At long last, football is finally here, ladies and gentlemen.
Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings return most of their offensive starters, including all five starting offensive linemen, who ranked top-ten in both points scored and yards gained. On the other side, Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense return eight of their 11 starters from last year’s defense that ranked top ten in yards allowed.
In this exercise, we discuss some of the keys to victory for the Vikings and how the Minnesota offense can move the ball against this aggressive Tampa Bay defense.
Establishing the run early
There are some fundamentals of football that don’t go away, no matter how much the game evolves. If a team can establish the run early, the defense will be off-balance and opens the playbook for the offense.
The front seven of the Buccaneers has remained virtually the same for the last few years. Devin White and Lavonte David solidify the middle of the defense behind nose tackle Vita Vea, while Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Shaquil Barrett set the edge on the outside. Safety Antoine Whitfield will come down and fill in any extra run fits. This continuity has led to the Bucs being one of the more stout run defenses in the NFL.
However, if teams are able to stay with the run game and force the Bucs to respect it, they have issues. Last season, when teams stuck to the run game and put up 25 or more attempts, the Bucs were 3-8. In those 11 games, Tampa Bay allowed 4.85 yards per carry.
This defensive front wants to make you throw the football. Tampa constructed this front seven to force offenses into third and longs, pin their ears back and make life hell for your quarterback.
If the Vikings can continue to feed Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler the ball early and often, that will force this aggressive Tampa Bay defense to hesitate. That hesitation opens up windows over the middle of the field and allows for an extra half a second for Kirk to find a receiver or for a lineman to open a hole.
Get Justin Jefferson involved quickly
Kupp ended that game with nine receptions on 11 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Sean McVay and O’Connell got Kupp the ball in many ways. Behind the line of scrimmage, outside the numbers, on crossing routes. The Rams ensured that Kupp had the ball and was a consistent threat to the Bucs defense.
This entire off-season, Justin Jefferson has become not only the face of the Vikings but for the NFL. His ability is unmatched. He was labeled one of the most dominant players in the NFL at his position and in the league.
Justin Jefferson having the ball in his hands should be priority number one, especially in key situations. When that 2021 Super Bowl-winning Rams team needed to get into field goal range, guess who they drew a play-up for? Cooper Kupp. When they needed those last few yards to get into the end zone in said Super Bowl, who was the primary target? Cooper Kupp.
Jefferson is an elite talent. His presence on the field demands a double team from the defense, which lends an opportunity to the other pass-catchers like newly-paid T.J. Hockenson, K.J. Osborn or rookie Jordan Addison. Getting him the ball early and reminding the Tampa Bay defense how much of a problem Jefferson can be should be priority number one.
Offensive line preparedness
The Buccaneers sent blitzes on 181 dropbacks in 2022. That was good for 8th most in the NFL. On those blitzes, they allowed only 4.2 yards per play. That was good for 2nd in the NFL, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles.
In an interview with Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, Todd Bowles states “the best pass coverage is a pass rush.” As a former DB, Bowles looks to help his secondary as much as possible. Sometimes, that means sending that extra blitzer in the middle or off the edge. Whatever it takes to cause a quarterback to be uncomfortable and throw off his rhythm.
The Vikings bring back their starting five up front that was 11th-worst in yards per play against the blitz last season. The hope is that the continuity will allow this offensive line to take that necessary next step towards being a solid unit. Despite being top-ten in pressure percentage at the end of the year, they showed marginal improvement. From weeks one through eight, they were the 4th-worst in pressure percentage. From that point to the end of the season, they were 14th.
This Buccaneers team will be sending pressure often, which makes it better that this offensive line already has some time with each other. They will need to communicate effectively to keep Kirk upright so that he can get the ball to his vast array of playmakers.
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