Vikings will be tested by stout Bucs run 'D'
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings, for better or worse, were forced to quickly move on from Sunday's victory against the Arizona Cardinals.
Minnesota will make a rare appearance on national TV, playing in its first Thursday night game since the 2010 regular-season opener. Thursday's game is the only pre-scheduled national TV appearance for the Vikings (5-2), who had just three days of preparation for Thursday's home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4).
Here are five things to watch as Minnesota hosts Tampa Bay:
1. Continued home dominance.
Two trends are certainly working in the Vikings' favor on Thursday. Minnesota has stressed the importance of winning home games all season long, and is 4-0 at home this season. Going to 5-0, and starting 6-2 overall, would be important with the Vikings having to deal with a tough late-season schedule. While Minnesota's long sellout streak at the Metrodome ended with the season opener this year, the team is certainly drawing motivation from being at home, and Sunday's win against the Cardinals drew the biggest crowd of the season.
Meanwhile, home teams in general have enjoyed the Thursday night games in recent seasons. Since the regular Thursday Night Football games began in 2006, home teams are 35-20, excluding the regular-season openers where teams have months to prepare. Playing in-season Thursday games, with three days to prepare and a plane ride in addition, has been tough for road teams. This season, road teams are 1-5 — excluding the season-opener where the Dallas Cowboys went on the road to beat the New York Giants — as the league has adopted a full 17-week Thursday schedule. Only the Giants have won on the road, beating Carolina 36-7 in Week 3. Going back to 2010, home teams have won 18 of the past 26 Thursday games. The Vikings know they're fortuitous schedule and are hoping both trends continue.
2. Strength against strength.
Last week, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson had his best performance of the season against a previously tough Arizona run defense. Peterson, getting stronger as the year goes on after knee surgery, played through ankle pain again and had 23 carries for 153 yards. More importantly, the Vikings wanted Peterson to shoulder the load for the offense and are ready to let him do so the remainder of the season. Even with the passing game struggling to its season low last week, Peterson controlled the game with several big runs.
This week, Tampa Bay brings in the league's third-ranked run-defense. Buccaneers' opponents have run for just 76 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Minnesota owns the league's seventh-best rushing attack with an average of 132.3 yards per game and 4.5 yards per rush. Peterson is tied for third in the league with 652 rushing yards and his 4.8 yards per carry average is equal to his career average. Perhaps the only part of Peterson's game missing right now would be one of his trademark explosive 50-plus-yard touchdown runs. The Buccaneers present a challenge, with rookie defenders Lavonte David and Mark Barron ranking first and third on the team, respectively, in tackles, but expect a motivated Peterson on national TV ready to carry Minnesota's offense.
3. A sign of growth for Christian Ponder.
Conversely, as good as Tampa Bay's defense has done against the run, the pass defense is one reason its sitting at 2-4. The Buccaneers rank 31st against the pass, allowing 322 yards per game with a 66.1 completion percentage. They do have nine interceptions but just eight sacks in six games, and troubled cornerback Aqib Talib, perhaps Tampa Bay's top cover corner, is serving a four-game suspension and will miss Thursday's game. Last week, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees passed for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone.
But otherwise, Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder might have the chance to put last week's bad game behind him and prove he has made progress from last season. Ponder started out well last year during his rookie season as well, but struggled down the stretch as mistakes compounded. After throwing two interceptions each of the past three games, Ponder has to show he won't follow the same path again. If Peterson gets bottled up by the Buccanneers, Ponder must respond. Receiver Percy Harvin has been the mainstay in the passing game, but Ponder needs to get receiver Jerome Simpson more involved down the field. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was held without a catch last week as Ponder struggled.
4. Shutting down the opposition's top threat.
Minnesota's defense has allowed the sixth-fewest points (18.7) and ninth-fewest yards (319.7) per game this season and a lot of the success has to do with shutting down the opposition's top offensive threat in victories. The Vikings have succeeded in limiting the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, Calvin Johnson, Chris Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald this year. Jones-Drew, Gore and Chris Johnson totaled 164 rushing yards against Minnesota. Calvin Johnson caught five passes for 54 yards and Fitzgerald had four catches for just 29 yards last week.
Much of the success against Calvin Johnson and Fitzgerald was team defense, relying on pressure from the defensive line and quality play in the secondary from cornerbacks Chris Cook, who was responsible for jamming Johnson and Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage, and Antoine Winfield and the support of safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford. Receiver Vincent Jackson is likely the Vikings' top focus this week. He has 27 catches for 586 yards and five touchdowns. He's scored four touchdowns in the past three games and is coming off a 216-yard game against New Orleans. He's another big-body receiver, who will likely be jammed at the line by Cook and defensed in many of the same ways as Johnson and Fitzgerald.
5. Worry about a possible victory formation.
If Minnesota can earn the right to kneel down and run out the clock late in the game, the players better watch their legs. Earlier this year, the Buccaneers famously fired at the legs of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning while he tried to kneel down and run out the clock in the victory formation.
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano caught a lot of criticism for the aggressive call, which some thought was a cheap shot. He also hasn't backed away and said he would do it again. He said the play has worked before, such as when he coached at Rutgers. With health such a key issue, especially during the short week, expect everyone to be on high alert if Ponder is allowed to kneel in the victory formation on Thursday, something he's been lucky enough to do once this season.
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