A poor start and subpar play from an aging quarterback helped spoil a 2010 season of high expectations for the Minnesota Vikings. It's a scenario the team certainly doesn't want to unfold once again.
Minnesota will attempt to avoid beginning 0-2 for a second straight year when it hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday in the first regular-season game to be held at the Metrodome under the facility's new roof.
The Vikings stumbled out of the gates and often struggled offensively under the direction of a declining Brett Favre during last year's 6-10 disaster, and an offseason quarterback switch didn't immediately solve the club's problems in its first outing of 2011. Minnesota mustered a meager 28 net passing yards in last Sunday's 24-17 loss at San Diego, with new triggerman Donovan McNabb completing just 7-of-15 throws for 39 yards in his debut with the Purple and Gold.
The offense was stymied by the Chargers in the second half, producing a mere 26 total yards and two first downs over the final two quarters as the Vikings squandered a 17-7 lead at intermission.
Tampa Bay was also hurt by a lack of balance in its opener, with the team forced to abandon its run-oriented approach after falling behind by two touchdowns in the second half of an eventual 27-20 home setback to surging Detroit in Week 1.
The Buccaneers ran the ball just 16 times for 56 yards while in constant comeback mode against the Lions, with workhorse back LeGarette Blount receiving just five carries on the afternoon.
"That's not how we want to win games," a frustrated Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris declared afterward. "We want to win games with Blount bludgeoning you for 130 yards and having a couple of play-action bombs and being efficient with [quarterback Josh Freeman]. When we go to that two-minute offense like that, we kind of take Blount out of the game. That's something we don't want to do."
The numbers support Morris' philosophy, as the Bucs went 6-2 when Blount ran the ball 15 or more times during last year's surprising 10-6 campaign.
Minnesota also figures to take to the ground early and often in Sunday's test, with All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson set to take on a Tampa defense that allowed the fifth-highest rushing total in the league a year ago.
A return to their usual home venue could very well aid the Vikings as well. Minnesota has gone 18-4 at Mall of America Field since 2008 and registered a 4-2 record at the Metrodome prior to the roof collapsing under a heavy snowfall last December. The Vikings had to play their final two home dates in alternate locations due to the damage, and lost on both occasions.
The Buccaneers were hardly slouches on the road last season, however, prevailing in six of their eight bouts as the visitor in 2010. The lone blemishes came against eventual postseason participants Atlanta and Baltimore by a combined 13 points.
These one-time division rivals, both of whom were members of the now-defunct NFC Central from 1978 through 2001, have met 51 times previously. Minnesota owns a 31-20 overall advantage in the series, but the Buccaneers have prevailed in each of their last four matchups with the Vikings and earned a 24-13 win in their most recent trip to the Metrodome, back in 2005. The Bucs also dealt the Vikes a 19-13 defeat in Tampa during Week 11 of the 2008 season and haven't lost to Minnesota since a 20-16 setback at the Metrodome on Sept. 30, 2001.
Morris and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier will each be going head-to-head against both one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Look for Tampa Bay to get back to basics this week and continually attack a Minnesota defense that will be without suspended interior anchor Kevin Williams by feeding the ball to the powerful Blount (15 rushing yards last week), a 245- pound grinder who averaged over five yards per carry and had four 100-yard outputs after taking over as Tampa Bay's featured back midway through his rookie season of 2010. That mindset should help open up an offense that's led by one of the league's premier young quarterbacks in Freeman (259 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), who came through with a sensational 25-to-6 touchdown-to- interception ratio in his first full season as a starter last year and orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks. The 23-year-old has two quality young targets to work with as well in the second-year receiver tandem of Mike Williams (4 receptions, 50 yards, 1 TD) and Arrelious Benn (4 receptions), while tight end Kellen Winslow has two seasons of 80-plus catches to his credit and is coming off a six-reception, 66-yard performance against the Lions. Regular slot receiver Sammie Stroughter is presently sidelined with a fractured foot, but fill-in Preston Parker stepped up with a career-best four grabs totaling 44 yards in last Sunday's loss.
Minnesota' defense acquitted itself pretty well last week in spite of the six- time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams sitting out the first of a two-game ban for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy, limiting San Diego's backfield combo of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert to 80 rushing yards on 24 attempts and intercepting Philip Rivers twice on the day, though the outstanding Chargers quarterback still managed to put up 335 yards and throw a pair of touchdown passes. The Vikings will lean on outside linebackers Chad Greenway (8 tackles) and Erin Henderson (9 tackles, 1 sack), who combined for 17 stops and five tackles for loss in the opener, in hopes of keeping Tampa Bay's ground game under wraps and forcing the Bucs into obvious passing situations where coordinator Fred Pagac can unleash sack artist Jared Allen (6 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) and high-motor counterpart Brian Robison (3 tackles, 0.5 sacks) from the end spots. Allen is a three-time All-Pro who's notched 11 sacks or more in each of the past four seasons. Letroy Guion will start in Williams' place for a second straight week and contributed four tackles in last Sunday's defeat.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
With McNabb (39 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) failing to generate much through the air in his first game as a Viking, expect the offensive burden to be placed on the broad shoulders of Peterson, signed to a new seven-year, $100-million contract just prior to the San Diego game. The impact running back proved his worth by racking up 98 yards on only 16 carries against the Chargers, even with the opposing defense geared up to stop him. Peterson may be even tougher to contain if Minnesota can put together a more formidable passing attack in Week 2, as well as get playmaking wide receiver Percy Harvin more involved in the action after the dangerous third-year pro was held to just seven yards on two catches last Sunday. McNabb's longest completion was only 12 yards in the opener, but the 13th-year veteran did connect with fellow newcomer Michael Jenkins on a short touchdown pass that was set up by a 46-yard Peterson run in the second quarter. Jenkins paced the Vikings' receivers with three catches for 26 yards, while starting split end Bernard Berrian and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe were each held without a reception.
McNabb may have an easier time finding soft spots in a Tampa Bay secondary that was throttled for 305 yards and three touchdowns by Detroit's Matthew Stafford last week while failing to mount a threatening pass rush. That was a trouble spot for the Bucs last season as well, with the team's accumulation of 26 sacks tied for the second-fewest in the league. Tampa Bay also allowed a problematic 131.7 rushing yards per game (28th overall) and 4.7 yards per attempt in 2010, though the unit was able to keep Detroit's rather pedestrian ground attack mostly in check in the opener. The Bucs are painfully young on this side of the ball, with rookies Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster (6 tackles) thrust into immediate starting roles at defensive end and middle linebacker and three other regulars -- tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and free safety Cody Grimm -- all in their second seasons. The group does have one budding star in cornerback Aqib Talib (4 tackles, 2 PD), an accomplished ball-hawk who's amassed 15 interceptions over his first three years in the league and returned a pick of Stafford 28 yards for a touchdown in Week 1.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It's no secret that both these teams want to run the football, and whichever one is able to do so effectively and prevent the other from grinding it out will have the advantage here. McNabb is no longer a player capable of carrying an offense with his arm, while the Buccaneers have lost three of the four games in which Freeman's put up 40 or more pass attempts.
McNabb still does possess the potential to do some damage against Tampa's patented Cover 2 scheme that he's experienced plenty of times over his long career, however, therefore it's critical to the Buccaneers' chances that they can generate some semblance of a pass rush. Talented youngsters such as Clayborn and fellow rookie end Da'Quan Bowers need to grow up in a hurry and prevent the Minnesota quarterback from getting into a comfort zone.
New Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen quickly emerged as a weapon by averaging over 52 yards on his five attempts last week, but the former Falcon's greatest impact on Sunday may be felt on kickoffs. The Vikings have one of the game's most dangerous returners in Harvin, who took the opening kick back 103 yards for a touchdown against the Chargers, and Tampa Bay wants the ball out of his hands as much as possible.
How Peterson and Blount perform on Sunday will go a long way towards determining which of these teams can avoid the dreaded 0-2 start to the season. Logic and history says the more battle-tested Vikings will have a better chance of containing Tampa Bay's running game than the Buccaneers will in a daunting matchup against the dynamic Peterson, and Minnesota's perceived superiority in rushing the passer and home-field edge also rate as pluses for the Metrodome inhabitants. The Buccaneers may have won four more games than the Vikings a year ago, but these clubs are far closer in terms of overall talent than those records would indicate.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 20, Buccaneers 13