As the Vikings prepare for Thursday night’s game with Tampa Bay at Mall of America Field, we asked Rick Stroud, the Buccaneers beat writer and NFL expert for the Tampa Bay Times, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four 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.

Josh has been hot throwing the ball,” Stroud said. “It’s been a part of the evolution and the adaptation. And they’ve been flexible to understand that you want to get Josh on the move sometimes. He’s comfortable running bootlegs and waggles. And you can have success with him changing his launch spot without always having him stuck in the pocket.”

With the big plays adding up, defenses have been less and less tempted to bring a safety down into the box, which has subsequently opened up more running room for rookie running back Doug Martin, too.

2) Vincent Jackson is providing a wonderful return on investment.

Jackson was one of the treasures at the free agent flea market in March and Tampa Bay broke out the checkbook, delivering a five-year contract worth more than $55 million. The Bucs’ hope was that the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver would continue to be a big-play weapon, a guy capable of getting deep and making catches while covered.

Through six games, Jackson has been stellar. He has 27 catches for 586 yards and last week he erupted against New Orleans with seven grabs and 216 yards. That included a 95-yard catch that Jackson took to the Saints’ 1 yard line.

“He just makes everything work,” Stroud said. “This franchise has never had a receiver like him. Ever. They’ve had some good receivers. But not a guy who can get vertical like this. And he not only stretches the field, but he can also go up with his size and just snatch balls in coverage.”

With Jackson attracting so much defensive attention, Mike Williams has seen a lot more single coverage and has become effective making a flurry of back-shoulder grabs.

3) 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 impacted the strength of the line with left end Michael Bennett now seeing more double teams and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim unable to have the same impact Clayborn had.

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 a very 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 ypg). But the pass defense ranks 31st 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, which has made way too many mistakes this season and remains vulnerable to the big play.

4) 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. That was a move New York coach Tom Coughlin didn’t much like.

Then this past weekend, Tampa Bay was hit with an odd unsportsman-like 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.

Yeah, that’s as ticky-tack as you’ll get. And the Buccaneers insist they were simply making a line shift. But it seemed to be another example of Schiano’s players venturing into a gray area to attain an advantage.

“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.

That penalty, on a 51-yard field goal attempt, gave New Orleans a first down that they eventually turned into a touchdown.

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.”

But …

“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. If you don’t win, then all of a sudden you’re just an ogre that the players don’t like.”

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