The Bucs know that Robert Smith gives the Vikings a surprisingly balanced offense
Some of the challenges that the Minnesota Vikings pose for an opponent are obvious. Randy Moss, scorching the sideline? Issue. John Randle terrorizing the offensive line? Issue.
But the Vikings have rushed out to a 4-0 start for many reasons, some of them not so famously named. After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers arrived in Minneapolis on Sunday to take the next crack at knocking Minnesota from the ranks of the unbeaten, Tony Dungy discussed some of those more hidden challenges.
Like Bryce Paup, for instance.
Longtime Buccaneer fans will remember that name, even if it's the first time they've seen him in purple and gold. When Paup started his career with the Green Bay Packers in 1991, he immediately became a Buccaneer-killer. Originally a pass-rushing linebacker, Paup is now listed as a defensive end but is still a designated sack-master.
In nine games against the Buccaneers, including one as a Jaguar in 1998, Paup has 12.5 sacks. He once dropped Vinny Testaverde 4.5 times in a single game.
Most of this was before Dungy took over the Bucs' helm in 1996, but Dungy knows that Paup is a player to keep an eye on.
"I wasn't aware of that," said Dungy of Paup's star turns against the Bucs, "but I know they got him specifically for the purpose of putting pressure on the quarterback. He rushes off the left side, and we're going to have to do a good job of containing him."
Tampa Bay, in fact, must be aware of the possibility of pressure from any angle. The Vikings have a decent but not overwhelming total of 10 sacks through four games, but those 10 sacks have been recorded by nine different players. Two defensive backs and two linebackers have already posted a sack for the Vikings, as has non-starter Paup.
"They're blitzing a lot and bringing different people. John Randle doesn't have one yet, which is unusual for them at this point. But they're doing a good job of utilizing everybody and trying to create pressure with a lot of different people."
Of course, the Vikings pose much greater threats when they have the ball. Minnesota is averaging nearly 400 yards of offense per game through the season's first month and have racked up over 20 first downs per game.
A closer look reveals some even more impressive numbers. One that concerns the Buccaneers and Dungy is the Vikings' average gain on first down: 6.10 yards. If it weren't for the historic efforts of the Rams' attack this season, that figure would lead the NFL.
"They're doing a good job on first down," said Dungy. "They're getting big plays in the passing game and Robert Smith has broken a lot of long first-down runs. It's basically Smith and Moss that are the guys we have to look for."
The Vikings' quick starts on first down help account for another gaudy number for the Vikes' offense. Minnesota has managed to convert 49.1% of its third down tries to this point; the league average is 37.8%. Again, if not for the unstoppable Rams, that would be the NFL's best mark.
Dungy, having watched his share of Vikings film this week, thinks there's more to that number than just good first-down efforts. "I think that's more of (QB Duante) Culpepper," said Dungy. "He's run for a lot of first downs when receivers are covered. They have some designed runs for him. They have done a good job of keeping it at third-and-five and third-and-four, but even on the third-and-longs, he's created a lot of first downs."
Culpepper's scrambling has helped Minnesota average a league-best 160.8 rushing yards per game. That alone, however, doesn't account for the Vikings' surprising run-pass balance. Minnesota as a passing team – accurately, we should add – but, they are one of only four teams in the NFL to have run the ball more often than they've passed this season.
"They're a passing team," said Dungy, "but they're able to run it and keep you off balance. When you are double-covering a wide receiver, they're not afraid to run the ball."
The Vikings are also not afraid of a fourth-quarter deficit. Tampa Bay, which has lost two successive last-minute games, must remain aware of a Minnesota offense that has done most of its scoring in the final period. The Vikings have recorded 95 points through four games and, remarkably, more than half of those points have come in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings have scored in double digits in the fourth quarter in each of their four games. Their total of 48 fourth-quarter points is one more than the 47 they've posted in quarters one through three. It's also an indication that the Vikings have a never-say-die attitude.
"They've got a great ability to focus in, and when a game is tight in the fourth quarter, they've made big plays to win them," said Dungy. "That's why we feel like it's going to be a 60-minute game and we've got to be ready to go the whole way.
"That gives you every reason to think that it will be a tight game and we'll need some big plays in the end to win it."