Is there such a thing as flying under the radar in the NFL? No sports league suffers from paralysis by over-analysis more than the NFL, yet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers somehow found a way to be the stealthiest 10-6 team in NFL history last year.
It's rare when the NFL has a team that wins 10 games but doesn't make the playoffs. Last year, two NFC teams – the Buccaneers and the Giants – won 10 games, but missed the playoffs. Cynical types might point to the fact that the teams in the NFC South all got to play Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona in the non-divisional schedules. That much gravy needs multiple biscuits to sop up. However, any team that wins 10 games, regardless of their relative anonymity, deserves respect.
The Tampa Bay Bucs are devoid of a franchise player that becomes the identity of the franchise. It can be argued the Vikings have seven franchise players – Adrian Peterson, Steve Hutchinson, Kevin Williams, Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway, Percy Harvin and, Week 1 withstanding, Donovan McNabb.
You don't see a lot of casual fans wearing Bucs gear because, quite honestly, they don't have a star playing that jumps off the page at fans. Want to know why the Bucs flew under the radar? The NFL preordained it.
The new-look Big Daddy NFL tries to put the sexiest matchups on wide-audience views. The Bucs weren't viewed as sexy, starting every game of the season at the earliest time possible. Of their 16 games, 14 of them were 1 p.m. Eastern starts. The other two? 4 p.m. starts at Arizona and at San Francisco, which was at 1 p.m. local time. The only team worse? Cleveland, which started all 16 of its 2010 games at 1 p.m. ET. Because the NFL runs more half of its games in the 1-4 p.m. ET schedule, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman never rolled into Tampa with their makeup and hair people. The Bucs typically got the D team – Dick Stockton and former Buccaneer John Lynch (shockingly, the duo calling Sunday's game with the Bucs). They are a team devoid of star power, but effective at what they do.
If there is an emerging star from this group it is quarterback Josh Freeman. He had an impressive second season, throwing 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He went from being a quarterbacking liability in 2009 to more than just a game manager. He is prototype size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and is difficult to bring down. However, he is prone to blindside hits and will put the ball on the ground. Last year, he had seven fumbles and lost three of them. While he didn't turn the ball over last week against Detroit, he fumbled twice and the Vikings will likely go after him with blitzes and a persistent pass rush from Jared Allen in hopes of getting the ball loose.
The Bucs have patched together offensive bell cows in LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams. Williams was a fourth-round draft pick – taken two rounds after highly-touted WR Arrelious Benn. However, Benn took a backseat to Williams, who caught 65 passes for almost 1,000 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. Blount was an undrafted free agent who was cut by Tennessee, claimed by the Bucs and ended up transforming the offense, rushing for 1,007 yards despite being just a part-time starter. Given Blount's disgruntled comments about getting just five rushing attempts in the Week 1 loss to Detroit, he is expected to see more opportunities to pound the ball at the Vikings defense.
Defensively, the Bucs had one of the more anemic pass rushes in the league last year, so the team used its first two draft picks on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. Clayborn has already earned a starting job. If one or both can create a consistent pass-rush presence, the Vikings may consider themselves fortunate that they are catching the Bucs early in the season rather than later.
If the Buccaneers do have a marquee position on the team, it is at a spot the Vikings wish wasn't as stellar – cornerback. Ronde Barber is in his 15th (yes, 15th) season, but is still viewed as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. He lines up opposite fourth-year pro Aqib Talib, who has become one of the better cover corners in the NFC and gets targeted more than Barber.
While the Bucs have talent, they are a team that seems to have a sum greater than the individual parts. The Vikings have an advantage being at Mall of America Field, but Tampa Bay is going to be far from a pushover. Just as a home-opening loss to Miami last year set the Vikings back markedly, a loss to Tampa Bay would have a similar effect. This is a Bucs team that can and should be beaten Sunday, but the Vikings are going to have to earn it – it's unlikely they will hand the game away.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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