The Tampa Bay Buccaneers overcame a slow start and an early six-point deficit to defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 26-14, on Sunday, during one stretch scoring 23 unanswered points. They were able to do so by turning away repeated scoring threats with big plays on third down, plus something of an assistant from struggling Vikings kicker Dan Bailey.
So the Buccaneers won that critical playoff-race showdown because they were able to repeatedly keep the Vikings out of the end zone. But in a more general sense, their efforts were successful and the final margin fairly comfortable because they successfully defended two pieces of territory. On offense, the backfield. On defense, the back end.
The Buccaneers' 303 net yards was their third-lowest total of the season but the offense was efficient, averaging 6.2 yards per play, a full half-yard better than their season average. In particular, the passing attack made big plays and avoided big mistakes. The team's average of 8.5 yards per pass play was its highest in any game this season. And that's because quarterback Tom Brady was given plenty of time to operate. For the fifth time this season, he wasn't sacked and he only took three hits in the entire game. Brady completed 15 of 23 passes and the Buccaneers did not commit a single turnover.
As the Buccaneers head into the final three-game stretch in pursuit of a playoff spot they can lean on an offensive line that has not only been good this year but appears to be picking up steam in the second half. Brady has only been sacked three times in the last four games combined.
"They've been good – knock on wood – when they're healthy, we're good and those guys have been great," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Just the dependability of all five of those guys being here every single week has been fantastic."
The Buccaneers have had only one of their regular five linemen miss a start, as left guard Ali Marpet was out three weeks due to a concussion, though left tackle Donovan Smith had to really grit his way through a sprained ankle in Week 12. Four of those five starters are also incumbents from last year, which puts the spotlight on the one newcomer, first-round rookie Tristan Wirfs. The Buccaneers traded up to the 13th pick in April to land the Iowa star and have been thrilled with the results. Wirfs has made a good group even better.
"He's playing at a Pro Bowl level and that's what we anticipated," said Arians. "He's doing it week-in and week-out, so that's kind of what I expect every week now. We had the one pre-snap penalty [on Sunday] or we would have had another no-turnover, no-penalty, no-sack game. The offensive line got game balls – they had a great, great day. The only pressures really came from the tight ends."
Overall, the Buccaneers now rank third in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play, at 3.2%. If maintained, that would be the second-lowest single-season percentage in franchise history, after the 1979 team posted a mark of 2.7%. Rookie tackles, even those with lofty draft pedigrees, can often struggle in pass protection early in their careers simply because the edge rushers in the NFL are so good, collectively. But Wirfs has proved to be anything but a weak link in the effort to keep Brady upright.
"I think he's always been a really good run blocker – even in college his run blocking was outstanding – but his pass blocking ability is amazing for a young guy as big as he is [and] as athletic as he is," said Arians. "He's going against top guys every week, so I think that's the more surprising thing – how well he's pass blocking."
While the Bucs' blockers were giving Brady time to get the ball downfield, the Tampa Bay defense was keeping the Vikings' usual offensive approach from working. Minnesota has one of the NFL's top five rushing attacks with Dalvin Cook and plays off that in the passing game to hit big plays to the wideout duo of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Quarterback Kirk Cousins came into the game with an average of 8.5 yards per pass attempt and 12.8 yards per completion, both of which were second in the NFL only to Houston's Deshaun Watson. Against the Bucs on Sunday, he averaged 6.1 yards per attempt and 9.4 yards per completion.
The Bucs were determined not to get burned by big plays from Thielen or Jefferson, the latter of whom was averaging 17.0 yards per catch, and they succeeded.
"One of our major goals was to not let Thielen or Jefferson get over the top – I think they had a combined 80 [receiving] yards," said Arians. "[Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles] mixed his coverages really, really well. We kept safeties back there in different forms and we played some man, too. We're not going to let those guys go over the top and did a great job of keeping them in front of us."
Because the Bucs also sacked Cousins six times for a total of 52 yards lost, the Vikings actually only produced 4.0 yards per pass play, the second-lowest average for any Tampa Bay opponent this year behind Green Bay. Jefferson and Thielen combined for 78 yards on seven catches and neither had a play longer than 17 yards. After the game, Shaquil Barrett, who had two of those six sacks, praised the secondary for providing the tight coverage that made Cousins hold onto the ball. It was one of the best examples of the rush and coverage complementing each other for the Buccaneers' defense this season.
And it helped accomplish one of the team's two main goals on Sunday: Keep the Vikings out of the backfield and out of the back end of the defense.