It was a tale of two halves Sunday afternoon for Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers managed to take care of business in the one 30-minute segment that matters most and pull off a come-from-behind 24-20 victory in Minnesota.
Down 17-0 heading into halftime, Tampa Bay reappeared from the locker room like a completely different football team compared to the one that was outgained 284-62 in total yardage and outperformed all over the field.
Running back LeGarrette Blount, again nonexistent early, capped the Bucs’ second-half transformation with his 4-yard touchdown run and only 35 seconds left on the clock. The score came on the ninth play of Tampa Bay’s game-winning, 61-yard drive that marked the eighth fourth-quarter comeback victory for quarterback Josh Freeman.
After Minnesota’s last-ditch effort of laterals between WR Percy Harvin and RB Adrian Peterson failed, the Buccaneers found themselves walking off the Mall of America Field turf with an evened 1-1 record and heightened spirits heading back to Tampa Bay.
Those postgame feelings were quite different two quarters prior.
Nearly every must-do aspect of the Bucs’ game plan – start fast, establish the running game, contain Peterson, pressure McNabb – failed to materialize. Freeman was sacked by Minnesota DE Jared Allen on the day’s first snap and Tampa Bay’s offense sputtered out of the gates. The only first-half play the Bucs ran in Vikings territory came at the 6:49 mark of the first quarter and was a Michael Koenen punt from the 49-yard line.
Minnesota, on the other hand, appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Peterson had racked up 83 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries, McNabb looked comfortable in the pocket connecting with six different receivers for 153 yards on 11 of 17 passing and even backup running back Toby Gerhart gashed the Bucs defense for a 31 rush that keyed Minnesota’s first scoring drive. That 12-play, 90-yard march took up 6 minutes and 41 seconds of the opening quarter and ended with Peterson pushing up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown and 7-0 Vikings lead.
The Tampa Bay defense again showed the effects of being on the field too long in Minnesota, spending 19 minutes and 13 seconds of the first half trying to deal with Peterson, McNabb and Harvin. The Bucs allowed Detroit to control possession for 21 minutes and 45 seconds over the same time period last week. The Vikings’ scored on three consecutive drives in the first half and each covered considerable ground: 12 plays and 90 yards (1-yard Peterson run), 14 plays and 72 yards (22-yard Ryan Longwell field goal) and eight plays and 75 yards (9-yard Peterson run).
Tampa Bay’s defensive starters were as follows: LE Michael Bennett, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, RE Adrian Clayborn, WLB Geno Hayes, SLB Quincy Black, MLB Mason Foster, LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, FS Cody Grimm.
The Bucs lined up offensively with: WR Mike Williams, LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Luke Stocker and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were CB Anthony Gaitor, S Larry Asante, WR Sammie Stroughter, RB Allen Bradford, CB Myron Lewis OT Demar Dotson and OT James Lee.
The difference in the Buccaneers’ play was visible immediately after halftime on both sides of the ball.
Minnesota began the third quarter at its own 20 were done after going backward three yards in three plays. Tampa Bay returner Preston Parker received punter Chris Kluwe’s 38-yard kick and ran it into Vikings territory to the 44. Freeman’s initial play at the 11:39 mark of the third quarter was the first Tampa Bay’s offense ran on Minnesota’s side of the field and was a 17-yard completion to TE Luke Stocker, who got sent head over heels on CB Antoine Winfield’s low tackle
Then Blount finally went to work. The second-year back out of Oregon took Freeman’s handoff on the next snap around the right side and into the end zone from 27 yards out, cutting Minnesota’s lead to 17-7.
After getting reminded of Blount’s potential when given opportunities, the Tampa Bay coaching staff decided it didn’t want to wait to see more. Lined up in standard kickoff formation, Koenen caught the Vikings coverage team off guard and rolled a perfect onside kick that was jumped on by Elbert Mack at the Tampa Bay 47.
Blount (13 carries for 71 yards) had his number called on the ensuing drive’s first play and rumbled 13 yards for a first down. The Bucs moved to the Minnesota 20 in six plays, but their momentum-building hopes were doused by safety Husain Abdullah’s interception of Freeman in the end zone.
Tampa Bay responded by limiting the Vikings to four plays and got the ball back in Freeman’s hands with 5:28 left in the third quarter. The defensive stand was punctuated by SS Sean Jones’ successful blitz and sack of McNabb 10 yards behind the line. It was the second of the Bucs’ two sacks on the day, with rookie MLB Mason Foster picking up the first of his career late in the second quarter.
One series after suffering a red zone interception, the Bucs appeared snake bitten once again as they had to settle for a 36-yard Connor Barth field goal. On second-and-6 from the Minnesota 17 and two plays after WR Preston Parker’s 51-yard catch-and-run, WR Mike Williams showed off his hands and footwork by pulling down a Freeman pass along the left sideline in the end zone for a lead-shrinking touchdown. The play was wiped out, though, because of an illegal shift penalty called on Williams’ fellow wideout, Arrelious Benn. Tampa Bay had three players in motion during the play; beginning with TE Kellen Winslow, then RB Earnest Graham, then Benn. Each player must be set before another can go in motion and game officials ruled that Benn did not wait long enough for Graham before taking off behind the line.
Barth’s kick made it a one-possession game at 17-10 with 34 seconds remaining in the third quarter, but Minnesota erased that score with one of its own shortly after. The Vikings began the fourth quarter at their own 23 and pieced together a first-half-like drive leading up to Longwell’s 29-yard field goal to make the score 20-10. Tampa Bay helped extend the series midway through when Foster was flagged for a 23-yard pass interference penalty while trying to get back in coverage on Harvin. That took Minnesota from its own 47 to the Bucs 30. Tampa Bay limited the damage of Minnesota’s drive by stepping up with its back to the wall facing a first-and-goal situation from the 10. Tackle Brian Price, praised by the Bucs coaching staff during the past week, initiated the stand by stuffing Peterson for a 1-yard loss on first down. McNabb’s next two pass attempts fell incomplete before Longwell jogged onto the field.
Price’s tackle for loss was one of seven the Tampa Bay defense recorded Sunday. Foster (10 tackles) and Jones (seven tackles) were responsible for the Bucs’ two sacks and also led the team in bringing down ball carriers. The Buccaneers offensive line allowed a similar amount of quarterback captures on Freeman, with both coming in the first half.
Following Longwell’s field goal, it was all Tampa Bay for the game’s final 9 minutes and 45 seconds.
Freeman started the latest of his eight fourth-quarter comebacks from the Bucs 20 and guided his team from the shotgun 80 yards on eight plays over 3 minutes and 2 seconds. With 7:07 left, the third-year signal caller received some help, albeit painful, from the Vikings’ defensive leader. Freeman hit WR Dezmon Briscoe for a 19-yard gain to the Minnesota 40 and picked up an extra 15 yards because of Jared Allen’s roughing-the-passer penalty. Now at the 25-yard line, Freeman then allowed Benn to atone for his touchdown-erasing illegal shift. Benn beat CB Cedric Griffin down the field and snagged an accurate pass in the end zone to bring Tampa Bay within a field goal, at 20-17.
Attempting to spark Minnesota and slow down the Buccaneers’ comeback bid by picking up a big return, Lorenzo Booker unsuccessfully brought out Koenen’s kickoff from six yards deep in the end zone and forced McNabb and the offense to start at their own 9. Tampa Bay’s defense – surrendering only 114 total second-half yards – answered the bell once again. Peterson, who finished with 120 yards on 25 carries, picked up a first down with a 7-yard run early in the drive, but the Bucs stiffened on the next three plays and forced Kluwe’s fourth punt of the day. E.J. Biggers, in as the nickleback, came up with the third-down stop by breaking up McNabb’s pass to WR Devin Aromashodu.
Tampa Bay got the ball back at its own 39 with 4:12 remaining and patiently moved down the field. Freeman (22 of 31 for 243 yards) hit on five of his six attempts for 46 yards during the game-winning drive, including a crucial 6-yard, third-and-4 completion to Parker that allowed the Bucs to go for the victory and not a tie. Blount made sure of that on the next snap, taking Freeman’s handoff and crossing the goal line from four yards out. Left guard Jeremy Zuttah, starting in place of Ted Larsen, made the lineup decision pay off on the play. Zuttah pulled right and, along with FB Erik Lorig, blew open a hole for Blount to easily get through into the end zone.
The Bucs left Minnesota with only 35 seconds to respond and the Vikings were able to get off just three plays. The home team’s final effort – an open-field, 11-yard pass to Harvin followed by two lateral attempts – ended with a fumble recovery by SS Sean Jones.
Despite an abysmal start virtually devoid of positive moments, Tampa Bay’s strong second-half allowed for some respectable final tallies in the stat book. The offense produced 335 total yards (230 passing and 105 rushing), converted 58 percent of its third downs (7 of 12) and turned the ball over only once on Freeman’s third-quarter interception.
Emerging as an unsung star for Tampa Bay on Sunday was second-year receiver Preston Parker. Picked up by the Bucs after going undrafted in 2010, he caught just four passes for 42 yards last season. Sunday afternoon, Parker turned in by far the best game of his young career. The 6-foot, 200-pounder caught six of the seven passes thrown his way for 98 yards and a 16.3-yard average.
Minnesota finished with 398 total yards (228 passing and 186 rushing), converted less than 50 percent of its third downs (5 of 11). Peterson ended his day with 120 yards on 25 carries and the two touchdowns and McNabb bounced back from his rough Vikings debut last week by going 18 of 30 for 228 yards with no scores or interceptions.
Tampa Bay’s victory over its former NFC Central foe was the Buccaneers’ fifth in a row against Minnesota. The most recent prior to Sunday’s win came in November 2008 in Tampa, with the Bucs winning 19-13.
After avoiding the dreaded 0-2 start, the Bucs will return to Tampa Bay looking to boost its record above .500 for the first time this year when they host NFC South rival Atlanta at 4:15 p.m. next week.