The Buccaneers came off their bye week rested and ready to go. That much was evident on Sunday as they defeated the visiting Minnesota Vikings, 26-14, in a game that had major NFC wildcard implications. According to election coverage hero Steve Kornacki, who broke down the league's postseason picture as of Week 14 on the Sunday Night Football broadcast, the Bucs' chances of making the postseason went from 84% before the game to now 96% after the win.
December football that means something. Insert Paul-Rudd-look-at-us.gif.
Quarterback Tom Brady talked last week about the importance of playing your best football in December. That's something that a guy who has been to the postseason 17 times in his career would know, after all.
"I think the reality is you're battling to improve every week," Brady said. "Let's say you have a great record to this point – it's not a big deal. I've been on a lot of teams where we were 10-0 and we finished 12-4. You lose four of your last six and don't play well going into the playoffs – you finished 12-4, which is pretty good, but at the end of the day you're not playing very well going into an important time because you didn't improve or maybe you lost ground from where you were earlier in the year. I've been 5-5. The first time I was on a championship team we were 5-5 through 10 games and then played really well down the stretch. What you've got to do is you've got to have competitive stamina."
Now at 8-5, that's what the Buccaneers are working towards – and they got off to a great start before heading on the road fo two weeks. Here are some things that stood out from Sunday's win.
1. The defense brought the pressure – and the blitz.
The first half was still a little bit of adjustment period for the Buccaneers but by the end of the second quarter, both sides of the ball started to find their rhythm. The offense put up 17 points, including a last second field goal before halftime, which instilled a sense of urgency in the Vikings for the second half. Down two scores, they needed points and therefore became reliant on quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Vikings' passing game. Cousins attempted just 15 passes in quarters one and two. He would have 22 in the second half. And in knowing that Cousins was likely going to pass – the Bucs' defense went 'hunting' as Head Coach Bruce Arians put it.
The day resulted in six sacks by four different players. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett had two sacks, his sixth multi-sack performance in the last two seasons, which is tied for the most in that span. Over the past two seasons, the Bucs as a whole have 87.0 sacks, which is the third-most in the NFL. Their 40.0 sacks this season are tied for fourth.
Two of those sacks also included forced fumbles. One came from rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. who now has three sacks on the season, which is tied for the second-most among NFL defensive backs and tied for the second-most among rookies this year. Winfield's final stat line included 11 tackles too, which ties for his short career's high. He has two games this year with at least 10 tackles and a sack fumble, becoming the first Bucs rookie since Kwon Alexander to have such a game.
Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul had the other strip sack of Cousins and he recovered the ball too after physically ripping it out of the Minnesota quarterback's hand while he was mid-throw. Pierre-Paul is credited with four takeaways this season, which is the second-most by any front-seven player in the league. His four strip sacks this season also tie with Cleveland's Myles Garrett for most in the NFL. Pierre-Paul is the only player this season with at least 5.0 sacks and multiple interceptions.
The Bucs tallied 12 quarterback hits on Cousins, their second-most of the season behind only the 13 they put on Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers but the Bucs weren't just after the quarterback on Sunday. They recorded four tackles for loss against the Vikings, pushing their total, to 74 tackles for loss this season, which is the third most of any team in the NFL. Since the start of last year, the Bucs have 161 tackles for loss, which is the third most.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 14 matchup against Minnesota.
2. The offensive line set the tone for the offense.
Speaking of tackles for loss, while the Buccaneer defense had success there, the Buccaneer offensive line allowed just one tackle for loss from the Vikings and did not let up a sack on Brady.
In fact, the Bucs are only allowing a sack on 3.21% of passing plays, which is good for the third-lowest mark in the league. Brady has been sacked
The Buccaneers have allowed a sack on only 3.21 percent of pass plays, the third-lowest mark in the NFL. The Bucs have a +24.0 sack differential, which is also the third-best in the league. The protection for Brady led to some big plays on Sunday, first and foremost being his 48-yard bomb to his third read on the play – which happened to be Scotty Miller streaking down the middle of the field ahead of his defender. Brady also hit Mike Evans down the sideline for 29 yards in the third quarter that set up a two-yard Brady to Gronk touchdown and putting the Bucs up 23-6.
Then there was the ground game. The Bucs once again had over 100 yards on the ground, with Jones rushing for80 of those yards on 18 attempts. The Tampa Bay offensive coaches stressed all week that they wanted to run the ball more consistently given that what they try to do offensively starts on the ground. It opens up a lot of options for the offense when they are able to run the ball effectively, which is another reason offensive line play can often dictate how well an offense can execute week in and week out.
3. Bucs are still searching for balance.
What was interesting about Sunday's win was that the Buccaneers really didn't have that many offensive plays to run. They had just 51 snaps on offense and their 20:57 of possession time is the lowest by Tampa Bay in a win in franchise history.
Minnesota was able to extend drives, especially late in the game, by utilizing fourth down and converting on four of their five attempts. There was some poor tackling involved as well by the defense, which Arians said on Monday was the only drawback to the game.
"One of our major goals was to not let [Adam] Thielen or [Justin] Jefferson get over the top – I think they had a combined 80 [receiving] yards," said Arians on Monday. "We'll give up some runs to keep guys in front of us. Defensively, we whipped them in situational football. They were really good in the red zone [on] defense and offense, [but] we won both battles on both sides [and] we won third down – we were 60 percent [and] we got all those sacks [on defense]. I think we beat them in situational football. On defense, we missed 14 tackles. That's the only negative thing about the whole day. I thought coming out, that was going to be a tough one – tackling [Dalvin Cook] and getting him on the ground. Other than that, I thought we played really, really well."
Minnesota had two drives that were eight minutes or longer. But when it came down to it, the Bucs' defense bent but didn't break, allowing just 14 points all game. The Vikings, who had been excellent in the red zone coming in, only converted half of their trips into points.