3 battles Minnesota Vikings must win vs. Tampa Bay on Sunday
On paper, the Minnesota Vikings look like a team that can run circles around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But football games are never played on paper.
Week 1 of the NFL season is the most unpredictable of all. No one knows which teams are contenders or pretenders, not even the organizations themselves. But once the game begins, the truth starts to come out.
When the Vikings kick off their season opener against the Buccaneers on Sunday, everything we thought we knew goes out the door. The Vikings and Buccaneers were both playoff teams in 2022, but that doesn’t matter at all in 2023. What will matter is winning individual matchups. If the Vikings can emerge victorious in these three areas, their chances of winning their regular season opener improve dramatically. Here are three specific battles the Vikings must win vs. the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Interior OL vs. Vita Vea
No. 50 on the Buccaneers’ defense, nose tackle Vita Vea is an absolute unit. At 6-foot-4, 347 pounds, few players can move Vea off his spot. But despite his massive stature, he’s not like the traditional run-stuffer you’d expect at that size. Vea is actually more known for his ability to get in the QB’s face and blow up the play as a pass-rusher.
One of the Vikings’ biggest issues was on full display when facing game-wrecking defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and the New York Giants last season. You’d like to think the Vikings have a better plan going into a new year, but their interior offensive line remains the same.
This means unless there’s a scheme change we’re unaware of, players like Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, and Ed Ingram will have to be up to the task of stifling one of the best defensive tackles in football on Sunday. It’s a great test for the rest of the season, but it’s just one area the Vikings need to show progress in during Week 1’s battle.
Minnesota Vikings’ front seven vs. Bucs OL
While the Vikings have their own challenges to deal with on Sunday, so do the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay will be desperate to see how their dead-last-ranked rushing attack from 2022 has improved heading into 2023. Their inability to move the chains with their running game was a big reason for Tampa Bay’s struggles, ending in a disappointing 31-14 loss to the Cowboys in the Wild Card round.
The Bucs head into a new year with a new offensive coordinator, but they still won’t get Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen back, who’s set to miss his second consecutive season with a knee injury. They also won’t have Tom Brady dissecting the defense and getting the ball out quicker than any other NFL QB as he did a year ago. As mentioned, they have plenty of unknowns.
So do the Vikings, who will be operating the Brian Flores-led defense for the first time in regular season play. Except, unlike during exhibition games, the Vikings won’t be calling ‘vanilla’ plays simplified for the preseason. These coverage schemes and blitz calls will be much more complicated, intended to confuse the opponent and create turnovers.
If the Vikings can generate consistent pressure with Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport, and others while plugging holes in the run game, it only makes life easier on the secondary. This brings us to our next battle that must be won on Sunday.
Cornerbacks vs. Mike Evans/Chris Godwin
Once again, the Vikings don’t know what to expect from a young cornerback group. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers already know they have one of the best wide receiver tandems in football with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. These are two Pro Bowl receivers with multiple 1,000-yard seasons to their name. They’re far more proven than any of the Vikings’ cornerbacks. But that doesn’t mean this battle is already over.
In an ideal world, Minnesota’s corners will get help from the front seven, as mentioned above. How much pressure the pass-rushers generate will directly impact the pass defense, hopefully making their jobs easier so they’re not trying to cover their man for seven seconds per play.
The Vikings will get beat a few times downfield. That’s just the nature of the beast when going against the best players in the world. But if someone like Byron Murphy, Akayleb Evans, or Mekhi Blackmon can put their fingerprint on the game by getting their hands on a few passes, Sunday’s outcome could heavily swing in Minnesota’s favor. It just might be the most important individual positional battle of all for the Vikings in Week 1.