The Vikings didn't look as fresh as the Buccaneers, coming off a bye week, during Sunday's 26-14 loss in Tampa Bay.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks and tight end Kyle Rudolph were ruled out before kickoff. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. played through a back injury. Fullback C.J. Ham and right tackle Brian O'Neill each left the game briefly to be evaluated. Three other offensive linemen — Riley Reiff, Ezra Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury — were limited in practices leading up to kickoff. Dalvin Cook also continues to run on an ankle tweaked two weeks ago.
"We had some guys banged up, hurt this week," Cook said. "You gotta credit the guys for fighting."
O'Neill (eye) and Ham quickly returned; Ham has been playing through a shoulder injury, but the team didn't say what was evaluated Sunday. Cornerback Kris Boyd exited in the first quarter because of a shoulder injury and did not return.
Tight end Tyler Conklin made his first start of the season while Smith was eased into action. But Smith looked healthy on a 14-yard catch and run for a touchdown in the third quarter, barreling through Bucs safety (and ex-Gopher) Antoine Winfield Jr. Without Rudolph, Conklin and Smith combined for nine catches for 103 yards and a score as the Buccaneers defense tilted coverages toward wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
"[Conklin] is the real deal," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "He can pass protect, he can run; in man coverage, he can win. He's smart, so we can put a lot on his plate mentally, and we do. So I was grateful for him to get that opportunity because he's been working really hard."
Rudolph's 98-game start streak, stretching through regular-season and playoff games since 2014, ended because of a foot injury suffered Dec. 6 against the Jaguars. The veteran made the trip to Tampa Bay in the hope of playing but was overruled, according to Cousins.
"He said, 'I got 24 more hours to convince these guys to do something stupid and let me play,' " Cousins said. "He was trying hard to get in and doing everything he can. But obviously, had to be smart. And he'll be doing everything the same this week to be ready to go."
Cousins takes 12 more hits
The Vikings have now allowed a season high in sacks in back-to-back games. Buccaneers defenders were credited with 12 hits (six sacks) on Cousins' 48 dropbacks. This comes a week after he took a career-worst 14 hits (four sacks) by the Jaguars. Cousins pointed the finger at himself on a couple of plays, while coach Mike Zimmer noted some bad situations.
"It's third-and-20, and we're trying to get the ball down the field," Zimmer said. "We may have held the ball a little longer than we normally do."
While under duress, Cousins ran for two first downs and a career-high 41 yards.
Returner shuffle continues
The weekly carousel at punt returner continued with Chad Beebe stepping in for K.J. Osborn, who was a healthy scratch Sunday a week after returning three punts for 21 yards against the Jaguars.
Beebe, who had 15 yards on two returns, had room for a 10-yard return in his first chance since his fumble against the Panthers. The Vikings are averaging only 3.5 yards per return in 13 games between Osborn and Beebe.
The Vikings offense became the first since the Packers in Week 6 to not score a touchdown through a receiver against the Buccaneers; only five NFL defenses entered Sunday allowing more touchdowns to receivers than Tampa Bay.
The Star Tribune reporter did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.