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Friday, Sep 22, 2017
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Bucs' mission is clear: Stop Peterson

MINNEAPOLIS - MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. How was not a concern. Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik always knew that if he ever decided to replace middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, he would do so by spending a premium-round draft pick on someone who played with a lot more thump than Ruud. Someone like Washington Huskies linebacker Mason Foster. Why was a little trickier. Dominik had to sell that one, even to some of the people in the Bucs' building. Ruud led Tampa Bay in tackles each of the past four years, so it was hard to suggest that he was among the reasons the Bucs struggled so to stop the run the past two years. The tape, though, told a slightly different story. It showed Ruud making the majority of his tackles about five yards past the line of scrimmage. The more Dominik thought about it, he realized the Bucs couldn't go on that way. Not with backs such as Minnesota's Adrian Peterson on the schedule.
"Just about every club in the league has a bigger back that they throw at you at some point during a game that is hard to bring down and makes it harder for your defense not to wear down,'' said Dominik, whose team ranked 32nd and 28th in the 32-team NFL in rush defense the past two years, respectively. "So, in terms of what we want to be as a defense, Foster really fit the mold. And watching him last week, I feel like he played well. I don't feel like there were any hidden yards that he missed and I have a strong feeling that, as he continues to grow, he'll help us limit the length of plays.'' That theory certainly will be put to the test today, when the Bucs take on Peterson and the Vikings at Mall of America Field. A four-time Pro Bowler who ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing with 1,298 yards last season, Peterson presents the Bucs with what some described as a "monster'' challenge. "It's like (facing) Freddy Kruger at his finest,'' coach Raheem Morris said, likening Peterson to the razor-armed villain from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. "They've got that Viking (mascot) coming out on that motorcycle and then Adrian Peterson is right behind him. It's like a bad joke.'' The joke may be on the Bucs. In his debut with the Tennessee Titans last week, Ruud produced a league-best 14 tackles. At the same time, though, he had no sacks, no tackles for loss and no pass breakups during a 16-14 loss to the Jaguars, which critics will say is a typical Ruud afternoon. Not that the Bucs got a better afternoon out of Foster. During a 27-20 loss to the Lions, the rookie third-round draft pick produced just six tackles, including one for a loss. He regularly left the field on third down because he's still not adept at running the defense in that critical situation. The Bucs were pleased, though, that Foster didn't give up any of those "hidden yards'' Dominik spoke of, yards a power back such as Peterson tends to get when he drags a player – or players – for extra yards before he is tackled. Those hidden yards can turn two- or three-yard gains into five- and six-yard gains. The Bucs think Foster will help them limit those yards, not only today against Peterson, but well into the future. "He brings a nice thump,'' Morris said of Foster. "But when you're talking about stopping a guy like Peterson, you're talking about having 11 men on the field bringing him down as a unit and swarm tackling all day long." Morris remembers the first time he coached a game against Peterson. "He jumped over Derrick Brooks, jumped over Ronde Barber and dragged another guy for 4 yards," Morris said. "It was the best six-yard run I've seen in my life.'' Peterson's vision and a unique blend of power, speed and maneuverability make runs such as that possible. What makes him special, though, according to teammate and Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, is his attitude. "You can see his physical ability but his work ethic and his desire to be a good teammate and want the ball at crucial times and win, that's the cool part about him,'' Allen said. "I remember a game in the preseason where he was just mad because all he got was like six reps.'' Peterson could get 56 reps today. The Vikings are working for a new coach in Leslie Frazier, in a new offensive system and with a new quarterback in Donovan McNabb. To minimize mistakes, they leaned on Peterson while McNabb threw just 15 times in a loss to the Chargers. The same could happen against the Bucs. Tampa Bay will counter with a defense that is also in its infancy. In addition to Foster, it will start four players – defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn and safety Cody Grimm – who have yet to play a full season's worth of NFL games. Just how young that group is became evident this week when Clayborn, the team's first-round draft pick out of Iowa, said of Peterson, "I used to watch him on TV when I was in college and think, 'Man, he's good.' Then I sat down this week to watch tape of him and realized, 'Hey, I've got to tackle that guy now.' '' Tackling proved to be a bit of a problem for the Bucs' young defense a week ago. Against the Lions, whose top back, Jahvid Best, is not quite in the same category as Peterson, the Bucs surrendered 126 yards rushing, which did nothing to scare the Vikings out of game plan built around Peterson. "We definitely have to play better this week, we all know that,'' McCoy said. "And I think we made some big strides this week in fixing the problems we had from last week. We definitely have to tackle better for one. The key, though, for this game is going to be disruption. "We have to get in the backfield and make the line go backwards. That makes it harder on a guy like Adrian Peterson. He can make something out of nothing, but you don't want to make it easy for him. You want to make it hard. If he has a big game, you at least want him to say it wasn't easy for me.'' The Bucs will be counting on Foster, their new thumper, to make life hard for Peterson. Foster seems to relish the opportunity. He admits to having a great deal of respect for Peterson, but knows the job he was brought here to do. "They're going to run the ball a lot, and so my job is to try to be as physical in the run game as I can,'' Foster said. "I feel like I am a physical player, and I love to hit, so it should be a lot of fun.''
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