In Saturday's new weekly column, Cook’s Five Keys to Victory, Bucs beat writer Mark Cook listed five areas that Tampa Bay had to prevail in to claim victory on the road against the Minnesota Vikings. Each week following the game, Cook will revisit his five keys and share his opinions and analysis on how Tampa Bay's units on offense, defense and special teams graded out.
KEY 1: Gang Tackle Adrian Peterson
With 120 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns, it is hard to say Tampa Bay was successful in keeping Peterson in check. But when needed the most, the Buccaneers were able to do just enough to not allow Minnesota’s all-time touchdown leader to single handily beat them, holding him to just 37 second-half yards after allowing him to scamper for 83 in the first half. The Vikings offensive coaching staff helped the Buccaneers defense somewhat but not handing the ball off enough to Peterson, but no one in Tampa Bay’s locker room will complain.
It took several Buccaneers players to bring down the speedy powerful back and on several occasions Cody Grimm was being dragged down the field, hanging on to the leg of Peterson in desperation, waiting on someone to help him clean up the tackle. But it worked, and the Buccaneers defense bent, but didn’t break often, especially in the second half.
Final Grade: C
KEY 2: Play Like The Preseason And Pressure McNabb
Early in the game Buccaneers defensive ends Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn were fooled several times by Donovan McNabb and the bootleg. Part of it was over aggression by young defensive players, but part of it was undisciplined reads and keys by the defensive ends.
Keith Millard and Grady Stretz must have lit a fire under their defensive linemen as in the second half McNabb seemed to have a defensive linemen in his face every time he rolled out on the boot. Keeping McNabb in containment affected his throws, and his inability to set his feet led him to rush some throws and not get looks at his deeper reads.
This won’t show up in the stat sheet, but is an important part of why Tampa Bay was able to recover from a 17-0 halftime deficient and win the game 24-20 Sunday afternoon.
The Buccaneers front four provided adequate pressure but it took Raheem Morris sending linebackers and safeties to get enough pressure on McNabb to produce sacks. Safety Sean Jones recorded his first sack of the season and linebacker Mason Foster notched his first career sack on Sunday. All in all, a marked improvement from the Detroit game, but plenty of room to get better as no defensive lineman has a sack through two games in 2011.
Final Grade: C
KEY 3: Give Blount 20 Touches
After one half of football it appeared to be a repeat of last week where the Buccaneers gave up on the running game and left their top running threat on the sideline in the team's 27-20 loss to Detroit. But give credit to offensive coordinator Greg Olson and head coach Raheem Morris as they stuck with the game plan and continued to feed Blount the ball in the second half after he picked up just four yards on five carries in the first 30 minutes of play. Blount’s 27-yard TD run in the third quarter seemed to spark the entire offense and provided desperately needed confidence for the offensive line and their second-year tailback.
While they didn’t get Blount the ball 20 times (13 caries for 71 yards and two touchdowns) the Bucs kept pounding on the Vikings defensive line until they were able to have their way by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. Having Blount on the field helped the Bucs sell the run and set up the play-action pass, which was critical in the second half. Between Blount, Josh Freeman and Earnest Graham, Tampa Bay was able to eclipse the 100-yard mark (105 yards on 19 attempts) with Blount scoring the game-winner on a 4-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds left in regulation.
Final Grade: B+
KEY 4: Get A First Quarter Touchdown On Offense
Dismal is the best adjective to use without using an expletive to describe the first quarter – and the first half – of offense.
Again, the offensive play calling and execution was horrendous. Just as Jeremy Trueblood told PewterReport.com last week, it seems like one player has a breakdown that disrupted the entire play. A missed block, a bad read, penalties or a dropped pass seemed to doom the Buccaneers offense at the most inopportune time during the first half Sunday at Mall of America Field. The Bucs totaled just 49 yards of total offense in the first quarter and an embarrassing 62 by halftime.
While the comeback was beyond impressive it should be noted that this was against the now 0-2 Minnesota Vikings, not the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints or the Atlanta Falcons. Falling behind 17-0 is a recipe for disaster and something that can’t happen if Tampa Bay expects to contend for a spot in the playoffs by season’s end.
Final Grade: F
KEY 5: Take The Lead Into Halftime And Take Out The Crowd
Again, total failure to achieve this key. If anything, Tampa Bay’s play kept the crowd amped up through the entire game.
The strange thing is that the Buccaneers appear to enjoy the hostility of the road as shown in last season’s 5-3 road record. Maybe a quiet sit-on-their-hands crowd would have been a negative for this young team that plays with a chip on its shoulders. Playing angry football is something Tampa Bay thrives on it appears.
While it goes against most logic, it works. Morris must have instilled an us-versus-the world mentality, and perhaps that is why the Buccaneers haven’t played as well at home as on the road. Of course a sell-out crowd, something that hasn’t been seen at home in Tampa in nearly three years, made for a great atmosphere that might remind the young team of their college playing days.
As stated earlier however, the Buccaneers are playing with fire, and won’t win many games going down 17-0 early.
Final Grade: F
Cook’s Five Keys To Victory Prediction: Vikings 17, Buccaneers 14
Actual Score: Buccaneers 24, Vikings 20
I took a lot of abuse on the PewterReport.com message boards this week for taking the Vikings, but at the half my prediction was looking pretty good. In fact, at that point in the game the Tampa Bay offense gave me no indication they would even get on the scoreboard much less rally from 17-0 down. But as proven again this afternoon, when Freeman gets hot, and his teams develops an attitude, they are a dangerous team.
BUCCANEERS UNIT GRADES vs. VIKINGS
A streaky gunslinger under center is the best way to describe Freeman. Today, the young man may have grown up a little more. After a first half scramble that left his lip bloody, we saw him take another step in his leadership maturation process. Freeman began taking charge, challenging his linemen and receivers verbally and just had a look of determination in his eyes. And even after a terrible decision on a third-quarter interception, he came back unfazed.
While his stats – 22-of-31 passing for 243 yards with one TD and one INT – weren’t eye-popping, his heart certainly was.
This, along with most of the game grades can be divided into two parts, first half vs. second half. And like most unit grades, the first half would have resulted in a failing mark.
But Blount and Graham were completely different backs in the second half and both were needed to achieve the Buccaneers' come-from-behind win Sunday at Minnesota. Without Blount’s 71 yards on 13 carries plus two scores, and Graham’s 18 yards rushing, but more importantly his five receptions for 21 yards, the doomsday patrol and a heavy black cloud would have followed the team's chartered flight home from Minneapolis.
While top receiver Michael Williams was held to one catch for minus-four yards, the Buccaneers and Freeman were still able to move the ball through the air. Freeman found seven different receivers enroute to a 243-yard passing day and we might have also witnessed another young Buc grow up today. Former North Alabama and Florida State star Preston Parker, led all receivers with six catches for 98 yards and was clutch in the second half with a 51-yard reception, as Tampa Bay mounted their late charge.
Dezmon Briscoe made a huge, leaping 19-yard catch to keep a drive moving in the fourth quarter and Arrelious Benn found the end zone with a 25-yard catch to cut into the Vikings' lead and make the score 20-17 midway through the fourth. While no one player stood out, this group played unselfishly and was a factor in the Buccaneers’ coming home 1-1.
Kellen Winslow didn’t have his best game as a Buccaneer as he managed just four receptions for 44 yards, but his presence on the field certainly opened things up for the other receivers.
Luke Stocker, who had a touchdown drop last week against the Lions, bounced back nicely, and while he only had one reception for 17 yards his blocking was outstanding for most of the afternoon. In fact, Stocker’s block on a Vikings linebacker on Blount’s touchdown with less than a minute to go was a huge factor in opening the hole. If Stocker doesn’t reach the ‘backer, the play is stuffed at the line of scrimmage and Tampa Bay potentially is kicking a field goal two plays later instead of coming home tied for first place in their division.
What a difference a half makes. PewterReport.com was ready to take this unit to task for their inability to protect Freeman and open running lanes. But after springing Blount for the first Buccaneer touchdown in the third quarter on a 27-yard jaunt, this group came alive.
Jeremy Zuttah started for left guard Ted Larsen and proved to be an upgrade despite a holding penalty that negated a first down. On Tampa Bay’s deciding fourth quarter score Zuttah pulled from his left guard spot and actually beat fullback Erik Lorig to the hole. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood sealed the edge, Stocker reached his linebacker and Zuttah provided enough push to score Blount and help Tampa Bay take home the victory.
And lastly, the second half pass protection appeared to be solid as Freeman made several of his throws to second and third reads.
For the second week in a row the defensive line failed to record a sack. But the pressure was much improved, and even when the Buccaneers lineman didn’t get to McNabb they were able to get their hands up creating disruption in the passing lanes.
Gerald McCoy had a great shot at McNabb in the second half but the crafty veteran QB shook the second-year lineman, who whiffed on the play. McCoy finished with three tackles for the game. Roy Miller who lost his starting spot to Brian Price played well notching four tackles. Price managed just one stop but drew attention from his nose tackle spot freeing up the second level players to clean up tackles. Rookie Adrian Clayborn didn’t show up on the stat sheet but harassed McNabb a few times. Eventually the light will come on for the former Hawkeye and the numbers will start showing up.
Sam linebacker Quincy Black, the Bucs' $29-million dollar man, must step up soon or the fifth-year player may find himself on the bench as he did for much of the second half. Black looked lost a times, missed more than a handful of tackles, and was credited with just three takedowns.
Rookie Mason Foster had an up-and-down game. At times he was solid; other times he played like the rookie that he is. Leading the team in tackles with 10, Foster recorded at least three of his 10 stops at least seven yards down the field. Foster also committed a pass interference penalty when he failed to turn his head and locate the football.
On the positive side, he sacked McNabb once and also forced an Adrian Peterson fumble that the Vikings were able to recover. These are the growing pains of a rookie starting just his second NFL game.
Geno Hayes was steady with five tackles and had his typical one splash tackle-for-loss stop but at times you almost forget he was on the football field. Both Hayes and Black were challenged by Morris this week and it will be interesting to hear how the two ended up grading out by the coaching staff.
While the Buccaneers' pass coverage unit failed to pick off McNabb they held the Vikings receivers in check for the most part, giving up just 133 yards to Vikings’ wideouts.
The secondary also contributed to the harassment of McNabb particlarily in the second half as Ronde Barber and Sean Jones all took shots at rushing the passer. Jones finished with seven tackles, a sack and also got his hand on a McNabb pass on a safety blitz in the fourth quarter.
Cornerback Aqib Talib was quiet, and that is a good sign sometimes, meaning the Vikings weren’t challenging him for the most part.
Two weeks in a row the Buccaneers special teams beat their opponents on the other side of the field. Kick coverage was excellent, the return game solid, and of course perfect execution on an onside kick. Parker averaged 13 yards on his punt returns and 23 yards per kickoff return including a 30-yarder after coming from five yards deep out of the end zone.
Michael Koenen again was worth every penny of his free-agent contract averaging 45 yards on four punts and placing his kickoffs deep for the most part, and nailing a perfect onside kick in the third quarter.
Placekicker Conner Barth is quietly becoming one of the most dependable kickers in the NFL, going 1-for-1 in field goal attempts and banging home all three extra points.