Four days ago, I fully expected a loss. A deflating defeat, a short week, an away game, a good opponent. It was a recipe for disaster, or at the very best, a frustratingly close game in which the Bucs’ youth and tired legs would eventually doom them. Instead, they come away with a surprisingly convincing road victory in which a national audience saw why the Bucs traded back into the first round to grab running back Doug Martin in this year’s draft.
Martin was sensational, patient while waiting for his blocks, explosive when the hole opened. At one point in the third quarter, he had more yards on his own than Minnesota had as a team. And his 64-yard touchdown on a screen pass was something Bucs fans haven’t seen since Warrick Dunn wore the red and pewter. The Vikings finally brought everything but the kitchen sink to stop him, but by that point, the game was in hand and the Bucs were content to trade two or three yard gains for time running off the clock.
Still, when Adrian Peterson streaked 64 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown about halfway through the third quarter, that familiar, uneasy feeling started creeping in. And when the crowd was electrified by the scuffle between Donald Penn and Jared Allen, and Allen sacked Freeman on the next play, I thought it was all about to come tumbling down again (perhaps a poor choice of words given where the game was being played). But the defense held, and the Vikings never sniffed the end zone again until the game was pretty much decided.
The offense has now put up 28 or more points in three straight games. Granted, they haven’t been playing the most stout defenses, but this is a team that looked like it couldn’t score 28 points combined in three games last year. Freeman still sometimes seems to think his receivers are three feet tall, but he was dynamite on the Bucs’ clinching drive, going 4 for 4 on third down as the Bucs killed more than eight minutes off the clock and scored a touchdown to put the game away. And while the defense gave up 123 yards to Peterson, more than half of that came on his long touchdown run, so I’ll take it. He didn’t kill them, and Christian Ponder certainly wasn’t going to, so it was a case of the defense bending but not breaking. They also produced three turnovers and harassed Ponder all night.
So now the Bucs go to 3-4 and have proven they aren’t going to be an easy out for anyone. There’s a stretch of winnable games coming up, and even though the team is under .500, I feel good about where they are. There’s been steady improvement, and a consistent competitive attitude. Greg Schiano wasn’t going to completely turn this thing around in seven games, and I never expected him to. But it’s good to see the roots taking hold. At the very least, the team is entertaining to watch, which is only going to help put fans in the seats. More wins like tonight will bring out even more.