Tampa Bay doesn't want to give QB Brett Favre a chance to survey the field
The Green Bay Packers have two rookies playing tackle. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a quarterback who has faced the Pack only once.
No Dorsey Levens or Reggie White. No Hardy Nickerson or Brad Culpepper. Neither team is in first place in the NFC Central.
So what's your point?
Some of the players who have had big moments in this great Buccaneer-Packer rivalry over the last four years won't be involved on Sunday, whether by injury or relocation, but know this: number 4 will still be looking out for number 99.
The image that defines this 'Battle of the Bays', as it has been ESPN-ized, is Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp (#99) facemask-to-facemask with Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre. Since the Buccaneers, led by Sapp's 10.5 sacks, have the most productive pass rush in the NFL this season and the Packers are 16th in the league in protecting their QB, there's a good chance we'll see that snapshot again.
At least, that's the plan in Buccaneer meeting rooms, because an unhurried Favre is a very dangerous Favre. Of course, the three-time MVP is also a magician under duress, but Tampa Bay would rather take that chance than let their old nemesis stand in the pocket and fire away.
"He's as good as anybody in the league at (improvising)," said Head Coach Tony Dungy, "but we've always felt that when he sets his feet and gets in a rhythm and feels confident that he's not going to be rushed, he's very, very tough.
"You know you've got your hands full when you play them. He and Freeman seem to be able to make big plays when they need them. It's going to be a big challenge for us."
To set his rushers loose on Favre, however, Dungy knows that the Bucs must first – stop us if you've heard this one before - shut down the Packers' running game. Tampa Bay has taken that philosophy into every game this season, so don't expect them to change just because to avoid sounding repetitious. And don't expect the Bucs to take the Packers' running game lightly just because Levens is out.
Levens has missed four games due to injury already and has carried the ball over 20 times in just one game this season. He's already been ruled out for Sunday's contest. However, while the Packers were held below 80 rushing yards in five of their first six games and were able to post just one rushing touchdown in that span, they've averaged 115 yards and two TDs on the ground over the last three contests. Much of that has been due to the hardnosed work of substitute RB Ahman Green.
"Early in the year when Levens was in and out, they maybe had concern about their running game," said Dungy. "But Green, the last couple of weeks, has shown that he can carry the load. He's running hard and I think they're getting their confidence back in their running game, and they're doing a lot of the same things that they did when Dorsey Levens was in there."
Levens isn't the only prominent Packer who will watch the game from the sideline on Sunday. DE Vonnie Holliday and LB Brian Williams are definitely out, and CB Antuan Edwards is considered questionable. That means a Packer defense that had already changed in complexion will need input from some lesser-known names, such as Cletidus Hunt, David Bowens and Nate Wayne, to contain the Buccaneers.
"They're a different style, completely different than they had been the last seven or eight years," said Dungy. "It's more like Denver's defense. The coordinator came from there. They're getting the ball up the field and having some success with different guys in the lineup – David Bowens, people like that. A different style of guys – they're not the big mashers that they had when Gilbert Brown and people like that were there. So it's going to be different for us attacking them, but hopefully we'll have some success."
Not everything about this game is unrecognizable, however. The Packers now employ a defense that the Bucs are familiar with, and they feature a rangy defender who has long been known for making big plays in green and gold.
"They play a one-gap defense very similar to what we do here," said Dungy. "They bring LeRoy Butler down in the box, and he's a big part of the run game. They can also blitz him from there, and blitz a lot of people. So you have to be sharp, and if you're sharp I think you're going to be fine. If not, they can make you look very bad."
Another thing that will seem familiar on Sunday will be the supercharged atmosphere. Dungy wants his team to prepare for and approach each game the same, but even he can't deny the thrill of Bucs versus Packers.
"It's always exciting," said Dungy. "It's been a big rivalry game for us. Now, with the race tightening up, division games are always important. Watching them play on Monday night, they're obviously getting their game going, and we think we are, too."