"Behind Enemy Lines" is a Thursday post on the Access Vikings blog. In advance of Thursday's Vikings-Bucs game, Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune interviewed Rick Stroud, the Bucs beat writer for the Tampa Bay Times. Here are three things you need to know ...
1 Josh Freeman has been on fire since the Bucs' Week 5 bye.
Over the past two weeks, Freeman has completed 39 of 68 passes for 768 yards and six touchdowns. He's helped Tampa Bay scored 66 points in that span and generally seems to be playing with greater swagger.
And there's a reason for that.
Early on, as Freeman adapted to the new system of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, he seemed to struggle with just letting loose.
Sullivan's plays required a lot of post-snap reads and route adjustments that weren't easy for Freeman to feel comfortable with.
"It was designed where Josh and the receivers have to see the coverage the same way," Stroud said. "And early on, Josh was just not trusting what he thought he saw and what the receiver was going to do. So if you throw it outside and the receiver breaks inside, it's a pick. As a result, Josh was late throwing the ball a bunch. He just wasn't relaxed. He was thinking too much and you could see the wheels spinning in his head."
But now Tampa Bay has encouraged Freeman to take more shots down the field and they've tweaked the offense to get him out of the pocket a little more. That's suddenly enhanced the rapport Freeman has with receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, both of whom are averaging more than 19 yards per catch.
2 Tampa Bay's defense is still reshuffling its pieces.
In Week 3, right defensive end Adrian Clayborn suffered a season-ending knee injury, a blow that really weakened the strength of the line with left end Michael Bennett now seeing more double teams and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim unable to match Clayborn's impact.
Then, two weeks ago, top cornerback Aqib Talib drew a four-game suspension from the NFL for illegal use of Adderall. That leaves the Bucs with an ordinary corner duo of Eric Wright and E.J. Biggers with Brandon McDonald as the nickel back.
"In the secondary, they're just not very good," Stroud said. "Wright is a good player. But without the other corner, he's suddenly just another guy."
Oh, and did we mention that 16th-year vet Ronde Barber is trying his hand at safety this year for the first time?
Tampa's defense has been a bit schizophrenic this season. They've been superb against the run, ranking third in the league (76.0 yards per game). But the pass defense ranks 31st (323 ypg) and Saints quarterback Drew Brees lit Tampa Bay up for 377 yards and four TDs last weekend.
The Bucs haven't had a sack since September, heightening the pressure on the secondary.
3 First-year coach Greg Schiano is getting attention for all the wrong reasons.
Schiano first drew a wave of negative publicity in Week 2 after he directed his defense to blow up the Giants' offensive line in a kneel-down situation in the final seconds. Then this past weekend, Tampa Bay was hit with an odd unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a New Orleans field-goal attempt when officials ruled that linebacker Mason Foster yelled in a manner that seemed intent on simulating the Saints' snap count.
"In a way, it shows Schiano's mentality can sort of be that, 'I'm going to push it right to the edge' deal," Stroud said.
Schiano is widely thought to be a good, defensive-minded, old-school coach. He also has a hard edge to him.
"Players play really hard for him," Stroud said, "because I think to an extent, they're scared of him."
"At some point you have to start winning games," Stroud said. "Right now, Schiano has to try to change the narrative a bit. But I don't know that he will. He likes being one of those tough guys, the 'We're going to do it our way' coach. And if you're not careful, that can come back and bite you."