When the Minnesota Vikings face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, major playoff implications will be on the line. Tampa Bay (7-5), one game ahead of Minnesota (6-6), is currently in control of the sixth seed in the NFC playoff picture with four games remaining in the regular season.
The Vikings, overcoming a 1-5 start to the season, have won five of their past six games on a resurgent offensive effort and a defense that continues to make strides. The Buccaneers, coming off back-to-back three-point losses, could find themselves against the ropes with a Vikings team that has ample experience playing teams close this season, with five games decided by three points or less.
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has made it clear that he is not taking the Vikings lightly, giving major praise to several key players on offense.
When asked what he has seen in running back Dalvin Cook and breakout rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year gave the customary compliments to the aforementioned Vikings stars and did not hesitate to name who may be his biggest concern: Adam Thielen.
“Jefferson takes the top off the coverage,” Arians said. “Don’t ever forget Thielen because he’s really the go-to guy.”
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Arians on Dalvin Cook: ‘Arguably the Best Back in the League’
The Buccaneers boast the league’s top rushing defense that has allowed just 74 rushing yards per game. Despite the league-low figure, Arians did not allow an inch of brashness to sink over him during his press conference.
“Dalvin’s arguably the best back in the league right now and they feature him. He’s going to be a great challenge defensively,” Arians said.
The Vikings offensive line will be under fire on Sunday as the Buccaneers also boast the most blitz-heavy defense in the NFL, sending five or more rushers on roughly 40% of plays this season, adding some serious “feast or famine” potential.
“It’s a fine line when you think you’re gonna pressure the quarterback but you gotta have gap control when you are blitzing to make sure [Cook] doesn’t get out,” Arians continued. “Once he breaks it, it’s usually going to the house.”
Arians Weighs in on Vikings’ No. 1 WR
From an outside perspective, it seems Jefferson has gained ground in the inessential debate of who the Vikings No. 1 wide receiver is. The rookie leads the team with 61 receptions and 1,039 receiving yards in 10 starts compared to Thielen’s 57 catches for 721 through the air in 11 starts.
Jefferson has been impressively efficient with his opportunities this season, but the edge, which Arians pointed to, has been Thielen’s crucial clutch receptions as the Vikings’ “go-to guy.”
Thielen is second in the league with 12 touchdown receptions this season, 8 of which were thrown inside the 10-yard line.
Jefferson, who has 7 touchdown catches on the season, did serve admirably in Thielen’s place when the 30-year-old veteran was out against the Carolina Panthers in Week 12 on COVID-19 protocol. Jefferson caught a pair of touchdown passes that game from 10 and 12 yards out.
Arians’ comment of Jefferson taking the top of the defense speaks volumes to the progress the 22-year-old has made as he was slighted as merely a slot receiver this past offseason. Both Thielen and Jefferson have proven to be threats inside and outside the numbers.
Arians may have sided with Thielen this week, however Jefferson has exceeded expectations in the infancy of his career and has maintained the Vikings’ WR1A and WR1B scenario that was speculated to be lost when the team traded Stefon Diggs this past offseason.
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Trevor Squire is a Heavy contributor covering the Minnesota Vikings and journalism graduate from the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities. Connect with him on Twitter @trevordsquire and join our Vikings community at Heavy on Vikings on Facebook.