Bucs preview: Solid and effective

The Buccaneers don't have many stars on their team, but they have built a well-schooled group of players on both sides of the ball that are becoming accustomed to winning. And they haven't lost at home yet this year. We preview the Tampa personnel, position by position.

The Vikings head into Tampa Bay today looking to do something they haven't been able to do in more than a decade – go into Tampa and come away with a victory. The last time the Vikings won a game in Tampa was in 1997 – the year before Raymond James Stadium opened its doors. In 1998, the Vikings went 15-1, with the only loss coming at Tampa. Since then, the team has made the trip to Florida four more times and come away empty on each occasion. While many of the faces have changed since their last meeting in 2005, one thing that hasn't changed is that the Bucs are a dangerous and effective team when playing at home, where they have a 4-0 record this year.

The Buccaneers aren't a team deep in star power, but they find ways to get the job done. That begins with quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was a free-agent signee in 2007 that led Tampa Bay to a division title. He has shared time with veteran backup Brian Griese, but has continued to do what he always does – manage a game and minimize his mistakes. He has completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 1,363 yards. While he has just five touchdowns, he has thrown only three interceptions. He rarely puts his team in a bad situation and doesn't throw into the teeth of defensive coverage. His numbers don't jump out at you, but the 6-3 record Tampa Bay enjoys is due in large part to his ability to not make the big mistake that potentially costs his team the game.

The Bucs running game has always been marked by the big back and the speed back, dating back to early in the careers of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. Dunn is in his 12th season, but is still productive as a part-time back. He is averaging nearly five yards a carry this season (89 rushes, 423 yards) and has caught 22 passes out of the backfield. The primary runner is Earnest Graham, who leads the team with 131 rushes for 560 yards and four touchdowns. He is a classic between-the-tackles bruiser, but those types of runners don't often enjoy a lot of success against the Vikings' Williams Wall. Depth has been a concern, but that could change significantly with the return of Cadillac Williams, just not in this game yet. Williams, who was on the physically-unable-to-perform list for 13 months, was activated Wednesday – the last day he could be placed on the 53-man roster. To make room for him, the Bucs had to release former Viking Michael Bennett. Williams won't be active against the Vikings today, but if can return to anything close to his pre-injury form, the Bucs could have a three-headed beast in the backfield.

The Jon Gruden-run offense of the Buccaneers has been notorious for taking veteran players that many teams thought were done with their productive days and turned them into productive players. Tampa Bay has a trio of such players that play a key role in their offense – ageless veteran Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and journeyman Antonio Bryant. Galloway has defied Father Time for years and, while injuries have limited him to just 12 catches this season, he still has the ability to get behind the defense and make huge plays. Bryant is an immensely talented player who has had something of a bad attitude. As a result, he has bounced around the league and played in a different offensive scheme every year. It would appear he has found a home in Tampa, however. He leads the team with 45 catches for 566 yards and two touchdowns and is the closest thing the Bucs have to a go-to receiver. Hilliard is in his 12th season and has lost much of his speed, but he still has great hands. His 33 catches are second on the team and, while he is averaging just 8.5 yards per reception, he leads the team in touchdowns with three and is a dangerous red zone target. Fifth-year pro Michael Clayton has never replicated his strong rookie season, but he is a target that Garcia looks for down the sideline and is always capable of turning a short pass into a long gain. The team will be without starting tight end Alex Smith, who scored two touchdowns the last time Tampa Bay played the Vikings, but his spot will be taken by pass-catching TE Jerramy Stevens, who displayed a lot of talent in Seattle, but, like Bryant, had a bad attitude that led to his ouster. The Bucs don't have any true top-end talent in the receiver corps, but they spread the ball around very effectively. Don't be surprised to see eight or nine different players catch passes as Garcia takes what the Vikings defense will give him.

The Bucs offensive line isn't viewed as a dominating group, but has allowed just 10 sacks through nine games and has opened holes for a running game that is averaging 4.2 yards a carry. This is a very young group that potentially could be together for years. The old man of the bunch is center Jeff Faine – who is only in his sixth season. Three of the four linemen – left tackle Donald Penn, right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood – are in their third season, and left guard Arron Sears is just in his second year. They don't have anywhere near the experience the Vikings defensive front has, which could play to Minnesota's advantage, but this is a group that has showed marked improvement over the past year and could be the foundation of Tampa Bay teams for years to come. Fans should keep a close eye on this group during the game. Most dynasty-type teams have been built around an offensive line that matures together as a group and, barring injury or free agent defections, this Fab Five could be intact for the next five to 10 years.

While the Bucs offense has done enough to win games, the mystique of the Buccaneers remains its defense. Former Vikings defensive coach Monte Kiffin came to Tampa Bay with Tony Dungy and has never left despite a change in head coaches from Dungy to Gruden. His Tampa-2 schemes have been replicated around the league, including the defense run by the Vikings. The Tampa-2 requires athleticism at all three levels of the defense and the Bucs have those components. Up front, they have a mix of veteran savvy and young talent. On the left side, they have 13-year veteran Kevin Carter and former Viking Chris Hovan anchoring one side of the line. On the right side, they have fourth-year tackle Jovan Haye and 2007 first-round pick Gaines Adams. Adams leads the team with four sacks and is beginning to blossom into the dominant defender the Bucs were convinced he could be coming out of Clemson. He will be locked on Bryant McKinnie all day and that should be a matchup to keep an eye on. The team has solid depth with former first-rounders Greg White, who is second on the team with 3.5 sacks, as a third-down pass rushing end and Ryan Sims, who was going to be the Vikings' first-round pick when the Chiefs swung a last-second trade and the Vikings ended up with McKinnie. This group is deep and talented and, if a starter gets banged up or needs a breather, the drop-off isn't that pronounced.

The linebacker corps has always been one of the strengths of the Tampa Bay defense and this year is no exception. The team has two of the best outside ‘backers in the game in Derrick Brooks and Cato June. Brooks is in his 14th season, but can still blow up plays and make the key play that turns a game around. June made a name for himself in Indianapolis, where the Colts run an extremely similar defense and where he was coached up by Leslie Frazier prior to Frazier signing on as the Vikings defensive coordinator. He is extremely quick and is a good wrap-up tackler. In the middle the Bucs have underrated Barrett Ruud. While not blessed with exceptional speed, Ruud waited two years for his chance to be the starting MLB and, when given the chance, led the Buccaneers in tackles last year. He has good instincts and is a solid fit in Kiffin's defense, despite not having the type of speed typically seen in the Tampa-2 defense. Depth could be a big concern if one of the starters goes down, because they are extremely raw and don't have an NFL start between them. Backup OLB Quincy Black and MLB Adam Hayward are both in their second seasons and were used almost exclusively as special teamers last year, and OLB Geno Hayes is a rookie. If one of the starters goes down, look for the Vikings to attack the inexperienced replacement.

The secondary has been a consistent strength of the Bucs and they may have the best three-corner grouping in the NFC. Ronde Barber continues to roll along in his 12th season and Phillip Buchanon is an extremely aggressive corner on the left side. The budding star of the group is first-round rookie Aqib Talib, another player with a bad-boy reputation, but one who leads the team with three of its 12 interceptions. The safety positions are manned by seventh-year man Jermaine Phillips and second-year player Tanard Jackson. Phillips is a big hitter who makes receivers pay for crossing over the middle and provides solid help in run support – he will be the eighth man in the box when the team presses up to stop Adrian Peterson. Jackson started all 16 games as a rookie and looks like a draft coup in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. He proved to be an ideal fit in the Tampa-2 scheme and has good closing and transition speed.

The Vikings haven't seen the Buccaneers in three years, but they haven't changed their philosophy much, if at all. They're still an efficient offense that minimizes mistakes and a playmaking defense that can change the complexion of a game with one big play. The Buccaneers aren't an ideal matchup for the Vikings because the game could well come down to which team makes the one or two big plays in the fourth quarter that spells the difference between winning and losing.

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