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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Kevin Fielder

Vikings’ defensive keys for Week 1 vs. Buccaneers

Wake up. It’s officially football season.

Remember all those preseason games? The overreactions to undrafted free agents? The training camp clips you fawned over?

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None of those matter now. The games officially count, and the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy begins.

As the Minnesota Vikings open up their season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the focus will be on their defense, which underwent significant changes during the offseason.

Those changes begin with a significant scheme switch (from zone heavy to blitz and man coverage) with the hire of defensive coordinator Brian Flores. The defense also sees new starters across the board.

Their first game will feature a potential tune-up for other opponents. The Vikings will face journeyman quarterback Baker Mayfield, who replaces future hall of famer Tom Brady. The offense, however, will still have plenty of weapons to support Mayfield, including a duo of wide receivers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) capable of changing the game.

Here are the keys to victory for the Vikings’ new-look defense.

Get the Buccaneers to third down, and stop them

Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Prepare yourself for a truly frustrating defense, especially on third downs.

In Flores’ final season in Miami, the Dolphins were a bottom-half third-down defense, allowing conversions on 41% of the third downs. The struggles were a stark difference from the year prior when the Dolphins led the league in conversion percentage (31.18%).

The difference in conversion percentage comes down to Flores’ approach on third downs. Flores dies by his sword, choosing to send pressure on most third downs. Sending that pressure puts significant stress on the cornerbacks to remain attached to the receivers.

The good news for the Vikings? Baker Mayfield isn’t a quarterback who has consistently taken advantage of one-on-one situations.

In the five games that Mayfield started for the Los Angeles Rams last season, the Rams converted just 22 of their 80 three-point conversions, amounting to a 27.5% conversion rate. That figure would rank dead last in the NFL last season.

At the risk of sounding like every football coach in the country, the key to any defense is getting the field. That’s also true for the Vikings.

Contain Mike Evans... if you can

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans is a challenge for the Vikings secondary for two reasons, his talent and his size.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Mike Evans is really good at football. Evans has crossed the 1,000-yard mark every year of his career, averaging 15.3 yards per reception. Evans is constantly a threat to eclipse 200 yards, especially if the secondary fails to contain him. As a result, most teams keep two players in Evans’ vicinity, placing additional stress on the other members of the secondary.

The second challenge is Evans’ unique size as a wide receiver. Measuring in at 6-foot-5, Evans is three inches taller than the starting defensive backs for Minnesota and six inches taller than Byron Murphy, who will likely draw the matchup. The size difference doesn’t make Evans unstoppable, but it does make the challenge exponentially harder.

Get Ivan Pace on the field

AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn

Undrafted free agent Ivan Pace Jr. was a pleasant surprise for the Vikings and quickly became a lock for the 53-man roster.

Despite the impressive preseason, Pace doesn’t appear to be a starter. That’s not necessarily a surprise (it’ll be a challenge to beat Brian Asamoah II and team captain Jordan Hicks), but it does mean that his impact might be limited in the season opener.

Pace, however, has a skill set that warrants playing time, especially on third downs. Knowing Flores enjoys sending pressure, especially from his linebackers, finding a way to get Pace’s pass-rushing ability on the field is a priority. If Flores can find a way to get Pace moving downfield, they can maximize their cover 0 looks, giving them an added dimension.

Make the Bucs one-dimensional

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

When playing a team with a replacement-level quarterback, the simple way to beat them is to make the offense one-dimensional. Whether it’s forcing Baker Mayfield or running back Rachaad White to burn you, turning the Bucs into a team that has to rely on one thing will make life difficult.

Forcing Mayfield to throw the ball is the obvious answer, but putting added stress on White is intriguing. White totaled over 20 carries in just one game as a rookie, a Week 10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Outside of that, White’s highest carry total is 14.

The Bucs may split the carries, but that would require giving extra carries to Sean Tucker, an undrafted free agent. As a result, it seems likely that the weight of the team’s run game will be placed on White’s shoulders.

The Real Forno Show

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