As we look ahead to the first game of the week, the question to ask is the same every week – what’s the outlook for Thursday? This week south and north collide as the 2-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers leave the sunny shores of Florida for the cold of the Metrodome in Minneapolis to face the 5-2 Minnesota Vikings. Here’s the tale of the tape:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2-4
Injuries: Five players appear on the Bucs injury report for this game but only one is even in doubt to miss this game. Cornerback Brandon Macdonald has been limited in practice with an ankle injury and is listed as questionable – given the short week he may be held out of this one. The other four players on the report – wide receiver Vincent Jackson (Calf), guard Carl Nicks (Foot), center Jeremy Zuttah (Quad) and linebacker Adam Hayward (Ankle) are all listed as probable and all practiced in full on Wednesday and are expected to play although there is some talk Hayward may be on limited snaps.
Three Keys To Victory: First and most important of all is Josh Freeman. The third year quarterback absolutely has to show up with his A game in this one. The Minnesota Vikings defense has improved greatly over the unit that self destructed so often last year and their pass rush has shown renewed vigor – they’ve piled on 22 sacks so far this season which ties them for third equal with the Arizona Cardinals and just two behind the league leading Green Bay Packers. Freeman needs to make quick decisive reads and get the ball out of his hands sharply – something he has improved upon this year given he’s only been sacked 10 times in 6 games but that plagued him heavily in 2011.
Next, there has to be an increased focus on stopping the run. Adrian Peterson may still be coming back from that ACL but he has turned it on in multiple games this year and can never be underestimated. In particular, I wanna see former first round pick DT Gerald McCoy show us what he’s got in this game game and put a couple of big stops on AP.
Finally, I’m going to shine the spotlight on the coaching staff of this team and in particular the offensive play-calling. When Greg Schiano came in as Head Coach with Mike Sullivan as his Offensive Coordinator, there was all this talk of bringing better discipline to the team and making better decisions on offense. There have been some telling results – Josh Freeman has showed signs of life after many left him for dead last season and rookie RB Doug Martin has responded well. What concerns me however is that the situational play-calling on offense has been somewhat lacking at times. This is a very vanilla offense that has been found out at times due to not only a lack of imagination but also the coaches playing to safe at times. If they want to get past the Vikings pass rush, Schano and Sullivan have to be willing to take a few more risks.
Fantasy: Doug Martin is the only true automatic fantasy start here but he is a good one. Start him with confidence – I have him as my 11th overall RB this week. Vincent Jackson is the only other player I could start with any confidence in this game – he seems to finally have the consistency that was missing in San Diego in recent years. As for Josh Freeman, stay away from him this week. He had a monster game last week but that doesn’t mean he’s back to 2010 numbers. Throw in the fact that there are a number of very favorable QB matchups this week and it’s hard to justify starting Freeman in almost any league. Finally, my sneaky deep sleeper this week is Luke Stocker who I believe could get a touchdown when the Bucs get in close. If you’re in a deep league and desperate, you can do a lot worse than Stocker.
Minnesota Vikings 5-2
Injuries: The Vikings have two players confirmed as not playing Thursday – backup tight end John Carlson is out with a concussion with rookie FB/TE Rhett Ellison expected to take his spot in the lineup and second year starting strong safety Mistral Raymond is also out with an ankle injury.
While listing many players on the injury report on a short week is common, Minnesota has taken this to extremes with a full 11 players listed as probable for the game. Of those, Adrian Peterson is most notable of all as he didn’t practice. However, this is likely precautionary as Peterson continues his ongoing in-season ACL rehab and he should play. The most concern appears to be with rookie left tackle Matt Kalil whose back injury sustained in week 7 – he is the most likely to miss tonight’s game. Jared Allen is dealing with a minor groin issue and while limited in practice should play. Wide Receiver Jerome Simpson is almost fully recovered from the back injury he got a few weeks back and should play a more complete role this week than he did in the win against the Cardinals.
The rest listed as probable – rookie SS Robert Blanton (Hamstring), CB Antoine Winfield (Knee), rookie FS Harrison Smith (Calf), QB Christian Ponder (Knee), LB Marvin Mitchell (Calf), RB Matt Asiata (Knee) and DT Fred Evans (Knee) – are all expected to be available to play.
Three Keys To Victory: Percy Harvin has been arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL so far this season but if the Vikings are going to dominate this game as they have the potential to then he will need some help. For me the biggest key is the likes of tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins being able to provide Harvin with plenty of support. The Buccaneers secondary has struggled at times this season and if Harvin draws a lot of coverage this show leave holes for the rest to get open. Minnesota needs to pass early and often to open up the running game.
My next key is pretty simple – slam Josh Freeman into the dirt early and often. We have seen in the past that when Freeman gets hit it can rattle him. The Minnesota Vikings have the players to impose their will on Freeman through their ferocious pass rush led by defensive end Jared Allen and complimented well by linebacker Chad Greenway and up and coming end Everson Griffen. If they can knock Freeman over a few times early, this game could be over by half-time.
Lastly – and partly related to the second key – I believe it’s time for this young secondary to step up and show us what they can do and generate some turnovers. This team is a miserable 23rd in the league in interceptions – a stat which needs to improve if the Vikings are going to continue the good form that brought them to their 5-2 record. There are some much better quarterbacks in the future for Minnesota – including Cutler twice, Rodgers twice, Matthew Stafford again and Matt Schaub. This is the game they can really get going as a unit – especially if the pass rush has a big day.
Fantasy: Adrian Peterson has finally proven he’s able to overcome the ACL injury although it’s obvious he’s still recovering and it shows at times. Still, this is a very soft matchup and he’s a must-start. Percy Harvin is also in must-start territory here – although his owners already know that even if some ignorant outsiders don’t. Christian Ponder is an interesting gamble this week but there are so many other good QB matchups this week so he’s probably only startable in 2QB leagues. Last of all, I’m going to recommend the Vikings D/ST in this game – they’ve impressed me a great deal and I fully expect turnovers and sacks from them in this game while keeping the score down so you should be ok to start them in most leagues.
Betting: This line has been solid all week with the Vikings favored by 6.5 points at home. Little known fact – every single home team aside from the Carolina Panthers in week 3 have covered on Thursday Night Football this year. While Freeman and the Bucs may have taken it to the Saints last week and put up numbers, they don’t scare me enough to break the trend – gimme the Minnesota Vikings and give away the 6.5.
Final Score: I’m not that big a fan of Tampa Bay this season – I’ve been vocal about that from the start – and I’m not going to give them much love here either. My call is the Minnesota Vikings get a comfortable win 34-16.
So what will be the outlook for Thursday? Your guess as good as mine!