Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Countdown to Kickoff: Vikings-Bucs

Antoine Winfield may have some extra motivation this week but the Bucs need to make sure they know where his Vikings counterpart, Harrison Smith, is at all times…Thing to consider while waiting for Sunday's early-afternoon kickoff

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:

5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH

S Antoine Winfield, Jr. Winfield grew up a Vikings fan, as his father played for Minnesota for nine of the 14 seasons (2004-12) of his outstanding NFL career. The younger Winfield called his first opportunity to play against the Vikings a "cool experience" earlier in the week, and it surely will be a memorable experience for the rookie safety. The Buccaneers would be pleased if it proved to be particularly memorable because Winfield made some key plays to help them to victory. While he has remained productive as a tackler in the season's second half and, according to both him and Head Coach Bruce Arians, has not hit a rookie wall, he hasn't recently had the sort of splash plays that helped him win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in September. Winfield has a knack for creating turnovers, back to his college days at the University of Minnesota, and that could be the key to Sunday's outcome. The Buccaneers are 6-0 this season when they have won the turnover battle, but they haven't done that since Week Eight. Winfield has drawn praise from the coaching staff all season for playing like a veteran and knowing where he's supposed to be on every play. His father recorded 21 interceptions for the Vikings; he could turn the game on Sunday with his first pick against his former favorite team.

WR Chris Godwin. Godwin got the pins removed from his previously-fractured index finger early in the week and by Thursday was practicing without limitations. Since returning from missing just one game after that Week Seven injury, Godwin has hardly been slowed down by any discomfort or extra protection on his hand, leading the team over the last four games with 24 catches for 283 yards. On Sunday, he and Mike Evans – the NFL's most productive wideout duo in 2019 – will be challenging the two rookie corners the Vikings have relied on all year, first-rounder Jeff Gladney and third-rounder Cameron Dantzler. Both Gladney and Dantzler have progressed nicely during their debut season after some unsurprising early struggles against the likes of Davante Adams and Julio Jones, but they will face a tough task against Godwin and Evans on Sunday. Last year, Godwin was having the best season of his young career before a hamstring injury cut it several games short. This season could be the opposite, as he has already overcome several difficult injuries and can now head into the final stretch with fresh legs and good overall health. Godwin had the first three receptions of his NFL career against the Vikings in 2017 but the Buccaneers are likely to get him the ball more often than that in his second outing against Minnesota. He has played the most offensive snaps of any of the Bucs' receivers over the last three weeks, close to 100% of them, and in the last two games was targeted a total of 19 times. Expect more of the same on Sunday.

CB Carlton Davis. Of course, Tampa Bay's corners also face quite a challenge on Sunday against the Vikings' wide receiver duo of Adam Thielen and rookie Justin Jefferson. Thielen is third in the NFL with 12 touchdown catches while Jefferson has had one of the best debut seasons ever for a wide receiver so far, with 1,039 yards, 17.0 yards per catch and seven touchdowns. Given how good both receivers are, the Buccaneers may not ask Davis to shadow one specific player, but whomever he's covering could be in for a long day if Tampa Bay's top corner is at the top of his game. Davis is tied for the NFL lead with 16 passes defensed and he has paced the Buccaneers with four interceptions, his most recent one coming in Week Eight. Both Thielen and – impressively for a rookie – Jefferson are very good route-runners but Davis's strength is his ability to plaster a receiver in coverage and create very tight windows for opposing quarterbacks. The most recent update from the NFL on Pro Bowl balloting by the fans had Davis as the leading vote-getter in the NFC at cornerback. That would be a deserving honor, but Davis would improve his chances of selection through a process that also includes player and coach voting by dominating during this final four-game stretch of the regular season.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 14 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

RB Ronald Jones. Two of the NFL's top four rushers in 2020 will be at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, as Jones ranks fourth, two spots behind Minnesota's Dalvin Cook. In actual yards, there's a much bigger gap between the two, of course, as Cook's 1,250 are 430 more than Jones's 820. That's a bigger difference than there is between Jones and the 41st player on the rushing list, Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (no relation). But notably, Jones has actually gained more yards per carry (5.06) than Cook (4.98) this season. The difference is obviously in their usage, as Cook has 109 more carries than Jones despite playing in one fewer game. That's a gap the Buccaneers would like to close during the final month of the regular season. Arians has suggested a goal of 20 touches per game for Jones in the coming weeks; through the first 12 game he has been a little under 16 touches per game. Jones only had 10 touchdowns in Week 12 against Kansas City but turned them into 103 yards and a touchdown. The problem in that contest is that the Bucs fell behind by 17 points in the first quarter, which led to more passing and more two-minute work, which usually feature Leonard Fournette. If the Bucs' emphasis on eliminating slow starts is successful, they should be able to lean more on Jones for the full 60 minutes and hope to get some more of the big plays he has made common in recent games.

DL Will Gholston. In his eighth year since being drafted in the fourth round in 2013, Gholston is quietly having his best season yet, and might be the most disruptive player the Bucs have had on the defensive line this season. Arians hinted at that earlier this week, saying, "He's playing great. He's played really, really solid for two years and this year he's been very, very disruptive. He's a great leader in the room [and] we do have some really good, quality guys over there. Some guys have bigger reputations, but I don't know if any are playing better than he is." Gholston's 2.0 sacks don't put him among the team's leaders in that category, but he is at the top of the list in quarterback hits with 17. That's more than double his previous career high of eight and it's tied for 12th in the NFL this season. Gholston went into the bye week on a good run, having recorded six QB hits in the previous four games and he could be a key figure for a Bucs' defense looking to get back on track in the final month of the regular season. Prior to his 2020 eruption of QB hits, Gholston was already highly valued by the Bucs' coaching staff for the key role he plays in the team's top-ranked run defense. That might be even more important than his pressures in this particular game, as the Vikings' offense starts with Cook and tries to have a run-pass balance of close to 50%. If Gholston and company are able to bottle up Cook early, as they have done with most opposing running backs this year, that will give him a chance to invade the backfield again and add to his pressure totals.

4 STATS THAT MATTER

·    4-3/4-5. If you've followed the Buccaneers at all over the past two weeks, following narrow losses to the Rams and Chiefs, you've heard one concept repeated frequently: fast starts. The Buccaneers spent the first part of the season dominating their opponents in the first quarter but have recently seen that dynamic flip, to the point where slow starts on both sides of the ball have been identified as the team's biggest issue entering the playoff stretch run. The Buccaneers would like to jump out to a quick lead on Sunday, but it would probably be sufficient just to keep the game close in the early going. The Buccaneers are actually 4-3 this season when trailing at the end of the first quarter, which is tied for the second-most wins in the league in that situation. Meanwhile, Minnesota has had a lead at the end of the first period in nine of their 12 games but has just a 4-5 record in those contests. That's the most losses in that situation in the league this year. In other words, there will be no reason to panic if the Bucs are on the wrong side of the score at the end of the first quarter.

·    21.4%. Bruce Arians has identified struggles on "manageable" third downs as the reason for those aforementioned slow starts on offense recently. Given that this has not been an issue for the entire season, it's reasonable to believe the Buccaneers can correct it going forward. However, this week in particular, the Bucs need to make sure they can get into those shorter third downs as often as possible because the Minnesota defense is very difficult to crack on longer third downs. The Vikings have faced 70 third downs this year of six or more yards and have only allowed 15 of them to be converted. That includes only three from beyond 10 yards. That 15-of-70 mark is the 21.4% success rate noted above.

·    54.3%/68.5%. Sunday's game against Minnesota is a critical one for the Buccaneers, as they rank just ahead of the Vikings in the NFC playoff seeding and would fall behind them with a loss. Even without considering the opponent, though, a win in Week 14 would greatly improve the Buccaneers' chances of making the playoffs. Since the NFL expanded the playoff field to six teams per conference in 1990, 54.3% of the teams that began a season 7-5 went on to the postseason. In that same span, 68.5% of the teams that had an 8-5 record found their way to the playoffs. Of course, the playoff field this year is seven teams per conference, which obviously improves both of those odds, but things will clearly be better at 8-5 than 7-6.

·    7-1/4-1/4-2. The Buccaneers want to get running back Ronald Jones 20 touches per game and would prefer a more balanced attack between the run and the pass. A consistent running game has definitely been a harbinger of good things for Tampa Bay this year, as they are 7-1 when they run the ball 20 or more times and 4-1 when they rush for 100 or more yards in a game. Of course, there is always the issue of causation in notes such as these, in that a team that is winning in a game is more likely to run the ball more often. Still, the Buccaneers are also 4-2 when they average more than 4.0 yards per carry in a game, which is less affected by what is on the scoreboard.

3 LINEUP NOTES

·    Minnesota has already been without four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr since suffered a pectoral injury in Week Two, and now they'll have to run without All-Pro middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, too. Kendricks started the first 11 games of the season and is Minnesota's leading tackler with 107 stops, but he was a late scratch before last week's game against Jacksonville due to a calf injury and has not yet been able to return to the field. Eric Wilson has played well in Barr's absence, and when Kendricks missed last week's game the Vikings the Vikings turned to Todd Davis, who started most of the last four seasons in Denver.

·    The Buccaneers are likely to be without cornerback Jamel Dean for a second straight week after he was listed as "doubtful" on Friday's injury report. When Dean missed the Week 12 game against Kansas City due to a concussion, the Buccaneers moved Sean Murphy-Bunting to the outside and used Ross Cockrell in the slot. That would likely be the same approach if Dean's current groin injury keeps him out of the action Sunday.

·    Minnesota could be a little light on tight ends on Sunday. Long-time starter Kyle Rudolph, who is fourth on the team with 28 catches, is considered doubtful to play after missing the whole week of practice with a foot injury, and if he does indeed sit out it will be the first game or start he has missed since 2014. His backup and partner in two-TE sets, Irv Smith, is also questionable for the game due to a back injury. Beyond Rudolph and Smith the Vikings only had one other tight end, Tyler Conklin, on the active roster until they signed Hale Hentges off the Colts' practice squad on Thursday. Minnesota did have tight end Brandon Dillon on the practice squad but just put him on injured reserve this week.

View pictures of the cleats and foundations represented by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during week 14.

2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE VIKINGS

The Vikings' offense has thrived this year even after trading away wide receiver Stefon Diggs and is currently ranked third in net yards, sixth in rushing yards and second in yards per pass attempt. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has a sparkling 103.9 passer rating that is built on above average marks in completion percentage (67.8%) and yards per pass attempt (8.5). Rookie Justin Jefferson has more than ably replaced Diggs' contributions alongside wideout Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook has drawn some MVP buzz. The Vikings' defense is ranked just 23rd in yards and is giving up 261.7 passing yards per game but has been so good on third downs (sixth) and in the red zone (third) that it has still kept Minnesota in every game. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.

The talents of Dalvin Cook and Kirk Cousins are obvious in their individual stats but it's the way the Vikings utilize them to sow confusion on opposing defenses that is particularly challenging. The Vikings like to put Cousins on the move with play-action rollouts and such, which can be particularly effective when called against a blitz up the middle. However, not every handoff is going to be a fake and the Buccaneers have to make sure they don't over-pursue a moving Cousins only to have Cook pull off one of his patented cutbacks and get free around the other edge. Diagnosing what exactly the Vikings are doing with Cousins and Cook early and accurately will be important for Buccaneer defenders, who have to have good gap control and 'eye discipline. As Arians put it: "I think it's a fine line when you think you're going to pressure the quarterback, but you've got to have gap control when you are blitzing to make sure he doesn't get out. Once [Cook] breaks it, it's usually going to the house, so we have to have great gap control, great discipline when we're blitzing and when we're not blitzing."

Harrison Smith has been a critical part of the Minnesota defense for a long time and he's been selected for each of the last five Pro Bowls. The Vikings use him as a deep safety, in the box and even in the slot at times and he can make game-changing plays from any of those spots, such as the overtime interception last week that set up the game-winning field goal against Jacksonville. Smith fills up a stat sheet, this year combining 63 tackles with four interceptions, eight passes defensed, 0.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and five QB hits. He is outstanding in coverage and has been for a long time; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Smith ranks first among all NFL safeties across the last five seasons with an opponent passer rating of 41.2 when he is the closest defender to the target. In plays in that span in which he was the nearest defender, Smith has only allowed three touchdowns while picking off 15 passes. As Jacksonville found out, and as Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich noted earlier this week, the quarterback needs to know where Smith is at all times. Said Leftwich: "Just playing against these guys, he's a focal point every time you play these guys. He's a guy that will move around a lot, he'll be in a lot of different positions [and] you can tell the coaches trust in him with the range that they give him [and] the things they ask him to do week in and week out. He's a really good football player that we have to be ready for [and] a guy that you have to know where he's at on the field at all times."

1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS

On if it helps entering the playoff stretch drive to have a quarterback with Tom Brady's level of experience and leadership:

"There's no doubt about it. I've been very, very fortunate with some of the best quarterbacks that all have that. Every single one I've probably ever coached have had that ability. Peyton [Manning] Ben [Roethlisberger], Andrew Luck as a rookie was amazing. Tom [Brady], Timmy Couch, Kelly Holcomb – every one of those guys that were successful. When they got in the huddle, they had the ability to make everybody believe that this is the best play that's going to be called and run. Then, walk off, work with guys, take them to the side, work with them and bring them along. All those great ones do it."

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