Proving Game For Bucs And Vikes

Daunte Culpepper will probably face his toughest test of 2001 while lining up opposite the Bucs defensive line. Might that inspire a better performance?

In the days that followed the attack on America at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the NFL opted to cancel its games for Week 2. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the teams most immediately affected. Because the Bucs were scheduled for a bye in Week 3, when the Bucs come to the Metrodome to play Minnesota on Sunday, it will be three weeks since their last game — more time off than they would have liked.

The Bucs are trying to get to the Super Bowl this year and, on offense at least, they're trying to do it with a distinctively Minnesota look to it. In fact, they hope one former Viking is the missing ingredient to bringing Tampa Bay back to the top. Quarterback Brad Johnson was signed in free agency to supplant Shaun King, and it is hoped Johnson's veteran savvy and pinpoint passing will be enough to improve an offense that scored 16 points or less in three of their final four games last year and just 10 points in the opener vs. Dallas. If Johnson can minimize mistakes, he has the offensive firepower to do some damage.

The running game has morphed since the last time the Vikings met the Bucs. Mike Alstott is no longer the 20-carry-a-game back. That job now belongs to Warrick Dunn. With speed and pass-catching ability, Dunn brings the big-play aspect to the running game. Alstott is still involved in the offense, but now it is more as a blocker than a rusher. Both will get a healthy dose of opportunities against the Vikings defense, but look for Dunn to get the majority of the carries.

At the receivers, another high-priced acquisition was Keyshawn Johnson, whom the Bucs got last year in a trade. He isn't Randy Moss, but with his size and speed he can make big plays and the Buccaneers are committed to getting him the ball more this season. K.J. isn't the only option, however. There's also Jacquez Green, who has developed into a solid complementary receiver, as well as Reidel Anthony and Karl Williams, both of whom have enjoyed some success against the Vikings in the recent past. Dave Moore remains the tight end and, while he is a threat at the goal line, he isn't used as much in the new-look Bucs offense as he was in previous regimes.

On the offensive line, the Bucs have overhauled the unit over the past couple of seasons, most notably in the middle, where former Vikings Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy were Pro Bowl starters at guard and center, respectively. They are flanked by second-year guard Cosey Coleman and tackles Jerry Wunsch and Kenyatta Walker. Walker, a rookie, and Coleman both have just one NFL start, so having veterans like McDaniel and Christy in between them is a must for the Bucs offense to improve and remain a steadying force in their drive for a division title. Their matchup with the Vikings defensive line will likely be the key to the game.

The Vikings have won five of the last six home games against the Bucs, because they have found ways to score on their top-rated defense. But the unit looks tougher every year.

It begins up front, where the Bucs have added former Pro Bowler Simeon Rice to a group that includes Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland and Marcus Jones. These four are as solid as any front four in the NFL and will be assigned to pressuring Daunte Culpepper. Even if they aren't on the top of their game, the Tampa defense still can get the job done.

At linebacker, Derrick Brooks remains at the top of his game as a four-time Pro Bowler. He is joined at middle linebacker by Jamie Duncan and strongside linebacker Shelton Quarles. As with the rest of the Bucs defense, when one part goes away, another is ready to fill in and, with Al Singleton and Jeff Gooch, the Bucs have experienced backups ready to step in if called on. The linebackers are aggressive and create matchup problems for running backs and tight ends and are another key to the continued success of Tony Dungy's defense.

The secondary is again anchored by safety John Lynch. Known as one of the biggest hitters in the game, Lynch is a dominating safety in the Robert Griffith mold who can lay out a Cris Carter or Randy Moss if they roam across the middle of the field. Alongside Lynch is Dexter Jackson, a third-year man who has stepped into a starting spot this season in hopes of meshing with the veterans around him.

At the corners, Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber have the skills to go one-on-one with Carter and Moss and will be asked to do so more often than a lot of teams attempt that assignment. If Dungy wants to prove a point by having his corners go bump and run, he may get burned in the process.

The Vikings and Bucs have split their season series each of the last eight seasons and, if the Vikings want to improve on that, this game becomes essential. A win at home will put the Vikings back in the NFC marathon. A loss will leave them behind Tampa by more than two games with tie-breakers considered and could springboard the Bucs toward a division title — making this game as big as it gets for either team. VU

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