Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings
8 p.m. ET, NFL Network
You know your team is running on all cylinders when your quarterback passes for 58 yards, you win a game, and you're not in the SEC. That happened to the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, when they beat the Arizona Cardinals, 21-14, despite the rather pedestrian stat line from second-year quarterback Christian Ponder -- eight completions in 17 attempts for 58 yards, one touchdown, and two picks. The Vikings were able to come up on top anyway because Adrian Peterson ran for a season-high 153 yards, and a very underrated Minnesota defense continued a new stranglehold on its opponents.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota's opponent for "Thursday Night Football," the 5-2 Vikings may have to take a different tack.
When the Vikings have the ball
The 2-4 Bucs have issues at several positions, but they might have the NFL's best run defense. Per Football Outsiders' metrics, Tampa Bay is allowing just 2.7 Adjusted Line Yards per carry, creating negative or no-gain plays on 29 percent of the run snaps against them, and they have one of the stingiest defenses against rushers at the second level. Peterson is obviously better than your average back, but he might get bottled up more than he's used to.
The Vikings are taking the Alex Smith approach with Ponder, focusing on game management at the expense of splash plays, which makes the emergence of receiver Percy Harvin as a legitimate MVP candidate all the more remarkable. Harvin, who can line up and torch a defense at any conceivable position, is averaging 8.2 yards after catch this season, the second-highest YAC figure in the NFL among receivers behind Cincinnati's Andrew Hawkins. It's the nature of the speed slot receiver to gain yards after the catch, but Harvin has proven his versatility beyond the confines of that specific designation.
If Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave wanted to take the training wheels off their passing game, this would be a great opportunity. The Bucs currently rank 20th in FO's opponent-adjusted pass defense stats (opponent-adjusted, which is why they weren't busted down further for allowing four touchdowns and over 300 yards in the first half to Drew Brees last Sunday), and though they're actually effective against No. 1 receivers, you can throw that out the window, because Harvin will test everyone in their secondary.
One key matchup to watch is Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who's second on the team in receptions behind Harvin, and a Bucs defense that tends to slide against tight ends. Secondary depth issues have that defense looking exceptionally vulnerable against second and third receivers as well, so keep that in mind for fantasy purposes.
When the Bucs have the ball
Tampa Bay's offense runs a bit differently. While Ponder is averaging 6.6 yards per attempt and 5.8 yards after catch per play, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is slinging it around far more freely -- he's averaging 8.3 yards per attempt and 6.0 yards after catch. Freeman's average pass length 9.43 in a different stratosphere than Ponder's 6.01.
Of course, Freeman's stats were inflated by the 95-yard pass to Vincent Jackson against the Saints (almost all of which came after the catch) and ultimately negated by the fact that the Bucs didn't score on that drive despite a first-and-goal. Three unsuccessful rushing attempts and a failed scramble showed that first-year head coach Greg Schiano's vow to play with more power and a greater attention to fundamentals doesn't always click. And that could be a real problem against a Minnesota front seven that is about far more than Jared Allen. Going back to that Football Outsiders defensive line stat sheet, we see that the Vikings' ability to clamp down on the run is almost as impressive as Tampa Bay's. Thus, the onus will be on Freeman to make plays in the passing game.
Several surprise players will do their best to thwart Freeman's efforts. Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield has been playing at a very high level all season, allowing no touchdowns and just 24 catches on 41 targets, and if you throw away from Winfield, Chris Cook provides his own set of problems. The Vikings did a great job shoring up their issues against multi-receiver sets in the 2012 NFL draft, selecting Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith and UCF slot cornerback Josh Robinson and seeing both rookies make significant contributions right away.
It's not often you see a serious change in pass defense efficiency with a couple of draft picks and a rebound year from a veteran, but the Vikings were dead last in FO's numbers last season, and they currently rank 15th. Minnesota's opponents have compensated by throwing a high number of passes to tight ends and running backs, which could be good news for you Doug Martin and Dallas Clark fans out there.
How it could go: This is a real statement game for the Vikings. If they pull off the Thursday night win and end the first half of their season at 6-2, they'll have time for a small celebration before diving into a brutal second half when they face the Seattle Seahawks (in Seattle), Chicago Bears (twice), Green Bay Packers (twice) and Houston Texas. The Bucs are just trying to salvage any hope of a possible playoff berth, but I tend to think that the things that have tripped them up before make them particularly vulnerable to this Vikings team. I don't see a rout, but I do have the Vikings taking this one pretty comfortably.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Buccaneers 14