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Spotlight Game: Buccaneers vs Vikings, Vol. 1.2

Apparently (much to my chagrin), TBS chose this week to stop broadcasting six hours of The Office reruns. Disappointed, I began my dissection of the Tampa Bay – Minnesota game earlier than expected. I was surprised by what I saw.

This game was really a tale of two halves. Let’s briefly recap the opening half. Following their embarrassing performance in week one against the Chargers, the Viking offense asserted itself in the first half against Tampa Bay. Despite punting on their first possession, the Vikings scored on their next three to go ahead 17-0. Four possessions, 274 yards, 17 points; not a bad start for an offense many had written off after one bad game. The Viking defense was equally effective, limiting the Buccaneers to only three first downs scattered throughout the first half. Only one of Tampa Bay’s first half drives exceeded 15 yards. LeGarrette Blount was bottled up to the tune of five carries for four yards and quarterback Josh Freeman was under heavy pressure from the Minnesota defense, most notably, Jared Allen.

If you were watching this game live, it’s safe to say you’d have been comfortable betting your wife a weeks worth of dishes and laundry that the Vikings would win. …And you’d be doing the dishes and laundry for a week, because the script completely flipped in the second half. And it flipped on three plays.

Play 1: Up 17-0 with the ball to start the 3rd quarter, Minnesota could have crushed the Bucs’ comeback hopes with a long scoring drive. After a holding penalty nullified a first down, the Vikings found themselves facing a 3rd and 18 instead of 1st and 10. They wound up punting. Three and out. You could almost feel the Metrodome deflate. The Vikings needed a decent drive out of halftime to stir up that first half momentum and get the crowd going after the break. Instead, the Buccaneers took advantage, scoring only two plays after the punt.

Play 2: With some momentum now on their side, the Buccaneers got greedy for more and executed an onside kick to perfection on the ensuing kickoff. Freeman would lead the Bucs down to Minnesota’s 12 before throwing a devastating interception. While the drive didn’t result in points, it was effective in that it kept Minnesota’s offense off the field for an extended period. That time clearly hurt Minnesota as they went three and out and looked completely out of sync. More importantly, the onside kick caught Minnesota off guard. Like a boxer stumbling back to his corner, the Vikings were woozy and never fully recovered.

Play 3: On 3rd and 17 on the Bucs next drive, Earnest Graham fumbled. Minnesota recovered and returned the fumble to the Tampa Bay 12. But, yet again, a penalty would haunt Minnesota. This time it was an offside call. The Buccaneers retained possession and converted on 3rd and 12 with a 51 yard pass to Preston Parker that ultimately led to a Tampa Bay field goal. Although Donovan McNabb and Minnesota responded with a 12 play, 69 yard, field goal drive, the Buccaneer offense was already dialed in and virtually unstoppable. They’d eventually score touchdowns on their final two possessions en route to overcoming a 17-0 halftime deficit to win 24-20.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a game of two halves. The Buccaneers first five possessions totaled 55 yards and led to four punts. Their final five possessions totaled 278 yards and led to three touchdowns and a field goal. Conversely, the Vikings first four drives totaled 274 yards and resulted in two touchdowns and a field goal. Their final five drives totaled 117 yards and led to three punts and a field goal.

While it may seem like the easiest thing to do, blaming McNabb for this loss would be unfair. McNabb and the Viking offense were good enough to hand the defense a 10 point lead with 9:41 remaining in the 4th quarter. It was Minnesota’s defense that couldn’t get a stop when it mattered.

Did McNabb have a perfect day? Of course not. By my count, he bounced two throws short of his receiver, one of which resulted in a field goal as opposed to a touchdown. He also badly overthrew receivers on several occasions. Most importantly, he failed to close out the victory with an extended drive after getting the ball with 6:39 left in the game and nursing a three point lead.

Still, he moved the offense efficiently throughout the day. He made a few plays with his legs and several more through the air. In fact, McNabb doesn’t look any slower than he did when he took the Eagles to the NFC Championship game in 2009. It’s all confidence with McNabb right now. He looks tentative and unsure of himself, and his play reflects that insecurity.

Josh Freeman is the complete opposite. Freeman and the Bucs were horrendous in the opening half. Yet, Freeman didn’t shy away from the 17 point hole. He kept grinding. Even after the interception, Freeman came back confident and composed.

The Vikings performed well in the first half. The Buccaneers played even better in the second. As a result, the Vikings sit alone in the NFC North basement at 0-2 while Tampa Bay is in the thick of the NFC South at 1-1.

Other Insight

  • In additional to their resiliency, the Buccaneers were able to climb back into the game because of big plays. On Tampa’s first scoring drive of only two plays, it was LeGarrette Blount’s 27 yard touchdown dash. On their second scoring drive, it was a 51 yard pass that led to a field goal. Both plays led to points while also doing minimal damage to the game clock – a key factor that allowed Tampa enough time to complete the comeback and win.
  • I’ve watched Donovan McNabb on a weekly basis for over a decade. He’s at his best when he’s rolling to his right or dropping back in play-action. If you make him think too long, he tries to make every pass too perfect – thus the worm burners and scuttle balls. With Adrian Peterson in the backfield, 30-40% of McNabb’s passes should come from play-action.
  • While we’re on McNabb, 30+ attempts are too many for him, especially on this team. His attempts should be 20-25, at most. With Peterson, backup running back Toby Gerhart, and Percy Harvin, the Vikings have three solid options to run the ball. (I know Harvin is a receiver, but he’s equally as dangerous in the backfield. Besides, Minnesota should always be looking to get him more involved.) On Sunday, the Vikings rushed 29 times and looked to pass about 36. Minnesota should aim for a 60/40 split with the running game as the focus. They don’t need to wear down Peterson to do so, either. Gerhart is one of the better backups in the NFL. His physical, downhill style will tire defenses and compliment Peterson well. It may sound weird, but the less the Vikings rely on McNabb, the more he’ll give them.

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