Preview: Aggressive Bucs have shown knack for striking first
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Who: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) at Minnesota Vikings (5-2).
When: 7:20 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
TV: NFL Network and KARE (Ch. 11).
Line: Vikings by 7.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd year, 11-18); Buccaneers -- Greg Schiano (1st year, 2-4).
Series: The Vikings lead 31-21, including 18-8 at home.
Last meeting: LeGarrette Blount ran for two touchdowns, including a 4-yarder with 31 seconds to play as Tampa Bay rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to beat the Vikings 24-20 on Sept. 18, 2011.
At stake: The Vikings can accomplish another of their goals by "winning" the season's second quarter and improving to 6-2 at the midway point. The Buccaneers, who blew a 14-0 lead in last week's home loss to New Orleans, can make a statement with their first road win.
Vikings: TE John Carlson (concussion) and SS Mistral Raymond (ankle) are out. HB Adrian Peterson (ankle), RE Jared Allen (groin), CB Antoine Winfield (knee), LT Matt Kalil (low back), FS Harrison Smith (calf), S Robert Blanton (hamstring), LB Marvin Mitchell (calf), QB Christian Ponder (knee), RB Matt Asiata (knee), WR Jerome Simpson (low back/foot), NT Fred Evans (knee) and LB Jasper Brinkley (not injury related) are probable (virtual certainty of playing).
Buccaneers: CB Brandon McDonald (ankle) is questionable (50% chance of playing). LB Andrew Hayward (ankle), WR Vincent Jackson (calf), G Carl Nicks (foot) and C Jeremy Zuttah (quadriceps) are probable.
Five things to watch
Come to play: Vikings coaches have preached during this short week about the Bucs' talent and aggressive style, which might have something to do with them scoring first in five of six games this season. The only exception came in Week 2 against the Giants, whom the Bucs came back to lead by 14 points before falling 41-34. All four of Tampa's losses have come by seven points or fewer. That might hit home with a Vikings team that lost nine times by seven points or fewer in 2011. These Bucs aren't a pushover, and the Vikings -- who have scored first six games in a row -- can't squander the opportunity to grab momentum early.
Bring the rush: The Vikings didn't send a single blitz while sacking Arizona QB John Skelton seven times and holding star WR Larry Fitzgerald to four catches for 29 yards in Sunday's win. It remains to be seen if they take a similar tact against Bucs QB Josh Freeman and Jackson, who stands 6-foot-5 and went off for 216 yards on seven receptions against the Saints. One danger of sitting back in two-deep coverage is getting gashed by the run, and the Bucs have two capable threats in HB Doug Martin (4.1 average on 100 carries) and Blount (4.0 average on 25 carries). Letting big CB Chris Cook press Jackson early and often sure seems like a must after the way he frustrated Fitzgerald. Either way, the Vikings' pass rush has its work cut out against a Tampa protection unit that ranks ninth in the NFL in sacks per pass play (nine total).
Go airborne: The Bucs rank third in the NFL in run defense, giving up only 76 yards per game. Having early leads so often no doubt is a factor in that. So is disruptive DT Gerald McCoy, the former No. 3 overall draft pick who is coming into his own in his third season. The Vikings have done an exceptional job in recent weeks both scheming and blocking to open holes for Peterson, who is tied for third in the NFL with 652 yards on 136 carries (4.8 average). But they need to find a balance with the passing game after netting only 43 yards against the Cardinals. Ponder should have time to see some things open downfield -- the Bucs are giving up 323 passing yards a game and haven't added to their putrid sack total (eight) since they got Washington QB Robert Griffin III once on Sept. 30.
Figure it out: Ponder says his confidence hasn't diminished over the past three weeks, during which he has committed seven turnovers (six interceptions) and threw for a career-low 58 yards on 8-of-17 passing with two ugly picks against the Cardinals. Teammates unequivocally say they believe in their leader, too. But Ponder admittedly has gotten away from the approach that served him well the first month of the season and can't try to play out of body. OC Bill Musgrave figures to focus on the short passing game in the early going against the Cardinals and try to get Ponder into a rhythm. The last thing a young quarterback needs midway through a season that mostly has been successful is to hear the boos at home again.
Stay disciplined: The Bucs' peculiar behavior under Schiano's leadership is well-documented. They sent Giants coach Tom Coughlin into a rage in Week 2 by attempting to get to QB Eli Manning on a kneeldown play. Then, last weekend, they drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for calling out shifts and changing their formation before a Saints field-goal attempt -- a play Schiano vehemently argued (and still maintains) is legal, although he has said he won't run it again. Whatever elementary tricks Schiano might have up his sleeve this week, the Vikings can't get caught up in it. Last week, they committed seven penalties, and several of them proved costly.
Tom Pelissero: Both teams are on a short week and Tampa's strengths seem to match up well against the Vikings'. The Metrodome can be a difficult place to play, but plenty of these Bucs remember walking out with a win a year ago. Just a hunch -- the stage could be set for a nationally televised upset. Buccaneers 23, Vikings 20.
Judd Zulgad: If Christian Ponder and the Vikings passing game are ever going to get on track, this is the game in which to do it. The Bucs are second-to-last in the NFL against the pass and there is no reason Ponder shouldn't be able to gain some confidence against this secondary. The Vikings might say they aren't putting much stock in blowing a 17-0 halftime lead against the Bucs last season at the Metrodome, but Leslie Frazier is likely to use that as a bit of motivation on Wednesday evening. Vikings 28, Buccaneers 17.