On face value, Vikings fans have every reason to be confident heading into Thursday's game with Tampa Bay. The Bucs are 2-4, despite playing four of their first six games at home. They are also 0-2 on the road, which, when combined with a short week of preparation for a Thursday road game, can be critical.
Since the Thursday night NFL Network package kicked in Week 2, the home team is 5-1 in those games – an edge that can't be overestimated. The only road team to win was the Giants in a blowout victory over the suddenly-hapless Panthers. It should be noted that the Giants of recent vintage have always seemed to play better on the road than at home. Other than that, the home team has ruled on Thursday night.
Chicago suffered its only loss of the season so far at Green Bay. Arizona's current three-game losing streak began on the road at St. Louis. Prior to yesterday, Tennessee's only win of the season came at home on a Thursday against Pittsburgh. Without replacement refs to help them, Seattle couldn't overcome the Thursday road jinx at San Francisco last week. The odds are long against road teams on a short week, much less having to travel the length of the country just to get to the venue where the game will be played. As difficult as the turnaround time is for the Vikings, it's markedly worse for the Buccaneers.
The Bucs should merely be fodder for the Vikings, right? Not so fast, my friend.
The biggest change in Tampa Bay has been the recent improvement of its offense, which, likely by no coincidence, has happened since the Bucs went on their bye week after Week 4. Prior to their bye week, new head coach Greg Shiano's offense was averaging just 20.5 points a game and was struggling badly at 1-3. However, since returning from their bye week, the Bucs have suddenly shown new life. Granted, it was against the generous defenses in Kansas City and New Orleans, but it's hard to dispute the spike across the board in offensive production that the Buccaneers will be bringing into the Metrodome Thursday. They have averaged 33 points a game and the offense looks markedly different than it did when they lost 24-22 to the Redskins Sept. 30 and headed into their bye week on a down note, having lost three straight games.
Whether it was refocusing on what they do best or getting their batteries recharged with a week off, the Tampa Bay offense that struggled mightily in the first month of the season has been as strong as just about anyone the last couple weeks.
As is typical with offenses, it all starts with the quarterback. Heading into their bye week in Week 5, Josh Freeman had thrown for 790 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions – an average of less than 200 yards a game with one TD and one pick. In the two weeks since the bye, he has thrown for 758 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. When he entered the bye, Freeman had a passer rating of 75.3. Since then, he has increased his 2012 passer rating to 91.2 – thanks to passer ratings of 124.7 and 115.2 in the last two games. He looks like a completely different quarterback and, as the Vikings prepare for him, they may want to pay much more attention to the last two game films, where he has only been sacked twice and has looked much more comfortable (and effective) in the pocket.
As would be expected, when the quarterback is playing well, there is a ripple effect throughout the rest of the offense. Rookie running back Doug Martin was handed the starting job and was given a heavy workload early, with diminishing results. In each of the first four games, he saw his carries decline (24-20-19-8) as well as his yardage totals (95-66-53-33). Heading into the bye week, he was averaging just 3.5 yards a carry. In the two games since, he has spiked his rushing average up to 4.1 yards a carry thanks to having his two best averages of his career since the bye. In those two games, he has rushed 29 times for 161 yards – an impressive 5.6 yards a carry. Even backup LaGarrette Blount has seen his numbers increase (despite being stuffed three times by the Saints in a goal-line drive Sunday). He went into the bye averaging just 3.4 yards a carry, rushing 13 times for just 44 yards. In the two games since the bye, he has rushed 12 times for 56 yards (a 4.7-yard rushing average).
The production of the receivers has increased significantly as well. In the first four games of the season, lead dog Vincent Jackson caught 16 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 19 yards per reception. His per-game average was four catches for 76 yards and a half-touchdown. In the two games since the bye, V-Jack has caught 11 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a whopping 25.6 yards per catch. His per-game average since the bye has been six catches for 141 yards and 1.5 TDs.
While Jackson is clearly the focus, he isn't alone. In the first four games of the season, fellow starting WR Mike Williams caught 11 passes for 219 yards (an average of 3-55). In the two games since, he has caught eight passes for 149 yards (an average of 4-75). In the first four games, tight end Dallas Clark caught just nine passes for 81 yards and no touchdowns. Last week alone, he caught five passes for 51 yards and a TD and has become a player defenses need to game plan for. Martin was used sparingly coming out of the backfield before the bye week – catching eight passes for 53 yards in four games. In the two games since, he has caught five passes for 92 yards and has added another dimension to the offense. Emerging No. 3 receiver Tiquan Underwood played in two games prior to the bye, catching four passes for 46 yards. In the two games since, he has caught four passes for 103 yards and a touchdown – giving the Bucs another deep receiving threat when Jackson and Williams are covered.
It's rare when a team makes a huge adjustment midseason, but the bye week is typically viewed as the time when coaches and players clear their heads, get a respite from the grind that began in late July and come back rejuvenated and ready to get back to work. The bye is a time for assessment and reflection – what have we been doing right and what needs to be corrected? While playing two home games against the Chiefs and Saints defenses may not be the best study sample since neither of them is viewed as being elite (just the opposite), both teams were playing with a sense of desperation given their slow starts and both came into their game with the Bucs expecting to get a win that would help propel their own seasons moving forward. Sound familiar, Vikings fans?
The numbers aren't on Tampa's side. The two teams they've defeated have a combined record of 2-10. Road teams on Thursday night games have a combined record of 1-5. The Vikings are 3-0 at home, 5-2 on the season and are the only team the Bucs have faced so far that had a record above .500 when they played them. On paper, this has all the makings of blowout. But when Vikings defenders say in the days leading up to the game not to underestimate the Tampa Bay offense, they will be speaking the truth and not simply NFL-speak rhetoric. Since Tampa's bye week, this is a different offense that has built momentum moving forward.
The Buccaneers may present a much bigger challenge than might initially meet the eye.
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.
Bye marked a turnaround for Bucs
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