The surprising Minnesota Vikings (5-2) find themselves just one-half game behind the Bears while in second place in the NFC North, but they will not have an easy time of it Thursday night vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4), as the Bucs have played very well in their two games since their bye week, even outgaining the New Orleans Saints by 55 yards in a 35-28 loss on Sunday.
In fact, we are looking for that improved offense and a very good rushing defense to lead Tampa Bay to an outright upset as a 6½-point underdog, and here are three reasons why.
1. Tampa Bay’s third ranked run defense contains Adrian Peterson: A key reason for the Vikings’ success has been how unbelievably fast Adrian Peterson has recovered from his torn ACL, as he now looks like his usual great self, and that has allowed second year quarterback Christian Ponder to put up good passing numbers while playing within the Minnesota system stressing the run. Well, Tampa Bay Coach Greg Schiano was always adept at stopping the run with Rutgers and that is a trait he had brought with him to the NFL, as the Buccaneers rank third in rushing defense allowing only 77.1 rushing yards per game on a miniscule 3.1 yards per carry, Look for Tampa Bay to put the clamps on Peterson here, and like most young quarterbacks, Ponder has not been nearly as effective in obvious passing situations. The Bucs’ rushing defense is so good that it held the then NFL rushing leader in Jamaal Charles to only 40 rushing yards two weeks ago before limiting the Saints to 81 yards on 26 carries (3.1 YPC).
2. Josh Freeman attacks Minnesota secondary: The Tampa Bay offense was one of the worst in the NFL before the bye week, but in the two games since them, Freeman has passed for 328 yards against the Chiefs and 420 yards against the Saints! Freeman has had great pass protection, getting sacked just once in each of those games, and if the Tampa Bay offensive line can again hold up to a very good Minnesota pass rush, then Freeman can be successful yet again. Yes, the Vikings are tied for second in the NFL with their 22 sacks, but the Bucs have only allowed nine sacks and their offensive line has gotten better as the season has gone on, as evidenced not only by Freeman’s reduced sack totals lately but also by the improvement of the Tampa Bay running game.
3. The continued development of Doug Martin: Speaking of that running game, the rookie Martin was a disappointment before the bye, but he has helped give the offense some nice balance afterwards, first by rushing for 76 yards on only 13 carries vs. Kansas City and then by rushing for 85 yards on 16 carries against New Orleans. Martin may see an increased workload here if Freeman can pass the Buccaneers to a lead, and also keep in mind that Martin is a good receiver out of the backfield, and that versatility was a key reason why the Buccaneers drafted him to supplant LeGarrette Blount as the starting running back.