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Tuesday, Dec 12, 2017
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Buccaneers-Vikings Scouting Report: Watching Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen and Everson Griffen

No matter how much film we study, no matter how much data we parse, we just don't know how an NFL season will unfold.

Who predicted a hurricane would lead to the Buccaneers losing their Week 11 bye? And Case Keenum, Vikings starting quarterback? Saw it coming, right?

Here's one thing we do know: It's not wise to underestimate Keenum, who has beaten the Bucs in back-to-back seasons. Limited arm strength? Apparently, he saves it all for Tampa Bay. Since the start of the 2015 season, he has executed 10 pass plays of 40 or more yards. Three have come at the expense of the Bucs. Against them, he has averaged 9.9 yards per pass attempt. Against everyone else? 6.4.

So maybe you've seen enough of Keenum. Maybe you fear flashbacks of Brian Quick, Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin running to the end zone. Or maybe you just have something against quarterbacks named Case and are going to sit out Sunday's game on principle.

I have a solution: Don't watch him. Seriously.

I'm not going to. I'll still watch the game, of course. But I'm going to try something that seems counterintuitive: I'm taking my eye off the ball and focusing on players other than Keenum.

Here's who I'll be tracking once the Bucs and Vikings kick off:

On offense: Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen

Yes, the Bucs are coming off a 29-7 win over the Bears. The difference between Chicago and Minnesota, however, is that the Vikings actually have a receiving corps. Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy and Zach Miller — three of Chicago's primary targets last Sunday — caught 95 passes for 1,184 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph, the NFL's most targeted tight end, was nearly as productive just by himself. He caught 83 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Vikings are especially reliant on Rudolph on third down. He finished in the top 10 among all receivers last season in targets and catches. In its first two games this season, Minnesota has targeted him five times, completing four passes, all of which resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.

Pay particular attention to Rudolph when the Vikings line up in bunch formations. Minnesota uses these concepts often and effectively.

Here's an example from a third and 5 early in the second quarter against the Steelers. The Vikings line up with the bunch on the left side of the formation. The outside receiver, Stefon Diggs (14), runs to the middle of the field; the middle receiver, Rudolph (82), runs a curl route; and Jarius Wright (17) runs to the sideline.

Minnesota is attacking rookie cornerback Mike Hilton, who is lined up across from Rudolph. Hilton bites on Diggs' route, opening a zone between him and the safety. That's where Rudolph finishes his route, and Keenum hits him for an 11-yard gain.

The Vikings call the same play on a third and 4 early in the third quarter (One slight difference: They flop the formation, putting the bunch on the right). Hilton again tracks Diggs and leaves Rudolph open. This time, Keenum is looking left. When he sees his tight end, it's too late. His pass protection has started breaking down and he can't get the throw off in time.

Adam Thielen, who leads the team with seven third-down targets, also is dangerous out of bunch formations. Minnesota executed two explosive pass plays on third down in its opener against New Orleans, and Thielen was on the receiving end of both of them.

On this third and 6 halfway through the third quarter, Thielen (19) is the middle receiver in the bunch. Diggs is the outside receiver and runs a streak route. Rudolph is on the inside and runs toward the sideline.

Diggs' route not only draws the outside cornerback but also creates congestion downfield. After 10 yards, Thielen cuts under Diggs and runs toward the sideline. The route combination creates a pick that blocks cornerback P.J. Williams (26) and allows Thielen to separate. Sam Bradford withstands the pressure from the Saints' blitz and hits his receiver in stride for a 24-yard gain.

The Vikings call the same play on their next possession, and Thielen picks up 27 yards.

Minnesota might not ask Keenum to make deep throws outside the numbers as often as Bradford. If that's the case, watch for Thielen in formations where he's isolated on the side opposite from three receivers. In short-yardage situations, you could see him running a drag route across the middle.

On defense: Everson Griffen

As a unit, the Bucs offensive line held up well against the Bears pass rush. It allowed eight quarterback pressures, and when it keeps the pocket that clean, Tampa Bay generally wins.

Of those eight pressures, however, left tackle Donovan Smith was responsible for five. He faces a greater challenge this week: containing Everson Griffen, one of the NFL's most productive pass rushing defensive ends. After leading 4-3 defensive ends last season with 68 pressures from the right side, he has continued dominating. He generated eight pressures against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 and sacked him twice.

Leave him one-on-one with a left tackle at your own risk. He'll overwhelm with speed, and then, after his opponent compensates, he'll break out his spin move.

That's how Griffen earned his first sack last Sunday. On each of Roethlisberger's first three dropbacks, Griffen tried to beat left tackle Alejandro Villanueva around the edge. On a first and 15 late in the first quarter, he rushed Villanueva just as he had before, but as running back Le'Veon Bell tried to chip, Griffen spun inside and left Villanueva flat-footed.

Even when Pittsburgh tried to help its left tackle, it struggled to slow Griffen. On a third and 10 in the second quarter, not one, not two, but three Steelers got their hands on Griffen. Still, he shed the blocks and hurried Roethlisberger, whose pass over the middle was just out of Eli Rogers' reach.

If the Bucs want to keep Jameis Winston upright, they'll need reinforcements on the left side of the offensive line. Tight end O.J. Howard and running back Jacquizz Rodgers figure to draw some of those unenviable assignments.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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