The Vikings and Buccaneers will meet this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and you can be sure both teams will be anxious to kick things off. The Vikings are eager to get back on the field after dropping a heart-breaker last week in Buffalo. The Buccaneers are likely just as eager to get back on the field because they haven't played a game since October 12; they were on a bye last week.
Playing an opponent coming off extra rest is fairly uncommon in the NFL. As the Vikings prepare for the challenge, the Buccaneers coming off a bye entering the game is the subject of this week's opponent X-factor.
Three key factors to analyze when studying an opponent coming off a bye are health, lineup changes and trends. The week off gives players extra time to heal and it gives coaches time to self-scout, assess talent and consider lineup changes. Let's take a brief look at all three factors for Tampa Bay.
It's expected that Tampa Bay will see the return of two starters in its secondary – CB Johnthan Banks and S Dashon Goldson. Neither played in Tampa Bay's last game, as Banks dealt with a neck injury and Goldson with an ankle injury. Three regular contributors who were on the Week 6 injury report are not listed at all on this week's report – DE Larry English, WR Mike Evans and LB Mason Foster – and despite being limited in practice all week with a rib injury, it's expected that WR Vincent Jackson will be ready to go Sunday.
The Buccaneers made an interesting roster move at the beginning of the week when they signed kickoff and punt return specialist Trindon Holliday. He's already listed as the first team returner in both phases, and for good reason. In four NFL season – two with Houston and two with Denver – Holliday has a career kickoff return average of 27.1 yards with two touchdowns and a career punt return average of 9.4 yards with two touchdowns – those numbers would rank him fourth in the NFL in each category this season among players with 10 or more returns. An interesting note on Holliday is that he has 10 career fumbles on punt returns.
Another potential lineup change to monitor is that of nickel cornerback in Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier's defense. It has been Leonard Johnson for much of the season and then Crezdon Butler started for Banks two weeks ago, but Tampa Bay signed Isaiah Frey on Tuesday and they could add him to the mix. Frey was a sixth-round pick of the Bears out of Nevada in 2012, Smith's final year coaching the Bears, and he played in three games for Chicago this season before being waived. Obviously Smith liked what he saw in Frey while the two were together in Chicago, making it fair to speculate he could quickly emerge as a contributor on a defense that ranks 27th against the pass.
One last position to monitor is that of running back. Doug Martin is listed as the starter, but he's produced a per-carry average of just 2.9 yards. Backup Bobby Rainey has a 4.9-yard per-carry average and has looked better so far this season.
A priority for teams during their bye week is to self-scout. This process includes evaluating the talent on their own roster and identifying trends and tendencies the team has created in its play calling and strategy.
One tendency the Buccaneers likely identified and may or may not have designs on altering is that they favor running to the left on 1st down. Tampa Bay has rushed the ball 71 times on 1st down, and 34 (47.9%) of those rushes have gone to the left side. Perhaps the Buccaneers will consider running to the right more often, particularly considering their per-carry average to the right (6.1) is markedly better than to the middle (2.4) or left (4.0).
A negative trend the Buccaneers offense has generated over the first six games is that they are in unfavorable positions on 2nd down. In fact, Tampa Bay ranks last in the NFL in average yards to go on 2nd down, with a 9.1-yard to-go average. In looking to create better 2nd-down situations, perhaps the Buccaneers will alter their approach on 1st down, where they are one of the more pass-heavy teams and where they rank just 24th in efficiency (gaining 4+ yards).