Reversal Of Fortunes For Bucs

Last time the Vikings met the Bucs, Matt Birk and his offensive linemates limited Warren Sapp to three tackles and no sacks. They hope to play that well again Sunday.

When the Vikings met the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3 of the 2001 season, the Bucs had a chance to do what few teams could during the Dennis Green era — put the Vikings away. The Vikings were 0-2 in two games they should have won and the team most people picked as the favorites in the NFC Central (the Bucs) were favored on the road. The Vikings responded with a 20-16 win, and now the shoe is on the other foot.

With a win over Tampa Sunday, the Vikings can force the Bucs to finish one game ahead of Minnesota in the playoff chase. But, that would appear to be easier said than done. In Green's first year as head coach in 1992, the Vikings swept the Buccaneers. Since then, in each of the last eight years, the teams have split the season series and, in the last three years, the Vikings have won the home game of the series and lost the road contest.

Such is the history that faces both teams heading into Sunday's rematch. With the Vikings having done their part by winning at home for the fourth straight year by a score of 20-16, now it's time for them to try to break the losing streak at Raymond James Stadium that has haunted them.

To do that, the Vikings will have to keep Brad Johnson contained. They did a good job of that in the first meeting — Johnson didn't throw a TD pass until the fourth game of the season, but threw a lot against the Vikings in the first meeting. As Vikings fans know, Johnson throws short, accurate passes and will likely try to pepper the Vikings secondary with passes to set up the running game.

When the Bucs run, they look to be back into more of a two-pronged attack than they were in the first game. Last season, Mike Alstott was injured, and when Warrick Dunn got the chance to be the featured back, the offense for Tampa Bay opened up. Dunn held the starting job until the Week 3 game with the Vikings, when he hurt his foot. That gave Alstott a chance to start and he scored the game-winning touchdown against Green Bay. Dunn was back last week but injured again and isn't a certainty to play Sunday. If he does, he will get more carries than Alstott, but both players will get their chances — Dunn being the explosive back of the two and Alstott pounding the ball for tough yardage.

When the Bucs pass, they have several receiving options, but the top one is Keyshawn Johnson, who, like a few of the Bucs, is trying to get healthy enough to play Sunday. Blessed with a big mouth to spout just how good he is, Johnson is a big target that is Brad Johnson's go-to guy but far from his only target. The Bucs will run multi-receiver sets, meaning that Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and Karl Williams will all see opportunities to get the ball. If the Vikings key too much on the wideouts, tight end Dave Moore, who caught a TD pass in Tampa's loss to Tennessee to send the game to overtime, is another option the Vikings will have to watch in the red zone.

To open up the passing and running game, the Bucs will need a big performance from their offensive line, which is led by former Vikings Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel. They're joined by guard Cosey Coleman and tackles Jerry Wunsch and rookie Kenyatta Walker. The latter will be the focus of the Vikings' defensive front. Walker is a rookie who had no business being on the board when the Bucs traded up to draft him but is a rookie still learning the game at left tackle. Meanwhile, Wunsch is a journeyman the Bucs have been looking to replace. The Vikings successfully exploited Tampa's weaknesses in the first game and will try to replicate that Sunday.

As always, the Bucs defense is what wins games for them. If Warren Sapp gets involved in the game plan, he can dominate on the defensive front, as can defensive ends Simeon Rice and Marcus Jones and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. However, in the first meeting, Sapp was neutralized. Getting that done again won't be as easy.

Beyond the line, there is no dropoff in talent on the Tampa defense. Linebacker Derrick Brooks had 20 tackles in the first meeting and is always flying to the ball to make a big hit. Fellow linebackers Jamie Duncan and Shelton Quarles are improving each game, but Brooks is the show in the middle of the defense and the Vikings will likely try to avoid him this time around.

In the secondary, Randy Moss and Cris Carter will again be tested, this time by cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Donnie Abraham and safety John Lynch. Barber and Abraham are both capable of taking any receiver in single coverage, and Lynch enjoys putting a big hit on players and laying them out. If the Vikings are going to do anything offensively against Tampa Bay, they will have to make quick strikes deep to take advantage of the Bucs' naturally aggressive secondary. If the Vikings get conservative, the Bucs will dominate defensively.

The Vikings have been known for their success heading into and coming out of bye weeks, but this one will be a stiff test of that past history — especially considering that neither Dennis Green nor Tony Dungy has enjoyed a season sweep over the other. VU


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