Bucs Still Bring It On 'D'

Even without nose tackle Anthony McFarland, the Bucs have an impressive defensive front. It will be the job of Matt Birk to direct Minnesota's offensive line into the right protections Sunday, as the Vikings hope for an upset in Tampa.

The Vikings have been no strangers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, developing quite a heated rivalry over the years. But when they meet in Tampa on Sunday it will be the first time in 25 years that they meet as non-division opponents.

Dennis Green is gone. Tony Dungy is gone. But the rivalry lives on.

One change that may be in the lineup is at quarterback. Former Viking Brad Johnson had started every game for the Bucs before suffering cracked ribs vs. the Eagles. He missed last week's game at Carolina, so the starting job is up in the air between him and Rob Johnson. Rob Johnson has a stronger arm but is prone to making mistakes, and he is also questionable for this game. Brad Johnson is more precise but throws short passes to move the team. Both bring their own set of weapons to the table, and coach Jon Gruden may keep the Vikings guessing until game time as to who the starter will be.

The running game has also been up and down. Michael Pittman was brought in to replace Warrick Dunn, but despite being the leading rusher and receiver for the Bucs he hadn't scored a touchdown in the first seven games. The same isn't true for Mike Alstott. The battering-ram fullback showed what he could do in the Bucs' last home game, rumbling for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns. The combination of these two is likely to pound at the Vikings run defense as each gets 15 or more carries during the game.

The receiver corps may finally have given Keyshawn Johnson what he wants. Johnson has been constantly double-covered since joining the Bucs, but with veteran Keenan McCardell coming to Tampa from Jacksonville and Joe Jurevicius coming over from the Giants, the Bucs now have weapons on the outside. All three are capable of having huge receiving days and each has burned the Vikings at one time or another.

At tight end, the Bucs just keep getting better. After signing Ken Dilger in the offseason, the Bucs picked Rickey Dudley off waivers to give the team two legitimate red zone threats at the position.

Up front, the Bucs have a new look. A year ago Jerry Wunsch and Randall McDaniel were in the starting lineup. Both are gone now. Joining center Jeff Christy and right guard Cosey Coleman was guard Kerry Jenkins (now injured) and tackles Roman Oben and Kenyatta Walker, who has moved from left tackle to right tackle. Todd Washington will likely get a shot at Jenkins' spot now, but the Bucs have barely missed a beat with a shuffled offensive front this year, as Gruden's offense had a five-game streak of 20 points or more to start the season. It sputtered last week, but that may not last long.

As much as Gruden has brought life to the Bucs offense, it is still defense that fuels the engine in Tampa Bay. The team has dominant, Pro Bowl players up and down the roster, including the front four, where Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice anchor one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Nose tackle Anthony McFarland will miss six to eight weeks with a shoulder injury, and that will hurt the Bucs' ability to stop the run and keep blockers off of Sapp. The unit could stop the run and pressure the passer like few others in the league before McFarland's injury, but they are still sure to be coming after Daunte Culpepper early and often.

If the Vikings get past the defensive front, the linebackers aren't any easier to beat. Derrick Brooks remains one of the most dominating linebackers in the game, and he has proved his big-play ability by scoring four touchdowns this year — a total after seven games that was more than Pittman, McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson combined. He is flanked by middle linebacker Shelton Quarles and strongside linebacker Alshermond Singleton. The three have the strength to blitz and beat offensive linemen and the speed to cover running backs and tight ends in coverage.

As if those wouldn't be enough, the Bucs secondary is still one of the top units in the league. Hard-hitting John Lynch leads the way at strong safety, where he is joined by much-improved Dexter Jackson, who is showing the signs of becoming a more instinctive player. On the outside, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly had been viewed by some as the weak link of the defense, but Kelly appears to be making strides and Barber is fearless in one-on-one coverage. When the Bucs go into nickel and dime packages, second-year man Dwight Smith comes in. With his inexperience, the Vikings may take a shot at him.

There is no love lost between these two teams. In 1998, the Vikings lost in Tampa to register their only loss in a 15-1 season. In the last two meetings in Tampa, the Bucs have outscored the Vikings 82-27. The Vikings know they are capable of getting blown out by Tampa, so staying close early will be the key, along with not allowing the Bucs' opportunistic defense to create turnovers.


KEY MATCHUP
Warren Sapp vs. Matt Birk and David Dixon
Few players require double coverage at all times. Randy Moss is one on offense and Warren Sapp is one on defense. While he is a player who tends to disappear at stretches of games, Sapp has a propensity for making the big play that turns games around – much in the same way John Randle did for the Vikings of the 1990s.

Sapp is a dominant run stuffer who has surprising speed for a man his size, which allows him to get to the quarterback for sacks. Because of this, most teams opt to put two players on him. In the Vikings' case, that will be Matt Birk and Dave Dixon.

The Vikings have done a decent job of establishing the run this season in games where they haven't fallen behind early. That won't be an easy task against the Bucs, because many teams simply avoid running right at Sapp. However, the Vikings may not use that same ploy. Mike Tice believes Sapp is more dangerous when he has angles and can chase plays down — creating turnovers and hits for a loss. The Vikings may well try running directly at Sapp and count on Birk and Dixon to shove him out of the way and wear him down as the game goes along.

The other reason this matchup is one to keep an eye on is because the Bucs have a knack for causing turnovers, and the Vikings lead the league in turnovers allowed. If Sapp can cause a disruption and blindide Daunte Culpepper or force him to throw a pass he doesn't want to, the rest of the opportunistic Bucs defense will make the most of the chances.

Teams scouting the Vikings say if they shut down Moss, they shut down the Vikings. The same can be said for Sapp on the Bucs defense. If Birk and Dixon can minimize his contribution Sunday, the Vikings will have a chance to score points on the top-rated Bucs defense.


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