When the Vikings face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, in many ways they will be facing a mirror image of themselves. Many teams in the NFL run the West Coast Offense and a growing number incorporate the Tampa-2 defense. But few teams run them both. The Vikings and Buccaneers are two of those teams.
Although personnel dictates different wrinkles in both the offense and defense, there are more similarities than differences on both sides of the ball. In many ways, the teams will have a shorthand knowledge of what to expect on Sunday – for one simple reason.
"We practice against it every day, so we'll be familiar with it," defensive end Jared Allen said. "If you look at the defensive stats, we're pretty much identical to their stats. We do a lot of things the same on both sides of the ball."
If there are differences, there are probably more on offense than on defense. While both weaned on similar versions of the WCO that the Packers ran under Mike Holmgren – who is a significant branch in the Bill Walsh tree that has spread throughout the NFL – Brad Childress and Jon Gruden are both offensive-minded head coaches that have added more nuances to their own offenses than variations to the Tampa-2 defense.
"It's probably easier to transition for the offenses because our Tampa-2 defenses are more similar than our West Coast Offenses," cornerback Cedric Griffin said. "Coach Childress and Coach Gruden run offenses that are pretty different. They have some great athletes like Joey Galloway, Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. It won't make it any easier because we know the system they run because they use their players different than we do."
However, there are some advantages for defenders to key on the elements of the West Coast Offense that both teams share. The players may be different, but many of the reads are ones that the defense sees in practice every day.
"It helps practicing against a West Coast Offense and then playing against a West Coast," cornerback Benny Sapp said. "They're not exactly the same, but there is a lot of quick passes coming off three-step drops that are the same. You can't go off of what you see in practice every day, but being familiar with it helps you pick up keys on things they may do when you watch film."
But, for the Vikings offense, the similarities do come to an end at some point, especially in the way the Vikings defense attacks the offense during practice and how other teams perceive their strengths and weaknesses. Wide receiver Bobby Wade said that too much emphasis can't be placed on what the other guy is running, because in the give and take of games, worrying too much about what the other guy has planned can take away from your own effectiveness.
"Teams don't tend to play us the way our defense plays us (in practice)," Wade said. "It's a little different. Our preparation is going to have to come based on us (on the offense). We've got to be on our P's and Q's with the things that we do really well and try to run those things versus letting the defense dictate what kind of offense we're going to run. We just have to run our offense. It's good to practice against a similar defense, but we have to be prepared for everything."
One disadvantage the Vikings might have is that the Buccaneers are coming off of their bye week and have had two weeks to prepare. Defensive guru Monte Kiffin has built a reputation as one of the game's top defensive coordinators because he will mix up his schemes depending on opponent. What you see on film may be a far cry from what you see on Sunday.
When asked if having a familiarity with the Tampa-2 defense is an advantage heading into Sunday, offensive tackle Ryan Cook hedged his bet with a definite maybe.
"Yes and no," Cook said. "Yes, in the fact that they show you the same looks that our defense does. No, in the fact that they change them up just like everybody else. They might show us some of the same looks, but there are teams that change things up and run a totally different scheme from one game to the next. You have to get ready for any of the possibilities."
In the end, the familiarity with each other's base offenses and defenses will boil down to the ability for one team to impose its will on the other. Both defenses are going to look to shut down the running game by any means necessary and it breaks down quite simply to the team that executes better will win the game.
"When you look at their offense, you can see a lot of similarities to us," Robison said. "They like to establish the run and use that to open things up a little bit. They're going to try to pound the ball at us and shoot some quick passes at us. We do pretty much the same thing. What both teams are going to try to do is stop the running game and make their offense one-dimensional and force them to pass."
Whether the team actually finds itself peering into the looking glass and finding a mirror image or not will depend on execution. But a veteran like Matt Birk looks at the potential from a bigger picture. Sure, the Vikings will likely be preparing against a slightly different version of their own offense and defense, but so will the Bucs.
"It goes both ways," Birk said. "They're going to have the same kind of familiarity with us."
Vikes-Bucs: Similar schemes, different teams
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