By DAVE CAMPBELL
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s rebuilding project might eventually prove it needs more work. The Vikings, though, have clearly restored a critical piece of their foundation: the dome-field advantage.
They’re 4-0 this year under the roof, where their fierce pass rush has been bothering opposing quarterbacks and Adrian Peterson has been powering his way through the other team’s defense.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are next today (2 p.m. HST, NFL Network).
“At times, it gets really loud there. They’ve got a lot of passionate fans crammed in that dome, and you’ve got the little horn thing they do,” Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman said, referring to the sound effect at the Metrodome, now known as Mall of America Field, that’s used for first downs and other big plays for the Vikings (5-2).
Freeman and the Buccaneers (2-4) weren’t fazed by the environment last year, when the Vikings led 17-0 at halftime and still by 10 points with less than 7 minutes left before falling 24-20.
“You can’t really go back schematically and watch what fell apart, because it’s totally different,” Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said, noting Tampa Bay has a new staff under coach Greg Schiano. “But the memory’s still there. Don’t get me wrong: I think everyone on this team remembers.”
This is a different Vikings team, though, even if quarterback Christian Ponder has been struggling with seven turnovers in the last three games.
“I’ve already moved on,” Ponder said this week.
The rush up front, led by Allen’s team-high six sacks, is strong again, but the pass coverage in back has been the biggest key to the turnaround from that franchise-worst 3-13 finish in 2011.
Boosted by the arrival of rookie safety Harrison Smith and the healthy return of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, the secondary has helped limit other teams to an average of 6.4 yards per pass attempt, eighth best in the league. The longest completion Minnesota has allowed is 41 yards, and only Chicago’s long of 34 yards is below that.
They held Detroit’s Calvin Johnson to five catches for 54 yards and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald to four receptions for 29 yards. Now they’ll face Vincent Jackson, who’s coming off a 216-yard game.
“You can see his experience when he’s running routes and it seems like he and Freeman have really found a rhythm of late,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “They’ve got a good situation going.”
So do the Vikings.
The hardest part of their schedule looms like a storm on the horizon, and they’ll need more than just an umbrella to survive with a playoff-eligible record. The true test of the NFL’s most surprisingly successful team to this point won’t come until after Thanksgiving. The key for them in the meantime is to maintain this regained edge at the dome, where they were 1-7 last season.
The surroundings fit perfectly into the team’s philosophy of controlling the clock with the running game and playing smart and tough yet conservative defense on the other side. The surface is fast for Peterson to run on, and the trapped noise when the Vikings are ahead and the opponent is passing on third down can make completing a pass, let alone hearing the snap count, difficult.
Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a college teammate of Peterson’s, is bracing for his buddy’s best.
“I’m just not amazed anymore. It’s kind of like, ‘Hmmm. That’s what he does.’ He’s just that good. I think he’s second to none. He’s the best running back we’ll face and as good as there is in this league,” McCoy said.
The other disadvantage for the Bucs is the shortened week. Playing in prime time can be fun, but not as much for the visitors on Thursday nights. They’re 1-5 this year in these matchups and 3-12 over the last two seasons.
“That’s life. We’ll have a Thursday night game here in the future where the other team has to travel. The reality is none of that matters. We have to be ready to play,” Schiano said.
The Buccaneers are 17-22 in prime time, including 2-13 on the road.
There’s nothing like a night game to rile up the crowd, but the Vikings haven’t given their fans much to cheer in prime time lately either. That Tuesday night victory at Philadelphia in 2010, a game bumped back two days by the threat of a snowstorm, is their only one in the last 11 regular-season appearances after dusk. They’ve lost four in a row on Sunday nights and five straight on Monday nights. Since the start of the 2004 season, they’re 7-16 in those situations.
Playing at home on the turf and under the roof, though, is a different story than being on the road. Since Peterson was drafted in 2007, they’re 3-1 in night games at the dome.
“We’re happy to be home and use that to our advantage,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Hopefully the dome gets filled up and is a little louder on a Thursday night. Hopefully people are drinking like crazy … and then take casual Friday off.”
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