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OPPONENT: Minnesota Vikings

WHERE: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome

WHERE THE VIKINGS STAND: The Vikings finished last season with an 8-8 record and in second place in the NFC North division.

VIKINGS HEAD COACH: Mike Tice

VIKINGS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Steve Loney

VIKINGS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ted Cottrell

VIKINGS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Rusty Tillman

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE (2004):
OVERALL: 22nd (310.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 29th (93.1 ypg)
PASSING: 14th (217.1 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE (2004):
OVERALL: 5th (284.5 ypg)
RUSHING: 19th (123.3 ypg)
PASSING: 1st (161.2 ypg)

MINNESOTA VIKINGS OFFENSE (2004):
OVERALL: 4th (396.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 18th (113.9 ypg)
PASSING: 2nd (282.3 ypg)

MINNESOTA VIKINGS DEFENSE (2004):
OVERALL: 28th (293.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 21st (117.1 ypg)
PASSING: 29th (243 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…Minnesota has gotten off to fast starts in each of the past two seasons, going 5-1 in its first six games in 2004 and producing a 6-0 record in its first six contests of the ’03 season?

SCOUTING THE VIKINGS

Quarterbacks
With wide receiver Randy Moss now sporting a black and silver uniform in Oakland, Minnesota will rely heavily on quarterback Daunte Culpepper to lead an explosive Vikings offense. The 6-foot-4, 264-pound Culpepper is completely capable moving the ball on Tampa Bay’s defense with his accurate and strong arm. In 2004, Culpepper completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 4,717 yards and tossed 39 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. Those stats gave him a QB rating of 110.9 and the right to go to the Pro Bowl.

Tampa Bay will count on its defense, which ranked No. 1 against the pass last season, to give Culpepper few targets to throw to on Sunday. The key for the Bucs will be finding a way to shut down Minnesota’s running game and put Culpepper and Co. in long down-and-distance situations, especially on third down. The Vikings were able to complete a whopping 52.3 percent of their third down attempts last season, and Culpepper played a huge part in accomplishing that feat. Not only can he throw the ball well, Culpepper has running ability, too, evidenced by his 406 rushing yards (4.6 avg.) and two touchdowns in ’04.

However, when Culpepper scrambles, the Bucs defenders must swat at the ball. Turnovers could go a long way for the visiting Bucs in what will be a hostile environment. Last year, Culpepper fumbled five times and lost three of them. Tampa Bay’s defense prides itself on creating turnovers, and it will have to create and capitalize on those opportunities on Sunday.

Running Backs
Minnesota’s leading rusher from the 2004 season, Onterrio Smith, will not play against Tampa Bay due to his one-year NFL-mandated suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. That’s not good news for the Vikings, who watched Smith rush for a team-high 544 yards (4.4 avg.) and two touchdowns last season.

Running back Michael Bennett, who rushed for 276 yards (3.9 avg.) and one touchdown in ’04, is coming off of a preseason neck injury but will start Sunday vs. Tampa Bay. The good news for the Vikings is Bennett, who possesses blazing speed and cutting ability, is not even listed on Minnesota’s injury report, which means he should be good to go vs. Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranked 19th against the run last season.

Although Bennett, who made the Pro Bowl in 2003 but has since been hindered by ankle and knee injuries, is their starter, new Vikings offensive coordinator Steve Loney will likely sprinkle in Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams, both of whom averaged more than 5.2 yards per carry last season. Williams is more of a between-the-tackles runner, whereas Moore is dangerous in the open field and has displayed great hands in the passing game.

If the Vikings, who had the 18th-ranked rushing attack in the NFL last season, establish a ground game in this contest, Culpepper and the Minnesota offense will stand a great chance of lighting up Tampa Bay’s defense and the scoreboard.

Keep an eye on the number of carries Bennett gets in this game. The Bucs are 0-19 since 2000 when the opposing tailback carries the ball 24 or more times in a game against their defense.

Wide Receivers
With Moss gone, second-year wide receiver Nate Burleson has become Minnesota’s No. 1 receiving threat, but not by default. Last year, Burleson caught a team-high 68 passes for 1,006 yards (14.8 avg.) and nine touchdowns. A lot of that production came when Burleson took the injured Moss’ place in the starting lineup.

Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly, who notched 62 tackles and posted team highs in interceptions (4) and passes defensed (22) last season, is a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back, but the voters didn’t see it that way last season. Kelly will have to play at a Pro Bowl level on Sunday in order to limit Burleson’s production.

Tampa Bay CB Ronde Barber did make the Pro Bowl last season by notching 111 tackles, three sacks, three picks and 12 passes defensed. Barber will line up against Vikings WR Marcus Robinson, who hauled in 47 passes for 657 yards (14.0 avg.) and eight touchdowns in 2004. Because of Barber’s consistency and playmaking ability as a shutdown corner, teams have hesitated to throw his way over the past two seasons. Should that trend continue Sunday, even more pressure will be placed on Kelly.

The Vikings may opt to try to spread the Bucs defense out by going with three-receiver sets early and often. That means newcomer Travis Taylor will bring Bucs nickel CB Juran Bolden on the field, but Barber, not Bolden, will cover Taylor as the slot cornerback. The Vikings, who throw deep often, will likely test Bolden’s coverage skills downfield in these situations by having Culpepper launch the ball to Robinson, who made a name for himself in Chicago by outjumping defenders for deep balls. The 6-foot-3 Bolden has the size to defend deep passes thrown by Culpepper, but his big frame can sometimes hinder his ability to adjust to passes thrown downfield.

Offensive Line
Tampa Bay won’t win this contest if its defense can’t get pressure on Culpepper. Not one Bucs starter notched a sack in preseason, which was a bit disturbing. Tampa Bay’s front four, particularly right defensive end Simeon Rice, who is matched up against Minnesota left tackle Bryant McKinnie, must penetrate the Vikings’ backfield early and often. Disrupting Culpepper and the timing of the Minnesota offense could go a long way for the visiting Bucs, who simply can’t afford to fall behind early.

Minnesota’s offensive line has question marks all over it. Center Corey Withthrow has replaced Matt Birk, who is out with a sports hernia. Perhaps the biggest matchup to watch will be the one between Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan, a former Viking, and Minnesota LG Chris Liwienski. Although Hovan was brought in to help Tampa Bay’s undersized defense stop the run, the former Viking wouldn’t mind sacking his former teammate a few times on Sunday. He will, however, likely be double-teamed by Liwienski and Withrow, which means Bucs under tackle Anthony McFarland will need to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups he gets with Vikings RG Marcus Johnson.

Getting to Culpepper isn’t impossible. In fact, it’s very possible. Last year, Minnesota’s offensive line allowed Culpepper to be sacked 46 times, which comes out to an average of nearly three times per game. Tampa Bay blitzed its safeties often during preseason, but defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin might not be able to afford to do that with Minnesota’s talented trio of receivers. That said, the Bucs front four will have to get to Culpepper on their own throughout most of Sunday’s game.

Rice, and LE Greg Spires, who will line up opposite of Vikings RT Mike Rosenthal, need to do their best to get to Culpepper and strip him of the ball when they do. Culpepper is known for fumbling, and an uncomfortable pocket could cause him to throw some interceptions on Sunday.

Defensive Line
The Vikings overhauled their defense, which ranked 28th overall in 2004, during the offseason. Most of those changes started up front, where Minnesota jettisoned two long-time starters, DE Kenny Mixon and Hovan.

Minnesota now has three former first-round picks on its defensive line – DT Kevin Williams and DEs Kenechi Udeze and rookie Erasmus James.

Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden will try to unveil the “Rocket” backfield, which features rookie Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, but the Bucs may be hard pressed to establish the running game vs. the Vikings’ revamped defensive line.

The combination of under tackle Kevin Williams (6-5, 311) and nose tackle Pat Williams (6-3, 330), who was signed as a free agent during the offseason, gives the Vikings some size up the middle. Pat Williams only notched 13 sacks in eight seasons with Buffalo, but he is a force against the run. This will make it tough for the Bucs, who are looking to try to improve their 29th-ranked rushing attack, to run up the gut of the Vikings defense. That said, look for Cadillac Williams and Pittman to test the Udeze and James by running on the perimeter.

Tampa Bay’s offensive line appears to be at a disadvantage in this contest. It will feature three new starters – left tackle Anthony Davis and guards Dan Buenning and Sean Mahan, and two of those players – Davis and Buenning – will be getting their first pro starts in the noisy Metrodome.

Buenning, who was Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick in April, will go up against veteran Pat Williams, which could present some problems for the Bucs offense. Mahan will be charged with the difficult task of holding off Kevin Williams, who notched a team-high 11.5 sacks last season, on passing downs. Mahan did, however, have a very impressive training camp and preseason.

Look for the Bucs to run behind the 330-pound Davis, who appears to have a favorable matchup vs. Vikings RE Darrion Scott (6-3, 289) and James (6-4, 263), who are expected to split playing time in this contest. The Bucs offense can’t afford to put itself in long down-and-distance situations with penalties and sacks. If this type of situation does arise, Vikings backup DE Lance Johnstone will be a player the Bucs must account for. He recorded 11 sacks last season while serving as a situational-type player.

If Tampa Bay can’t establish the ground game early, QB Brian Griese could be in for a long day as the Vikings have some capable pass rushers as well as a few newcomers who can do a much better job of defending the pass than the Vikings have in the past. Because of the crowd noise and the serious threat Minnesota’s front four poses, look for Gruden to call for a lot of three-step drops, which will allow Griese to get the ball off quickly.

Linebackers
Minnesota’s linebacking corps were arguably the team’s weakest unit last season, but the Vikings did something about that during the offseason, and it started up front when the team assembled a front four that is more than capable of pressuring the quarterback and defending the run on its own.

The Vikings landed strongside linebacker Napoleon Harris in the trade with Oakland for Moss. He’s not a blitzer, but Harris has the frame (6-3, 255) to plug holes in the running game and the athletic ability to cover the tight end underneath.

Tampa Bay may feature plenty of two-tight end sets vs. Minnesota, which means newcomers Anthony Becht and rookie Alex Smith will see the field often. Becht, who is a better run blocker than he is a pass catcher, will likely go up against Harris, who he’s familiar with from his playing days for the AFC New York Jets.

That should leave Smith to line up against Vikings weakside LB E.J. Henderson, who led the team in tackles last season as their starting middle linebacker.

Veteran Sam Cowart, who was signed as a free agent from the Jets, is Minnesota’s starting Mike linebacker. He’s past his prime, but Cowart has good instincts and is familiar with defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell’s defensive scheme.

Although they looked improved on paper, whether or not the Vikings have developed chemistry at the linebacker position remains to be determined. Griese will likely test this unit by throwing to – and running behind the tight ends and throwing the ball to the running backs out of the backfield often on Sunday.

Secondary
Despite the fact that Minnesota’s defense ranked 29th against the pass and allowed opponents to convert 46 percent of their third down attempts last season, its secondary could arguably be one of the team’s strongest units in 2005 thanks to the addition of former Green Bay free safety Darren Sharper and former Washington cornerback Fred Smoot, both of whom were added via free agency.

Bucs second-year WR Michael Clayton will be covered by Vikings CB Antoine Winfield, who is Minnesota’s best tackler. Last season, Winfield notched a team-high three interceptions and defended nine passes. Clayton doesn’t have the speed to beat Winfield deep, but he’s a solid route runner, which should help him create separation on short-to-intermediate passes. Both Winfield and Clayton are tough players, which makes for an intriguing battle in both the passing and running game.

Vikings strong safety Corey Chavous didn’t make a lot of plays last season (one interception in ’04), and could be a player Griese decides to test in the passing game.

The Bucs’ speed threat, WR Joey Galloway, will go up against Smoot, who is regarded as a very good cover corner. Smoot had 16 interceptions during his four seasons with the Redskins. The presence of Sharper on Smoot’s side of the field will make it difficult for Griese to throw deep to Galloway, especially if the Vikings don’t need to bring Sharper up closer to the line of scrimmage to help defend the run.

The Vikings have a solid nickel cornerback in Brian Williams, who notched two interceptions and 11 passes defensed as a starter in ’04. With the likelihood of Gruden featuring two-tight end sets, don’t look for Bucs No. 3 receiver Ike Hilliard to get on the field too much Sunday unless they are put in long down-and-distance situations.

Special Teams
The Bucs are all too familiar with how special teams can impact the outcome of a game. Tampa Bay has lost 20 games over the past two seasons, and 15 came by one score or less.

If the Bucs are going to allow the Vikings’ potent offense to drive down the field, holding them to a field goal attempt would be a big plus. The Vikings signed former Bears K Paul Edinger, a 75 percent career kicker, during the offseason.

The Bucs can’t afford to give the Vikings offense a short field to work with. The good news is Bucs punter Josh Bidwell had an outstanding preseason, averaging 53 yards per punt. His production might be even better in the dome on Sunday.

Vikings P Chris Kluwe is a rookie, which could bode well for the Bucs’ return game, which averaged just 1.9 yards per punt return during the preseason. The candidats to return punts for the Bucs include CB Torrie Cox and wide receivers Mark Jones, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard. None of these players can afford to muff a punt. It would also be extremely helpful if they could average at least 10 yards per return on Sunday.

Second-year RB Mewelde Moore will return punts and kickoffs for the Vikings. He’s got some playmaking ability, especially in the open field, which means the Bucs, who lost their top three special teams tacklers from a year ago and linebacker Jeff Gooch (injured reserve), need players like LBs Ryan Nece, Marquis Cooper, Barrett Ruud, RB Michael Pittman and CB Blue Adams to limit Moore’s production in the return game.

FLYNN’S FORECAST: Vikings 21 Buccaneers 16



This story is intended to be read by PewterInsider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on PewterReport.com. Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

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