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What We Learned: Vikings vs. Buccaneers

The week of practice is over and the Vikings are set for their game this Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here's what we learned this week about the Vikings as they prepared for Week 8.

Sullivan listed as probable for SundayC John Sullivan left last Sunday's game with a concussion and did not return, but it looks like he's on track to return this Sunday in Tampa Bay. Sullivan's practice time progressively increased during the week, as he sat out on Wednesday, was limited on Thursday and was a full participant on Friday.

TE Kyle Rudolph (abdomen/groin) is the only Vikings player already rule out for the game, and LB Gerald Hodges (hamstring) is the only one listed as doubtful. S Antone Exum, Jr. (ankle), CB Josh Robinson (ankle) and Vladimir Ducasse are listed as questionable. All others on the injury report are probable.

For the Buccaneers, LB Brandon Magee (knee) is the only player listed as out. LB Jonathan Casillas (hamstring), LT Anthony Collins (knee), S Dashon Goldson (ankle), WR Vincent Jackson (hip), QB Josh McCown (right thumb) and CB Keith Tandy (hamstring) are all listed as questionable and CB Johnthan Banks (neck) is probable.

Ball security has been a "major emphasis" for VikingsThere is nothing new about football teams stressing the importance of taking care of the football. There may be no more significant variable in the outcome of a football game than turnovers. But with the Vikings playing the Buccaneers this week, a team with Lovie Smith as its head coach, an emphasis on ball security, particularly for running backs, becomes especially necessary.

Smith's defenses in Chicago were known for their propensity to force and recover fumbles, and Smith's defense in Tampa Bay this year ranks tied for seventh in forced fumbles with 10 and tied for fifth in fumble recoveries with six.

"The beauty of it with (running backs coach) Kirby Wilson and with Coach Zimmer, when we started this thing, it's been a major emphasis from day one," Vikings Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner said. "Our backs have done a good job taking care of the football, taking care of the football in the running game."

While turnovers have been an issue for the Vikings as a team this season (they have a -3 turnover margin), they are just one of three teams who've lost zero or one fumble (San Diego – 0; Denver – 1).

Priefer says special teams can help BridgewaterVikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has had some ups and some downs in his four-plus games under center. It's clear, though, Bridgewater has the talent to be the long-term answer at the position for the Vikings and his coaches and teammates are unwavering in their support of him.

The support is so wide-ranging, in fact, that even Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer believes he can play a role in the youngster's development.

"There are a lot of good things that are happening, I just think that we set high expectations in this room when we meet," Priefer said of his special teams units. "We talk about it on the field and in practice and in walk-throughs and of course on Sundays. Those expectations aren't going to change and I think we need to do more to help this young quarterback in field position for the offense in the return game."

Priefer's point is a good one. Special teams play is at the heart of what coaches refer to as complementary football, where a good return can lead to good field position for the offense and where good kick or punt coverage can lead to good field positon for the defense, which in turn leads to the opponent punting from its own territory to give the offense better field position.

"The complimentary football part where you do well in the coverage phases to give our defense great field position, they force a three-and-out or maybe a short drive, and now people are punting from backed up," Priefer explained. "That's what we're looking for, so we're going to keep emphasizing those things and until we get them, I won't be happy."

Sherels is more than just the Vikings punt returnerPriefer said on Thursday he thought all phases of special teams played well in Buffalo but that there were three plays he'd like back. One of them was a fair catch by Marcus Sherels at the minus-six. Priefer was asked a few questions about Sherels at his Thursday press conference and, despite the mistake he made in Buffalo, it's clear Sherels is a valued part of Priefer's special teams units.

"He can, unlike a lot of returners, he can help in other phases," Priefer explained. "In punt, in kickoff, and they didn't block him at all Sunday on the punt team, we had him as the gunner, he was free the whole day. He does a lot for us and like any other player he's going to have a hiccup here and there and hopefully we'll eliminate those."

Sherels did have one of five special teams tackles on Sunday and he has three for the season, so the statistics backup Priefer's assertion. Sherels is also averaging 9.1 yards per punt return, a figure that ranks 11th in the NFL among those with 10 returns. Last season, Sherels' 15.2-yard average was No. 2 in the NFL.

"I think he's more aggressive now than he's been before," Priefer said when addressing the two instances when Sherels has fair caught a punt inside the 10. "I remember my first year here he had a couple where it was just inexperience. I think Marcus has done a really nice job, or he wouldn't still be here as our punt returner for a fourth-straight year."

Talkin' About PracticeAt the NFL level, it's easy to overlook the importance of practice. Many may assume that NFL players, having mastered the basics and with an elite level of talent, treat practice as an elementary exercise. Vikings coaches are making sure their players don't fall into that trap, with the hope that treating practices during the week as if they were games will help equip players to get the job done on Sundays.

Defensive Coordinator George Edwards explained earlier in the week that the team is treating every practice rep as if it's the last play of a game.

"For us, we try to coach every play in practice just like it's the last play," Edwards said. "Because we know you only have so many reps during the course of the week in preparation for a game, so every rep is critical.

"Every game's going to boil down to a couple of plays that are going to decide it. You just don't know which ones they're going to be. We have to treat the importance of each play that way in practice and in going to the game."

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