide coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.