Don't expect any fine offensive displays Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
That's because the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both are struggling on offense. The Vikings (2-5) and Bucs (1-5) are starting young quarterbacks and ranked near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories.
The Vikings, led by rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, rank No. 29 in overall offense and are last in passing offense. The Bucs have been starting second-year pro Mike Glennon and they're ranked No. 30 in overall offense.
ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview the matchup:
Yasinskas: Ben, I know the numbers aren't pretty. But has Bridgewater been showing any signs of progress?
Goessling: He has shown some. He hit 12 of his 15 throws after a pair of interceptions in Buffalo on Sunday, and I thought he did a better job of trusting himself to find his receivers downfield than he has in recent weeks. He has looked great at times, especially in the Vikings' win over Atlanta last month, but he's still figuring a lot of things out.
He needs to be better about throwing on target, and he has fallen victim to the same problems that plague many rookies, when he has held the ball a little too long or thrown late because he didn't make up his mind soon enough. But it's important to remember Bridgewater doesn't have Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph and an offensive line that can protect him. The Vikings have given up 27 sacks this season, which is the second-most in the league, and they've forced Bridgewater to run for his life on a number of other occasions.
Speaking of quarterbacks, will Glennon remain the starter or will Josh McCown get the job back now that he's getting healthy?
Yasinskas: Coach Lovie Smith has been coy about his plans. My best guess is Glennon will get at least one more start because McCown returned to practice only this week and was out for more than a month. I think Glennon has played well enough to be the full-time starter, but I'm not sure Smith sees it that way. McCown was Smith's hand-picked quarterback and the two have history together from their Chicago days. Smith's history has shown he prefers to go with veterans. Back in Chicago, he once benched Kyle Orton, who was playing well, as soon as Rex Grossman got healthy. It wouldn't surprise me if Smith goes back to McCown.
You mentioned Minnesota's offensive line. I know it has been banged up. Will it be any healthier this week, and can it at least give Bridgewater some protection against a Tampa Bay pass rush that hasn't been good?
Goessling: It's hard to say at this point if it will be healthier. Guard Vladimir Ducasse is optimistic about his chances to play after injuring his knee on Sunday, but John Sullivan is still going through the concussion protocol, and his loss would be a big one. He's the Vikings' most reliable blocker, and does plenty to help Bridgewater set protections.
The biggest problem, though, has been left tackle Matt Kalil, who got beat again several times on Sunday and has struggled in pass protection all season. Kalil was the No. 4 pick in the draft in 2012 and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but got hurt last year and hasn't looked like the same guy. The Vikings were able to protect Bridgewater effectively against Atlanta, another team with an underwhelming pass rush, so I'd expect they'll fare better this week than they have against Detroit and Buffalo.
Shifting to the defensive side of the ball, how has the Vikings' old coach, Leslie Frazier, fared as the coordinator? The Bucs have obviously been shredded on defense; how much of that do you think is Frazier and Smith's old Cover 2 scheme and how much is personnel?
Yaskinsas: Tampa Bay ranks last in total defense and also is No. 32 in pass defense. That's shocking since Smith and Frazier are supposed to be defensive gurus. I think this team has good defensive personnel, especially with tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. But the pass rush has been non-existent, and that has taken a toll on the secondary. The main problem might be Smith's stubbornness. He's sticking with the Tampa 2 scheme even though it looks like it might be outdated. I'm not saying he should totally ditch the Tampa 2, but it might be wise -- and productive -- to mix in some man coverage at times.
The Vikings lost a last-minute game against Buffalo last week. That reminded me that the Vikings lost a lot of games in the final minutes last season. Is there some sort of flaw there or is this just a young team that needs to learn how to win?
Goessling: They believe it's the latter. The approach the Vikings took on the final drive on Sunday didn't look like what they did last year, when they sat back in coverage on a lot of those final drives. They were aggressive with their fronts, blitzing Orton four times on the drive and sacking him twice. But there were breakdowns that probably can be traced to inexperience. Josh Robinson needed to reroute Sammy Watkins when he pressed him on third-and-12, Xavier Rhodes misplayed Watkins' game-winning touchdown, and first-year coach Mike Zimmer said he probably should have called a timeout before a fourth-and-20 play -- like Frazier did in a couple games last season -- to get the defense settled. The Vikings gave up a first down there after Chad Greenway was trying to get Captain Munnerlyn in the right spot in a no-huddle situation. Greenway had his head turned at the snap and didn't get deep enough in coverage to keep Orton from hitting Scott Chandler for a first down.
The Vikings are young in the secondary, especially, and I think that showed up Sunday, but I continue to see progress in what they're doing. They have Pro Bowl-caliber players in Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith, and Rhodes has continued to improve as a corner. It'll take another year of player acquisitions, but they're headed in the right direction.
To wrap this up, why has the Buccaneers' ground game struggled so much? It might be a function of playing from behind as much as they have, but it seems like they've struggled to run the ball in closer games, too. What do you think the problem has been there?
Yasinskas: It's true they have had to abandon the running game at times because they've fallen so far behind. But even at the start of games, they've struggled to run the ball. That's puzzling because they have a rebuilt offensive line and running back Doug Martin is healthy after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury. I put the majority of the blame on the offensive line. But I also put some blame on Martin. He is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. His backup, Bobby Rainey, is averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Martin needs to make more out of his opportunities.
Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has talked on a number of occasions about how he's more concerned with the team's overall number of sacks than individual totals, and the topic came up on Wednesday in a discussion of Everson Griffen's seven sacks in seven games. Griffen is on pace to become just the third player since 2008 to post double-digit sacks in Zimmer's defense -- one of the first two, Michael Johnson, will face the Vikings on Sunday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- but Zimmer professed not to know how many sacks Griffen had until someone told him earlier this week.
Brian Robison, who lines up on the opposite side of the Vikings' defensive line from Griffen, is also on the opposite end of the statistical spectrum. Robison has been one of the Vikings' most consistent pass-rushers this season, but hasn't been able to wrap up quarterbacks, missing out on several sacks and sitting with just a half sack through seven games. But Robison is tied for ninth in the league in total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and leads the team with 23 (two more than Griffen). He's one of two players with less than a full sack in the site's top-10 list of pressures for a 4-3 defensive end (Chicago's Lamarr Houston and Dallas' Jeremy Mincey are the others), and while the Vikings would like to see him start finishing some of his sack opportunities, his consistent pressure has helped set up chances for others.
"You know, the hardest thing for guys that aren’t getting numbers is, they start to panic a little bit and say, 'Oh I’m not getting this and I’m not getting that,'” Zimmer said. "But really, guys (have to) just stick with it and understand that it’s a long season. Sacks are not hard to get in the first place but if they’ll keep sticking with it and keep understanding and keep doing the things we’re asking them to do then he’ll have a lot of success. I believe that.
"Honestly, I didn’t know who had sacks, I never know. I don’t know who has interceptions, anything like that. I just asked somebody the other day about who has sacks on the team and they said, 'Well, Tom Johnson has four,' and that’s a product of other guys doing their job as well. I’ve always felt like what’s good for everybody becomes good for each one of us."
In case you missed it on ESPN.com:
- Johnson recalled how he considered coming to Minnesota to join Zimmer last March, but the Vikings seem happy with Griffen's production at right end.
- The Vikings will see a familiar face -- Leslie Frazier -- and his familiar Cover 2 defense on Sunday in Tampa.
- Zimmer said his issues with kidney stones should be over after another procedure on Tuesday.
- Our NFL Nation Buzz video looked at the Vikings' efforts to move on from a last-minute loss in Buffalo.
- Gerald Hodges missed practice again for the Vikings with a hamstring injury.
- Judge Kelly Case will preside overAdrian Peterson's child abuse trial after a Texas judge denied a recusal motion from Montgomery County prosecutors.
- Teddy Bridgewater needs to take advantage of a soft stretch in the Vikings' schedule, writes Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
- Tom Johnson has reminded Mike Zimmer of Wallace Gilberry, an underrated contributor to Zimmer's Bengals defenses, Eric Oslund of Viking Update writes.
- Mike Harris is still practicing at right guard in case Vlad Ducasse isn't able to play on Sunday, according to Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com.
Montgomery County state District Judge Kelly Case will continue handling the case following a recusal hearing in which he was accused of being biased against prosecutors. Retired Tarrant County District Judge Jeff Walker, who presided over the recusal hearing, ruled against prosecutors, saying they had not met the high standards required for recusing a judge.
Peterson was indicted last month on a felony charge of injury to a child for using a wooden switch to discipline his 4-year-old son earlier this year in suburban Houston. Peterson has said he never intended to harm his son and was only disciplining him in the same way he had been as a child growing up in East Texas. He faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted.
The All-Pro running back, who was not at Wednesday's hearing, is on paid leave from the Vikings.
At the hearing, Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Phil Grant listed a series of incidents he argued illustrated Case's bias against prosecutors, including: Case calling each lead attorney in the Peterson case a "media whore" and Case having been represented in a prior court case by one of the attorneys on Peterson's legal team.
Grant tried to present additional evidence about a history of bias between the DA's office and Case over legal disagreements the two sides have had in recent years. But Walker didn't allow it, ruling the DA's office had failed to bring these issues up in a timely manner.
After the hearing, Grant said prosecutors will now go forward and prepare for trial. Case has set a tentative trial date of Dec. 1.
Gerald Hodges missed practice on Wednesday with a hamstring injury, after missing all three practices last week and sitting out Sunday's game against Buffalo, and it appears he could have a difficult time returning for Sunday's game in Tampa Bay if his injury doesn't improve in the next two days. The Vikings eased Greenway back into their nickel package on Sunday, but had him playing every snap by the end of the game. Still, the Vikings had made effective use of Hodges even when both he and Greenway were healthy, putting Hodges at strong-side linebacker in situations where they moved Anthony Barr to defensive end.
Greenway, it should be noted, was completely off the injury report after recovering from his broken ribs.
Center John Sullivan also did not practice on Wednesday with a concussion; coach Mike Zimmer said Sullivan passed the first part of the NFL concussion protocol, and has a good chance to play Sunday. Tight end Kyle Rudolph did not practice with a sports hernia, but was out on the field for some conditioning work for the first time since his Sept. 23 surgery.
Defensive end Corey Wootton, who missed Sunday's game with a low back injury, was limited, as was defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd with an ankle injury. Guard Vlad Ducasse returned to practice in a limited capacity after injuring his knee on Sunday, and rookie defensive backs Jabari Price and Antone Exum were limited with hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively. Safety Harrison Smith (ankle) and tight end Chase Ford (foot) were full participants.
That defense has been maligned in recent years by critics who say it's out of date and too easy to solve, and the Vikings certainly heard those sentiments under Frazier in Minnesota; defensive end Brian Robison said in training camp the scheme had gotten so stale that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could call out the Vikings' plays as they lined up.
The Vikings gave up the most points in the league last season, and though the Buccaneers seemed to have plenty of talent on defense, they've allowed an average of 34 points a game this year (also the highest in the league). But Smith said in a conference call on Wednesday that those who criticize the defense "don't know what they're talking about.”
"When people say the 'Tampa 2,' it’s more than the Tampa 2," Smith said. "You play Cover 2, but it’s just a small part of what we do. Every team in the league plays some form of Cover 2. When it’s described that way and how it can’t work, Cover 2 has been around since the beginning of time, and it’s not going anywhere.”
Frazier and Smith had coached against one another for years, and both come from Dungy's coaching tree. After the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30, he quickly joined Smith in Tampa.
"The year that I was off, I didn’t plan on having the opportunity to hire Leslie," Smith said. "But when he was available, I’ve known him a long time, I’ve competed against his teams for a long time. It was a natural fit."
Said defensive end Michael Johnson, who played for new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati before joining Frazier: "He’s very positive. Always positive and believes in guys. You can feel that. So in the same sense (as Zimmer), with him the way he believes in us, it makes us want to go out there and not let him down also. It’s been kind of frustrating because I want to be better and I want us to be better because Leslie is a good dude, man. We owe him more than we’ve been able to give him so far."
Johnson wound up agreeing to a five-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers an hour after players were able to sign with new teams; Zimmer said in a radio interview in March that Johnson "wanted to be with me," but ultimately wanted to be closer to his hometown of Selma, Alabama. And in a conference call with Twin Cities reporters on Wednesday, Johnson said he thought about following Zimmer to Minnesota after five years with him in Cincinnati.
"Of course,” Johnson said. “I came into the league under Coach Zimmer. I learned a lot under him. He’s a great coach and a great, great guy. It was a pleasure playing under him."
Griffen has seven sacks this season, which has him tied for the second-most in the league, and he matched his career high with three on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. Zimmer doesn't place much value on individual sack totals; they're easy to come by, he said on Wednesday, and repeated his mantra about being more concerned with team's overall number of sacks than who gets them. But in the time he's had Griffen, Zimmer said, he's seen a player who was eager to embrace the defensive philosophy the coach brought to Minnesota.
"Since the day we walked in, he's kind of been excited about this regime defensively, how he can go from just being an athlete to being a football player," Zimmer said. "That's how I always got the impression with him. He's been very, very diligent about buying into what we're preaching. It's not just about running up the field and sacking the quarterback. It's about doing your job so other people can have success, too."
That's a philosophy Johnson knew well, and it probably took some projection on the Vikings' part to see that Griffen could work as an every-down right end in the scheme after playing in three different defensive line spots under former head coach Leslie Frazier. Johnson, of course, is playing for Frazier in Tampa, and has two sacks in four games for a 1-5 team. He's looked back on some of the advice he got from Zimmer, whom he called a "father figure," to help get him through the tough start.
"He’d say, 'Tough times don’t last, tough people do,'" Johnson said. "That was his mentality. These first six games here have been tough times down here. So tough times don’t last but tough people do. I’ve taken that with me from Cincinnati. I try to apply that not only in football but life as well.”
It's clear Zimmer and Johnson still hold each other in high regard, but the Vikings made their investment in Griffen last March. So far, Zimmer seems happy with the choice.
"It's not only the pass-rush things," Zimmer said. "It's buying into playing the run, too. I think that allows him to have success."
While players took their day off on Tuesday, the Minnesota Vikings coach had another procedure to remove the rest of the kidney stones that first sent him to the hospital on Friday and gave him some pain during the Vikings' game with the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The operation on Tuesday was "not pleasant at all," Zimmer said on Wednesday, but he said the ordeal should be behind him now, and was in a good enough mood to joke about it on Wednesday.
"(Athletic trainer) Eric Sugarman was talking to the team today, and I told him to get the video of the procedure I had done and show the team," Zimmer said. "I think there would have been some throwing up or something."
When a reporter joked that Zimmer was probable for Sunday's game, the coach responded, "I'm definite."
The return of Sullivan, who plays an integral part in the offensive line and might be the Vikings' most consistent blocker, would be a boon to the Vikings as they try to end a three-game losing streak on Sunday in Tampa Bay. They've given up 19 sacks in their last three games, and with right guard Brandon Fusco out, the Vikings lean even more on Sullivan as a pulling lineman in their run game.
Right guard Vlad Ducasse also has a good shot to play on Sunday, Zimmer said. A league source told ESPN's Adam Caplan on Tuesday that Ducasse's injury wasn't believed to be serious, adding the "sharp pain" Ducasse felt on Sunday might be nothing more than tendinitis.
Without Sullivan and Ducasse, the Vikings finished the game with their final two backups -- Joe Berger and Mike Harris -- playing center and right guard, respectively. Harris said he hadn't played guard since Pop Warner football, but the Vikings' line looks like it could be in better health this weekend if Sullivan and Ducasse return.
"I think they should both be fine," Zimmer said.
When Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer took the podium for his Monday news conference, there was a noticeable change behind him: The Vikings' news conference banner, which had gone without a sponsor since Radisson suspended its sponsorship of the team in September, had a new corporate logo on it.
Pepsi, which is the Vikings' official soft drink provider, stepped in to put its logo on the banner, which serves as a fairly public reminder of the relationship between a team and its corporate partners. The company has had a strong presence in the Twin Cities -- it purchased Minneapolis-based PepsiAmericas, its second-biggest bottler, in 2010. And while the Vikings are unable to sell Pepsi at their games during the next two seasons while playing at TCF Bank Stadium (where the University of Minnesota sells Coca-Cola products), the news conference banner is another avenue through which they can promote the company.
Most teams use a banner with a sponsor's logo as a backdrop for news conferences, guaranteeing the logo will get plenty of visibility through photographs and video. That can backfire, though, in situations like the one the Vikings encountered on Sept. 15, when Radisson's logo was splashed behind general manager Rick Spielman as he tried to explain the team's decision to keep Adrian Peterson active while he fought child abuse charges in Texas. Radisson suspended its sponsorship of the Vikings hours after the news conference, and the Vikings reversed their decision two days later amid mounting pressure from sponsors to take Peterson off the field.
As the running back's court case resumes on Wednesday, Zimmer and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will step to the podium to talk about preparations for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the remnants of the sponsor fallout from the Peterson ordeal will be a little less obvious.
In case you missed it on ESPN.com:
- We reviewed the Vikings' performance against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, after a film review of their offense and defense.
- We also took a look at the Vikings' struggles to limit yards after the catch in this week's edition of The Film Don't Lie.
- Right guard Vlad Ducasse's knee injury isn't believed to be serious, and he could have a chance to play on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
- It's been a year since Josh Freeman's infamous -- or ignominious -- one-night-only engagement as the Vikings' starting quarterback; Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has an amusing look back at Freeman's night here.
- The Vikings were down to their final options after a pair of injuries on the offensive line on Sunday, Mark Craig of the Star Tribune writes.
- John Holler of Viking Update looks at the reunion between the Vikings and former coach Leslie Frazier on Sunday.
But it's what happened on that final drive that commanded most of the attention after the game, and deservedly so. The Vikings put the Bills on the brink of defeat several times on a 15-play, 80-yard march, only to give Buffalo new life on a series of coverage breakdowns.
The breakdowns at the end of the game, though, are what will stick out about an otherwise impressive performance.
"This is a 'now' business," safety Harrison Smith said. "Everything is right now; you want to win right now. That's just the world we live in. We have to (develop) as fast as possible."
Here are some other observations about the Vikings' defensive performance after a film review of the 17-16 loss to the Bills:
- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer alluded to the Vikings getting burned by their aggressiveness on the final drive, and while his blitzes worked, Josh Robinson's press coverage of Sammy Watkins on a third-and-12 didn't. Watkins, who has two inches and 12 pounds on Robinson, quickly fought off his jam and got inside for a 20-yard gain on a slant. "Poor technique," Zimmer said of the play. Robinson had inside leverage on the play but is still learning to press effectively and needed to throw off Watkins' timing on the route.
- Floyd had what might have been his best game of the season, thanks to a game plan that moved him around the Vikings' defensive front. Floyd had a sack and two hurries, one of which came after he lined up over the left tackle and chased Orton outside the pocket. Joseph's sack on the final drive also came from a three-technique spot, and Everson Griffen's third sack came when he worked a stunt with Floyd after the Vikings showed a seven-man blitz and rushed four.
- Linebacker Anthony Barr was targeted early and often on shallow crossing routes, but the rookie had a monster day, registering 10 tackles, ranging back to break up a pass, recovering two fumbles and rushing Orton on 11 of Zimmer's 13 blitzes. He missed several tackles and also blew up another screen pass, showing great reaction time to take down fullback Frank Summers for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter. It wasn't a complete performance for Barr, but it was an impressive one, which once again hinted at the rookie's potential to be a dominant player once he figures everything out.
"That's what we see every day out of him," Zimmer said of the third-down throws Bridgewater made to extend several drives. "He made a great throw to Jarius (Wright); two of them, I think. There are a lot of positives to take from this game. Even though it's going to show up as a loss, I do think there are a lot of positives of where we can go from here."
Here are some observations about Bridgewater's day, and the rest of the offense, after a film review of the Vikings' 17-16 loss to the Bills:
- Bridgewater blamed himself for holding the ball too long on several sacks, and the Vikings protected him a little more effectively than they did against Detroit the week before, but the line still had trouble handling the Bills' stunts, and breakdowns on the left side of the line were to blame for a couple of the Bills' six sacks. Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson appeared to think the other one was responsible for Marcell Dareus on Buffalo's first sack -- both blocked him initially before turning away to block other players, and Dareus surged through to drop Bridgewater. And in the fourth quarter, Bridgewater said he checked out of a run from the Bills' 14-yard line, adding he shouldn't have planned to throw there. But the Bills had seven men near the line of scrimmage and single coverage on the Vikings' three receivers before Jerry Hughes beat Kalil with an inside move.
- Running back Jerick McKinnon got his 103 yards the hard way, gaining 57 of them after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but the Vikings found some innovative ways to neutralize the league's top run defense. Fullback Jerome Felton's first carry in a Vikings uniform, which went for 21 yards, came on the backside of an unbalanced line that had two tight ends on the opposite side of the field. The Vikings also ran toss plays away from the Bills' two tackles (Dareus and Kyle Williams), with McKinnon gaining 19 yards on four plays outside the tackles.