Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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2020 Game Preview: Vikings-Buccaneers, Week 14

The Buccaneers return from their bye week and catch a surging Minnesota team, jumping immediately into a critical NFC playoff matchup against Dalvin Cook and a powerful Viking offense

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return from their bye week to find their Week 14 contest against the visiting Minnesota Vikings to have grown significantly in importance to the NFC playoff race. The Vikings' five wins in six weeks, including last Sunday's overtime thriller against the Jacksonville Jaguars, has turned what was previously a team at drift at 1-5 into a legitimate postseason contender. Meanwhile, a pair of identical 27-24 decisions against the contending Rams and Chiefs, neither of which went in the Buccaneers' favor, has dropped the Bucs from a solid 7-3 to 7-5 and made their postseason ledge a bit more precarious.

Put those two streaks together and you have the sixth and seventh seeds in the NFC playoff hunt meeting to decide who will be in that sixth spot after the weekend. Tampa Bay will finish its regular season and chase its first playoff spot in 13 years against four teams that are all at .500 or worse, but that run starts with what is clearly a challenging opponent in Dalvin Cook and the surging Vikings.

The Bucs will be finishing up a three-game home stand sandwiched around a bye week. The first two of those games came against the first and third-ranked offenses in the NFL in the Chiefs and Rams, respectively. There's no let-up in this one, as the Vikings bring the NFL's fourth-ranked offense to town, with an average of nearly 390 yards per game. Minnesota has done it with a powerful rushing attack led by Cook mixed with big plays in the passing attack, where the Vikings rank 16th in yards per game but second in yards per play. Even after shipping Stefon Diggs out in an offseason trade, Kirk Cousins and the Vikings haven't missed a beat thanks to the oversized contributions of rookie wideout Justin Jefferson.

Minnesota had quite a bit of turnover on defense between 2019 and 2020, particularly along the front and in the secondary. That surely has contributed to the Vikings not having their customarily strong rankings under defensive-minded Head Coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings have thus been involved in a lot of close and high-scoring games, such as their aforementioned overtime win in Jacksonville that came right after a last-minute 28-27 victory over the Panthers. That win against Carolina was the third Minnesota game decided by a single point this season, and the seventh that has been decided by six points or fewer. Minnesota has scored 319 points this season and given up 329.

The Vikings set a record in the spring by drafting 15 players, the most any team has selected in a single draft since it was shortened to seven rounds in 1994. That big haul is part of the team's turnover on defense, as such well-known Viking veterans as Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Alexander Mackensie, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph have all departed. Meanwhile, outstanding edge rusher Danielle Hunter hasn't played all season due to a neck injury, star linebacker Anthony Barr is on injured reserve and fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks missed last week's game with a calf injury.

The Vikings also made a bold move before the season to trade for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue but then turned around at midseason and traded Ngakoue away to the Ravens, possibly thinking the playoffs were a long shot. Without Griffen, Hunter and Ngakoue the Vikings have only generated 21 sacks on defense, and the Buccaneers will hope they can continue that trend and give Tom Brady time to work against the Vikings' young secondary on Sunday. Brady has been sacked only one time in each of the Bucs' last three games and the front line should be stronger after a week to rest, particularly in regards to the injured ankle of left tackle Donovan Smith.

Brady's counterpart, Cousins, has quietly had a strong season, with a passer rating of 103.9 built on excellent completion rate (67.8) and yards per attempt (8.5 numbers). The question is how Tampa Bay's defense will handle the Vikings combination of a strong ground game and a big-play passing attack. The Bucs always try to make their opponent one-dimensional by taking the run game away early, and they have usually succeeded, with the NFL's top-ranked run defense for the second year in a row. However, the Rams and Chiefs put up big numbers against a pass defense that started the season strong but has had some trouble in recent games. That defense will be severely tested by Cousins, Jefferson (who has already surpassed 1,000 yards) and fellow wideout Adam Thielen (who has 12 touchdown catches in 12 games).

The Buccaneers and Vikings used to be division mates in the old NFC Central, and when Tampa Bay turned its fortunes around in the mid-'90s it began a stretch of very entertaining and closely-contested games between two strong teams. But the two teams haven't met in a high-stakes December game since the end of the 1999 season. That year, a top-heavy Central had playoff contenders in the Bucs, Vikings, Lions and Packers, the first two of which met on December 6 with identical 7-4 records. Behind rookie quarterback Shawn King in his first NFL start and in front of a national Monday Night Football audience, the Buccaneers won 24-17 and went on to take the division title.

This time around the quarterbacks are much higher profile and the teams are in different divisions. But the stakes are just as high and the winner will be in a much better position to finish out the playoff chase over the last three weeks.

GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS

Minnesota Vikings (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

Sunday, December 13, 1:00 p.m. ET

Raymond James Stadium (capacity: 65,618…roughly 25% capacity will be in attendance)

Tampa, Florida

Television: FOX

TV Broadcast Team: Joe Buck (play-by-play), Troy Aikman (analyst), Erin Andrews (reporter)

Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station

Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)

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

ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played the Minnesota Vikings 55 times overly nearly 50 years, but the Buccaneers have definitely enjoyed the last quarter century of the rivalry a lot more than the first two decades.

Overall, Minnesota owns a 33-22 edge in the head-to-head series with Tampa Bay, but the momentum may have swung when Tony Dungy left the Vikings to take over the Bucs' head coaching job in 1996. Dungy's first victory at the helm was memorably over the Vikings, and beginning with that contest Tampa Bay has won 11 of the last 19 meetings between the two teams. That included a six-game winning streak from 2001– the year before Tampa Bay left Minnesota and the old NFC Central behind to join the new NFC South – and 2012. However, the Vikings have recently reasserted control with wins in 2014 and 2017.

Since the 2002 realignment that put the Buccaneers in a new division, Tampa Bay and Minnesota have essentially only met every three years as part of the usual rotating divisional matchups, which means they have almost never finished in the same spots in their respective divisions in the same year. The exception was an extra game in 2012 that the Buccaneers won, 36-17, powered by rookie running back Doug Martin's first 100-yard game and three Josh Freeman touchdown passes.

The most recent contest went to the Vikings, 34-17, in 2017 as Case Keenum threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to Stefon Diggs. Dalvin Cook, then a rookie playing in just his second game, ran for 97 yards and a score. The Buccaneers' six-game winning streak prior to the last two meetings including a number of high-scoring affairs, including decisions by scores of 41-14, 38-24 and 36-17.

The Buccaneers have a chance to even up their all-time record at home against the Vikings, with Minnesota currently up 14-13. The Vikings took that lead with a 19-13 decision in Tampa in 2014, an overtime game that lasted all of one play in the extra period. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins fumbled after a 10-yard catch and Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr returned it 27 yards for the game-winning score. In an odd note, however, the Bucs have more overtime wins over Minnesota than any other team in their history, owning a 3-2 mark in such games. All three of the Bucs' overtime wins over Minnesota occurred between 1990 and 1996.

NOTABLE CONNECTIONS

·    Buccaneers Assistant Coach Tom Moore, who is in his 41st season as an NFL coach, spent four of those years as the assistant head coach/offensive coordinator of the Vikings from 1990-93 under Head Coaches Jerry Burns and Dennis Green for two seasons each.

·    After a 14-year playing career in the NFL and a handful of years coaching high school football, Buccaneers Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross first broke into the NFL coaching ranks with the Vikings in 2003. He spent three seasons as Minnesota's secondary coach on Head Coach Mike Tice's staff.

·    Andrew Janocko, the Vikings' wide receivers coach, got his first job in the NFL in Tampa as an offensive assistant on Head Coach Greg Schiano's staff in 2012-13.

·    Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield, Jr., who played his college ball at the University of Minnesota along with fellow Bucs rookie WR Tyler Johnson, is the son of former NFL cornerback Antoine Winfield, Sr. The elder Winfield played 14 seasons in the NFL, the last nine of them with the Vikings.

·    Minnesota long-snapper Andrew DePaola performed the same job for the Buccaneers in his first three NFL seasons, 2014-16.

·    Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who is on the Vikings' practice squad, is the son of the former Buccaneers linebacker by the same name, who played for the team from 1993-99. The elder Nickerson also served on the Buccaneers' coaching staff during the 2014-15 seasons.

SENIOR COACHING STAFFS

· Tampa Bay:

· Head Coach Bruce Arians

· Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin

· Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles

· Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich

· Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong

· Minnesota:

· Head Coach Mike Zimmer

· Offensive Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach Gary Kubiak

· Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson

· Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Adam Zimmer

· Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf

KEY 2020 ROSTER ADDITIONS

Buccaneers:

· QB Tom Brady(UFA)

· WR Antonio Brown (FA)

· TE Rob Gronkowski (T-NE)

· T Joe Haeg (UFA)

· WR Tyler Johnson (5th-round draft pick)

· RB LeSean McCoy (FA)

· DT Steve McLendon (T-NYJ)

· C A.Q. Shipley (FA)

· K Ryan Succop (FA)

· RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (3rd-round draft pick)

· S Antoine Winfield, Jr. (2nd-round draft pick)

· T Tristan Wirfs (1st-round draft pick)

Vikings:

· G Ezra Cleveland (2nd-round draft pick)

· CB Cameron Dantzler (3rd-round draft pick)

· LB Troy Dye (4th-round draft pick)

· CB Jeff Gladney (1st-round draft pick)

· CB Harrison Hand (5th-round draft pick)

· WR Justin Jefferson (1st-round draft pick)

· DE James Lynch (4th-round draft pick)

· WR Tajae Sharpe (UFA)

· DE D.J. Wonnum (4th-round draft pick)

ADDITIONAL 2020 CHANGES OF NOTE

Buccaneers:

·    Though it is noted in the "Roster Additions" section above, it's worth further elaborating on the extremely dramatic change the Buccaneers made at the game's most important position. After five seasons, the team moved on from Jameis Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and filled the starting quarterback spot with the man many consider the G.O.A.T., former Patriot Tom Brady. Brady brings 20 years of experience and six Super Bowl championship rings to Tampa in one of the most notable free agent signings in NFL history. Brady's move to the Buccaneers also prompted former Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and he was promptly traded to Tampa Bay for a fourth-round draft pick. Another former teammate of Brady's, albeit for just one game, arrived in late October when the Buccaneers signed WR Antonio Brown.

·    Tampa Bay debuted new uniforms in Week One in New Orleans. The uniforms are largely inspired by the ones the team wore during its Super Bowl era and overall from 1997 through 2013. Some elements of the uniforms introduced in 2014 remain, such as the sharper, more detailed skull-and-crossed-swords logo and the larger flag on the helmet (though not as large as before). The uniforms debuting in 2020 also include an all-pewter version that is completely unique in team and NFL history and was worn for the first time in Denver in Week Three.

·    The Buccaneers have two new additions to their coaching staff in 2020: Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Keith Tandy and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach Cory Bichey. Tandy worked at the high school and college levels in 2019, the latter at his alma mater of West Virginia, but he begins his NFL coaching career with the same team that drafted him in 2012. Tandy spent six seasons in Tampa as a safety and special teams standout before finishing his playing career in Atlanta in 2018. Bichey comes to the Buccaneers from Mississippi State University, where he previously worked under current Buccaneers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Anthony Piroli.

·    The Buccaneers used their franchise tag during the 2020 offseason for the first time in eight years. That tag was employed to retain outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who went from a rotational reserve in Denver to the NFL's 2019 sack leader after signing with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent. Barrett's 19.5 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers broke Warren Sapp's single-season franchise record and made him one of the team's top priorities in the offseason. Barrett and the Bucs were unable to reach agreement on a long-term deal during the 2020 offseason, in part due to the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so Barrett will play on the tag's one-year contract this fall.

·    The Buccaneers lost one of their key defensive players in Week Five when third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea suffered a broken leg and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Vea recorded 2.0 sacks through the first five games and was a key member of the team's league-leading run defense.

Vikings:

·    The Vikings broke up their extremely productive wide receiver duo in the offseason, trading wide receiver Stefon Diggs and a seventh-round draft pick to the Buffalo Bills for first, fourth (in 2021), fifth and sixth-round selections. Diggs had averaged 73 receptions for 925 yards and six touchdowns in his five seasons as a Viking. The Vikings used the first-rounder they got from Buffalo to draft Diggs' replacement, former LSU standout Justin Jefferson. So far, it seems to be working out well for both teams. Diggs is second in the NFL with 80 receptions while Jefferson leads the Vikings and is eighth in the NFL with 918 receiving yards.

·    The extra picks Minnesota gained in the Diggs trade and some other draft-weekend maneuvers led to the Vikings drafting a 15-player class, the most players ever selected by one team in a seven-round draft. Many of those newcomers have stepped directly into prominent roles. Other than the Diggs-Jefferson switch, the biggest change for the Vikings has been in the secondary, specifically at cornerback, where the team moved on from the veteran trio of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Alexander Mackensie, all of whom had been first or second-round draft picks by the team. Rhodes was released in March while the other two signed elsewhere as unrestricted free agents. Rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, chosen in the first and third rounds, respectively, are now the Vikings' starting cornerbacks.

·    The Vikings also do not have most of their starting defensive line from the previous season. Long-time Minnesota standout Everson Griffen was not asked to re-sign after becoming a free agent, defensive tackle Linval Joseph was let go in March and star edge rusher Danielle Hunter hasn't played this season due to a neck injury. The Vikings also traded for disgruntled Jaguars pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue just before the start of the season, but then subsequently shipped Ngakoue back out to the Ravens in another trade on October 22.

·    Minnesota had an opening at offensive coordinator after Kevin Stefanski, who had held that position for the past two seasons, was hired by the Browns as their new head coach in January. The Vikings responded by giving that job to Gary Kubiak, who had returned to the NFL after a two-year absence in 2019 to serve as Minnesota's assistant head coach and offensive advisor. The Vikings offense in 2020 has emphasized the running game and big plays in the passing attack, ranking fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per game and second in yards per pass play.

·    The Vikings also have a new defensive coordinator in 2020…or two of them, to be exact. The team did not re-sign George Edwards, who had been in that position since 2014, when his contract expired in January. Instead, the team promoted both assistant defensive line coach Andre Patterson and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer to serve as co-defensive coordinators. The Vikings also have a few newcomers to their coaching staff in 2020 in Defensive Backs Coach Daronte Jones and Assistant Offensive Line Coach Phil Rauscher.

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

TOP STORYLINES

Planting a Seed – As noted above, the Vikings' Week 14 trip to Tampa has become a much more significant one in the playoff race than could have been envisioned a month ago. In fact, it is the only game on the NFL's Week 14 schedule that pits two teams among the top seven NFC seeds against each other…or even two NFC teams with non-losing records. The Bucs and Vikings have virtually the same thing at stake on Sunday – either holding onto or taking away the sixth conference seed – but come at the game from different viewpoints. The Vikings want to continue their hot streak and prove that they are legitimate contenders after a 1-5 start. Only one of Minnesota's wins came against a team that currently has a winning record. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers saw a very comfortable 7-3 position get more tenuous with consecutive 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs and would like to start the four-game run to the finish line with a win that would keep them above the fray of teams around .500. If the Buccaneers win and improve to 8-5 they would stay in the sixth seed no matter what the 8-4 Seahawks and Rams do in Week 14, but they would also stay close enough to have a shot at eventually moving up to number five. If the Vikings win, they'll trade places with the Buccaneers in the standings and gain a valuable tiebreaker over Tampa Bay.

Cook or Take Out? – If Bucs-Vikings is one of the best playoff-race games of Week 14, then running back Dalvin Cook against the NFL's best run defense is one of the marquee matchups of the weekend. Cook leads the NFL with 113.6 rushing yards per game and 13 rushing touchdowns this season and is one of the few non-quarterbacks who has generated some MVP buzz. Cook is a tackle-breaker who can grind out a 100-yard game but also a home-run hitter who can score from long distance if he hits the open field. The Buccaneers' run defense rarely lets either of those things happen and is first in the NFL in yards allowed for the second year in a row at 74.2 per game. No individual player has recorded a 100-yard rushing game against the Buccaneers yet this season, but Cook has hit that mark in six of the 11 games in which he's played. Tampa Bay's defense has been able to take the league's top rushers out of the equation on a nearly weekly basis over the past two years; can they do the same to Cook, who is the key figure in an offense that runs the ball on nearly 50% of its plays.

Will Youth Be Served? – The Vikings are counting on a lot of rookies on both sides of the ball and have generally gotten pleasant results from those young players. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson has already topped 1,000 receiving yards and right guard Ezra Cleveland is part of the blocking wall that has helped Cook succeed. On defense, both starting corners are rookies in first-rounder Jeff Gladney and third-rounder Cameron Dantzler, and fourth-round linebacker Troy Dye has started three games as the SAM linebacker in the Vikings' 4-3 front. D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch, a pair of fourth-round selections, have combined for four sacks. Inexperience on defense may be contributing to the Vikings' lower-than-usual rankings on that side of the ball, including their placement of 26th in both pass defense and scoring defense. Still, Minnesota has needed all of its rookie contributions to fight back into playoff contention, and in particular the two young cornerbacks have been progressing steadily as the season has worn on. Tampa Bay actually took its roster in a different direction in 2020 with a handful of veteran additions, most notably 40-plus quarterback Tom Brady. However, they hit on two immediate and outstanding contributors on their first two picks with right tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. Winfield will get his first chance to play against the team for which his father played for half of his long NFL career, and both he and wide receiver Tyler Johnson played their college ball at the University of Minnesota.

Firing Out of the Gate – While Buccaneer players used the bye week to rest, relax, heal and rejuvenate mentally, the team's coaches remained hard at work breaking down everything that had transpired during the season's first 12 weeks. While there is much to be pleased with on both sides of the ball, one unfortunate recent trend had the coaches' attention as they headed into that bye-week self-evaluation – after starting quickly in many of their early-season games then Buccaneers have recently had significant first-quarter struggles on both sides of the ball. Said Head Coach Bruce Arians: "I think we had those answers going into it, and it's third downs, manageable third downs, on offense. Defensively, it's just matching the speed. We do a great job in the second half but we've got to do a better job of matching the speed, especially if the team is in tempo to start the ball games. And get off the field on third downs [on defense]." The Bucs fell behind in their Week 12 game against the Chiefs, 17-0, and in the end their comeback wasn't enough to avoid a three-point loss. Overall, Tampa Bay has been outscored by a 59-10 margin in the first quarters of their last five games, which includes three losses and one very narrow Monday night escape from the Giants. Given the Vikings' often dominant ground game, it will be imperative that the Bucs start fast and avoid a big early hole on Sunday.

In the Red – As Arians also noticed this week, the Minnesota defense, while not ranked high in many categories, has been very good at situational football, particularly on third downs and in the red zone. In fact, Minnesota's defense ranks third in the league in touchdown percentage allowed on red zone drives, at 51.22%. The Vikings are also second in goal-to-go situations, with a touchdown allowed rate of 55.56%. All things considered, this sets up a strength-on-strength matchup on Sunday because the Buccaneers' offense ranks sixth in red zone TD rate (71.11%) and fourth in goal-to-go TD rate (84.85%). The problem is, those outstanding percentages are built on the Bucs' near perfection in those areas through the first half of the season. After eight games, the Buccaneers had scored touchdowns on 24 of 31 red zone drives (77.4%) and had come away with some kind of points on all of them. Over the last four games, that TD rate has dropped to 57.1% and the Bucs suffered their first complete red zone failure. As for goal-to-go situations, Tampa Bay amazingly scored a touchdown on each of its first 22 tries, which extended through the eighth game. Over the last four weeks, they've only found the end zone on six of 11 goal-to-go drives. If the upcoming game against a strong opponent proves to be just as close as the last two, whichever side wins the red zone battle will likely come out with a slight edge in the end.

KEY MATCHUPS

1. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Vikings CB Cameron Dantzler

The Vikings parted ways with a trio of veteran cornerbacks over the offseason and then spent first and third-round picks on corners Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. Both Gladney and Dantzler took some lumps early on this season, as is the experience for almost all rookies trying to play one of the game's hardest positions in a league absolutely loaded with highly-talented pass-catchers. The two rookies have clearly progressed as the season has gone on, however, and now they get a test against one of the NFL's toughest wide receiver duos to contain, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. There could be any combination of those two players going one-on-one at various times Sunday, but Gladney is dealing with a calf injury and Dantzler, at 6-2, is a better size match for Evans than the 5-10 Gladney, so let's focus on Evans-vs.-Dantzler. The rookie corner out of Mississippi State got burned early in the season by some of the NFL's best players (Aaron Rodgers, DK Metcalf, Julio Jones) then suffered a scary-looking neck injury that caused him to miss some time. But he has played quite well since and is coming off his best game yet, with his first career interception and a key forced fumble in the Vikings narrow win over Jacksonville. Against Evans, he'll have several things to worry about, including the Bucs' receiver suddenly running past him down the sideline and the myriad ways Evans wins in the red zone. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Evans had 32 receptions on go routes from 2018 through Week 10 of this season, five more than any other player in the league. The Bucs' receiver also had 42 targets in the end zone in that span, seven more than any other player.

2. Vikings C Garrett Bradbury vs. Buccaneers DL Ndamukong Suh

In his second season, Garrett Bradbury has rapidly developed into one of the NFL's better centers after a difficult start to his rookie campaign. The 18th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, Bradbury is a very good run-blocker but he struggled early in pass protection. This year, he has improved significantly in that latter category and had not been credited with allowing a sack through the first half of the 2020 season. It is that run-blocking category that might be most important in this matchup, however, as the Vikings rely heavily on their ground game and the Buccaneers have been the NFL's best defense against the run for the past two seasons. Ndamukong Suh and the Tampa Bay defense will go into Sunday's game with the idea of slowing down Dalvin Cook right from the beginning so that they can more effectively come after Kirk Cousins with their pass rush. Suh and Bradbury might get some one-on-one battles, particularly when the Bucs are in their sub package with only two down linemen, and Bradbury will likely also be involved in some double-team blocks on Tampa Bay's powerful lineman. The 6-3, 305-pound Bradbury and the 6-4, 313-pound Suh match up well. Both are intelligent players and sound technicians who play with good leverage and continue fighting right up to the whistle. If the Buccaneers can contain Cook early and Suh gets to come after Cousins, Bradbury and company will have to deal with the interior lineman who has more QB pressures since the start of last season than every other player at his position except Aaron Donald and Casey Heyward, according to Next Gen Stats.

3. Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones vs. Vikings S Anthony Harris

The Vikings, who were already heavily invested in perennial Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith, put the franchise tag on Anthony Harris this offseason after his breakout 2019 campaign. Last year, Harris tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and was used mostly as a free safety to utilize his outstanding coverage skills. This year, Harris, a sure tackler too, is making more of an impact in run defense; after recording 33 tackles on run plays in 2019 he already has 41 this year with four games left to play. Not only will Harris be involved in trying to contain Bucs RB Ronald Jones, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher, around the line of scrimmage but he could be the last line of defense on the plays when Jones manages to break through the first line of defense or catches a pass in space. Jones has done that frequently lately, most recently with a 34-yard run and a 37-yard touchdown catch against Kansas City in Week 12. The Buccaneers are likely to make an effort to get Jones going early on Sunday, as Head Coach Bruce Arians says that the third-year back is "where we start" on offense and that he wants to get him 20 touches a game down the stretch. Jones is averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season, which would be a new Buccaneer record if maintained, and while he's had his ups and downs as a pass-catcher he showed what he can do in Week 12 when Brady got him the ball with room to run. Jones said earlier in the week that he feels great coming out of the bye week and is ready to handle a heavy load during the playoff stretch run.

4. Vikings WR Adam Thielen vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis

Rookie wideout Justin Jefferson has been a revelation for the Vikings, replacing Stefon Diggs and racking up a team-high 61 catches for 1,039 yards and seven touchdowns, with a 17.0 yards-per-reception average. But Bruce Arians noted earlier in the week that veteran wideout Adam Thielen is "really the go-to guy" for the Vikings, and it is Thielen who leads the team and ranks second in the NFL with 12 touchdown catches. Minnesota has increasingly used Thielen out wide rather than in the slot, where he used to get about half of his snaps, and he more often lines up on the right side of the offense. Thielen runs a lot of out-breaking routes and also works his way up the sideline frequently. Carlton Davis, the Bucs' top corner, has more often worked on the left side of the Bucs' defense, which should put him up against Thielen frequently on Sunday. Davis has good size and has the ability to match receivers' routes with tight coverage for a full 60 minutes, but Thielen is also adapt at winning low-percentage battles on contested catches, and that's particularly true around the end zone. Davis is tied for the NFL lead with 16 passes defensed and has broken up more passes than any other player since the start of last season. After the Chiefs built a big early lead on the Bucs in Week 12 with a series of big plays, Davis and his fellow defensive backs will be looking to make sure Thielen and company don't hit any home runs early in Sunday's game.

INJURY REPORT

Key:

DNP: Did not participate in practice

LP: Limited participation in practice

FP: Full participation in practice

NL: Not listed

Buccaneers:

· LB Lavonte David (not injury related) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· CB Jamel Dean (groin) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Doubtful.

· WR Mike Evans (hamstring) – WEDS: LP; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· WR Chris Godwin (finger) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· TE Rob Gronkowski (finger) – WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· DL Steve McLendon (elbow) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.

· T Donovan Smith (ankle) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· DL Ndamukong Suh (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.

Vikings:

· C Garrett Bradbury (abdomen) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

· G Ezra Cleveland (ankle) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

· CB Jeff Gladney (calf) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

· C Brett Jones (neck) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP

· LB Eric Kendricks (calf) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

· RB Alexander Mattison (illness) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

· T Riley Reiff (ankle) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

· TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP

· TE Irv Smith (back) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP

· DE D.J. Wonnum (ankle/back) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP

WEATHER FORECAST

Partly cloudy, high of 79, low of 64, 15% chance of rain, 76% humidity, winds out of the SSW at 5-10 mph.

GAME REFEREE

Head referee: Brad Allen (7 seasons, 7 as referee)

BETTING LINE

· Favorite: Buccaneers (-6.5)

· Over/Under: 52.5

INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS

Buccaneers-

Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 102

Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 11

Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 3,300

Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 95.1

Rushing Yards: RB Ronald Jones, 820

Receptions: WR Chris Godwin, 49

Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 613

Interceptions: CB Carlton Davis, 4

Sacks: OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, 8.5

Tackles: ILB Devin White, 109

Vikings-

Points Scored: RB Dalvin Cook, 90

Touchdowns: RB Dalvin Cook, 14

Passing Yards: QB Kirk Cousins, 3,073

Passer Rating: QB Kirk Cousins, 103.9

Rushing Yards: RB Dalvin Cook, 1,250

Receptions: WR Justin Jefferson, 61

Receiving Yards: WR Justin Jefferson, 1,039

Interceptions: S Harrison Smith, 4

Sacks: DE Yannick Ngakoue*, 5.0

Tackles: LB Eric Kendricks, 107

(* Ngakoue is no longer with the Vikings.)

TEAM STAT RANKINGS

Buccaneers-

Scoring Offense: 6th (28.7 ppg)

Total Offense: 18th (362.8 ypg)

Passing Offense: 10th (266.4 ypg)

Rushing Offense: 27th (96.3 ypg)

First Downs Per Game: t-16th (21.8)

Third-Down Pct.: t-13th (43.0%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 2nd (3.37%)

Red Zone TD Pct.: 6th (71.1%)

Scoring Defense: 11th (23.3 ppg)

Total Defense: 7th (329.9 ypg)

Passing Defense: 22nd (255.8 ypg)

Rushing Defense: 1st (74.2 ypg)

First Downs Allowed Per Game: 5th (19.3)

Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 16th (41.7%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 9th (7.46%)

Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 19th (63.2%)

Turnover Margin: t-9th (+4)

Vikings-

Scoring Offense: 12th (26.6 ppg)

Total Offense: 4th (389.8 ypg)

Passing Offense: 16th (244.2 ypg)

Rushing Offense: 6th (145.7 ypg)

First Downs Per Game: 12th (22.8)

Third-Down Pct.: 8th (43.6%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 22nd (6.89%)

Red Zone TD Pct.: 3rd (75.0%)

Scoring Defense: 25th (27.4 ppg)

Total Defense: 23rd (382.7 ypg)

Passing Defense: t-26th (261.7 ypg)

Rushing Defense: 19th (121.0 ypg)

First Downs Allowed Per Game: 21st (22.4)

Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 6th (36.4%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 25th (4.79%)

Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 3rd (51.2%)

Turnover Margin: t-23rd (-4)

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

·    WR Mike Evans has 11 touchdown receptions in 2020 after scoring twice against Kansas City just before the bye week. That is only one shy of his own team record in that category, which he set at 12 as a rookie in 2014 and then matched in 2016. Evans also needs just two more touchdowns of any kind to tie the team record of 13 that James Wilder set in 1984.

·    CB Carlton Davis has a team-high four interceptions this season. If he gets one more he'll be the first Buccaneer with a five-interception season since Lavonte David in 2013.

·    TE Cameron Brate hauled in his 29th career touchdown pass in the Bucs' Week 10 win over Carolina, putting him in fourth place on the Bucs' all-time list in that category. Two more would pull him even with the man in third place, former WR Kevin House, who had 31 scoring grabs as a Buccaneer.

·    QB Tom Brady has 28 touchdown passes in 2020, matching Jameis Winston's total from 2016 for the second-most in a season in team history. Brady needs five more to tie Winston's team record of 33, set just last year.

·    Barrett notched his sixth sack of the season in Week 12 against Kansas City and now has 25.5 sacks as a Buccaneer. Though he is only in his second season with the team, Barrett needs just one more sack to tie Broderick Thomas (26.5 from 1989-93) for the 10th-most sacks in franchise history.

NOTABLY QUOTABLE

·    Head Coach Bruce Arians on WR Mike Evans playing through injuries and possibly not hitting some statistical milestones: "Mike is all about winning. I've been around a lot of great receivers – can't say I've ever been around one as unselfish as he is. He just wants to win. Obviously, he's played really hurt. A couple ballgames, he had no business being out there, but I couldn't get him off the field. I had to fight him to get him off the field. He and Chris [Godwin], they set a tempo in that room that's just great for young players to watch and learn from."

·    Tight end Rob Gronkowski on playing meaningful games in December: "December football is always huge, no matter what the situation is. You're always playing for something – I believe big time – if you are a playoff team, if you're not a playoff team. I would say the only time when it really doesn't matter is when the seeding is truly set, which that's definitely not the case at all. These games are crucial. These games are playoff games, big time. If we want to get to the playoffs, we've got to win these games. We've got to win this week and it just starts with one game at a time and it starts with one day at a time. You can't look ahead of yourself. We've got to have good practices. We've got to know what we're doing. We've got to prepare well. It's basically playoffs every single week right now."

·    Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. on playing against the team he grew up around as his father played nine seasons for the Vikings: "I was talking to my dad last night – we were watching film together – and I was like, 'Isn't it crazy that I'm playing against the Vikings?' We laughed about it. I grew up a Vikings fan, watching my dad play up there. I've always loved the Vikings. I watched pretty much all of their games when I was growing up, so it's going to be a cool experience being able to play against one of my favorite teams."

·    Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote on the attitude the Bucs' defense needs to adopt for the playoff run after dropping to 7-5: "I shared with my guys that my first Super Bowl, we were 7-2 and lost three in a row. We just had to wipe the board clean and just figure out a way to get in the playoffs. We're at that same point [now]. Each game is a playoff. What happened in September and October, what happened last week – it [doesn't mean anything]. You're trying to get a ticket to the dance. Whoever believes and whoever is executing, they're going to be the Super Bowl champions. They don't care about your record. I know Tom Brady can speak to that – they were undefeated and lost in the Super Bowl. It's just any given Sunday. But, most importantly, you've got to get a ticket to the dance."

·    Running back Ronald Jones on Vikings running back Dalvin Cook: "Obviously, he's a top-two rusher right now. I think, with him, it's the vision and his footwork is really good. I definitely watch his film and things like that. I'm always looking to add things to my game. He's definitely one of the top dogs at the position right now."

·    Arians on the Vikings' defense being good in situational football, such as third downs and red zone: "Its huge. They've done a good job on third down, getting teams in a little bit longer situations. They've got a great blitz package; Mike Zimmer is one of the best there is [and] one of the guys I respect the most in this business. They have a heck of a third-down package and they know what they're doing in the red zone. We played them a couple times in Arizona and they're very, very solid. They know what they're doing [and] there's not really anything you're going to show them formationally that they don't know what to do."

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