Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles threw Gary Kubiak a curveball, which the Vikings offense struggled to hit throughout Sunday's 26-14 loss in Tampa Bay.
Running against the NFL's No. 1 run defense turned out to be easier than expected as the Buccaneers backed off their typical blitz-happy approach, choosing instead to take away receivers Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Minnesota's explosive passing attack.
Tampa Bay entered Sunday with a 39% blitz rate ranking among the top five in the NFL, but quarterback Kirk Cousins saw those aggressive Bucs fronts transform into deep blanket coverages. The Vikings' downfield bite was taken away as a strong Tampa Bay front did just enough against Dalvin Cook.
"It's one of those things where you prepare for something, and you have a good idea of what their kind of identity is on defense," Thielen said, "but each team has different things that they can do to try to stop what we do well. But yeah, it wasn't exactly what we'd seen on film."
Thielen and Jefferson combined for seven catches and 78 yards, the duo's lowest output in a game together outside of the 40 mile-per-hour gusts at Lambeau Field. Cousins had just one of 37 throws gain more than 20 yards.
1. Football is aggressive real estate acquisition, they say, and the Vikings struggled early with the Bucs' physical pass defense. Tampa Bay is known for an overpowering run defense, but the Bucs brought that mentality to the pass against the Vikings (while Cook dominated with 78 yards and a touchdown by halftime).
On Cousins' first dropback of the game, the Bucs disguise by showing an aggressive single-high safety defense with a seven-man box. Cornerbacks Ross Cockrell (#43) and Carlton Davis (#24) are pressing Thielen (#19) and Jefferson (#18) at the line.
At the snap, the Bucs drop into a two-deep shell — which they'd stay in for much of the game — with man-to-man coverage underneath. "We kind of found out early," Thielen said, "that they weren't going to give us big plays down the field."
That man coverage is particularly aggressive against Thielen and Jefferson, and Davis (#24) is flagged for defensive holding during his first snap in coverage.
With Thielen and Jefferson blanketed by press underneath, Cousins sees the man-to-man defense and makes the right call to run for 13 yards.
2. The Vikings faced a blitz on just 13 of 47 dropbacks (27.6%), and many of those didn't come until a late-game flurry. Probably because the Bucs figured they didn't need to blitz this offensive line.
Cousins made some good throws against pressure, but they also didn't happen until later in the game. On this opening drive second down, Cousins is thrown off as the Bucs again move from a single-high safety disguise into a two-deep coverage over Thielen and Jefferson before edge rusher Shaq Barrett (#58) gets by left tackle Riley Reiff.
This time it's zone coverage underneath, and Thielen is left wide open as Cousins runs for two yards.
Thielen's hands are up. Jefferson points that way. Cousins notices too late before a collision.
3. Only the Giants' Daniel Jones and Buffalo's Josh Allen were pressured at a higher rate than Cousins (46.8%) in Week 14, according to Pro Football Focus. Cousins took another 12 hits and has now been sacked 10 times in the past two games.
Cousins put some plays on himself, and he's not wrong. But plays like this opening third-and-4 below had no chance, even if Jefferson and Thielen beat even more aggressive press coverage with safeties lurking over the top.
Barrett (#58) executes a simple twist that totally fools left guard Dakota Dozier (#78) and generates immediate pressure on Cousins.
This is too routine of an error for Dozier as the Vikings' interior line problems were further exposed on Sunday.
4. The Bucs threw another curveball in the red zone, where the Vikings ranked No. 1 in the NFL averaging nearly six points per trip entering Sunday. The Vikings are so good in the red zone with the combination of Cook (14 touchdowns) and Thielen (12 touchdowns) wreaking havoc.
But with Tampa Bay devoting resources to defend the pass — like the Packers have tried, except the Bucs can tackle and not allow four rushing TDs — that combination was disrupted while the Vikings struggled to score touchdowns.
The Bucs had a better scheme and execution on this third-and-7 play below.
Once again, Tampa has two deep safeties and show press coverage with Cockrell (#43) faced against Jefferson. This, seemingly, sets up well for the Vikings with dual 'sticks' routes (to the first-down marker on third-and-7) and Thielen on a corner route vs. a deep safety.
Instead of pressing Jefferson, Cockrell (#43) drops deep into another quarters coverage as the Bucs prioritize defending the goal line over the first-down marker. Cockrell takes away a potential touchdown throw to Thielen in the corner, playing underneath him.
So Jefferson (#18) should be open, right? Nope. The rookie got knocked around on Sunday, including this play where linebacker Devin White bodies him. Bucs edge rusher Anthony Nelson (#98) swats at Cousins and the ball, leading to the red-zone sack.
5. A quick look at the Vikings offensive line shows they just don't seem to be working well together. They're not assisting each other on plays like this fourth-quarter sack.
It's always an imperfect attempt to assign blame on a sack when you don't know the assignments in pass protection or precisely how they're being coached. But looking at one of the six sacks on Sunday, it appears second-year center Garrett Bradbury could've done something to help rookie guard Ezra Cleveland.
It's a second-and-3 play, and an apparent slide protection to the right with running back Dalvin Cook (#33) releasing to the left and chipping any interior pressure.
In the video below, watch Bucs defensive tackle Patrick O'Connor (#79) work Cleveland into the backfield for the sack. But why isn't Bradbury looking for work and chipping O'Connor as they slide right? Perhaps he's anticipating a looping edge defender to twist inside, but that doesn't happen and there's more interior pressure and a sack. Sure, you'd like your right guard to hold up, but it's not a stretch to say they need to work together.