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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers-Packers: Top Storylines & Key Matchups in Week 15

The Bucs head to Lambeau Field for another critical game in their playoff stretch drive, and they'll get their first look at impressive young quarterback Jordan Love

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed back to Lambeau Field for the first time since they beat the Green Bay Packers in the 2020 NFC Championship Game. While the memories formed that day will last a lifetime, both teams have changed dramatically in the three years since, and the 2023 Buccaneers need a winning streak like they went on late in 2020 to even have a shot at another game like that.

Most notably, of course, that last meeting in Lambeau featured two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Brady retired after the 2022 season, and a few months later the Packers traded Rodgers to his preferred destination, the New York Jets. That opened an opportunity for Baker Mayfield to revive his career as the Bucs' new starter and finally cleared the way for Green Bay's 2020 first-round pick, Jordan Love, to take over their offense.

Both quarterbacks have performed well, perhaps exceeding some outside expectations, even if their own teams had every confidence in them going into the season. Their base statistics are very similar: 2,934 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, eight interceptions and an 89.7 passer rating for Mayfield; 2,866 yards, 22 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 90.2 passer rating for Love. Neither were at their sharpest last weekend but Mayfield did lead a 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes in Atlanta.

Mayfield's final touchdown pass to Cade Otton swung the Bucs' playoff-odds pendulum dramatically, taking them from the verge of elimination in the NFC South race to a tie for first place in the division. The Buccaneers now "control their own destiny" in the division title hunt, but that phrase is a little overwrought. Tampa Bay has to win all four of its remaining games to avoid the possibility of dropping out of first place, and the Packers surely believe they have some measure of control on this weekend's outcome.

But the Bucs will control what they can, namely their own performance, which has led to a two-game winning streak and a rise in the number of game-changing plays the Bucs are making in critical moments. Head Coach Todd Bowles thinks the Bucs have turned the corner in that regard after letting several close games slip away in the middle of the season.

"Just the focus – the plays we messed up, the little things…the plays we won [in Atlanta] with and the week before [against] Carolina, we weren't winning in late October and early November. The maturity factor has kicked in, and mental toughness factor has kicked in, and then believing in each other and playing for each other has kicked in. That's kind of what you want to see in December football. I think that plays a lot in it."

The Buccaneers knew the implications of winning and losing in Atlanta and were thrilled to come out on top. But all that did was make the next game more important, so they are trying to maintain the same level of focus this week.

"Just have the same mentality," said Mayfield. "We need to carry this mentality over to next week. This game won't matter unless we take care of business next week. So, have the same mentality, approach the week the same, be intentional about it and come out on play at a time and find a way to win." 

Here are four storylines and four head-to-head matchups to keep in mind as the Buccaneers head to Green Bay seeking their third straight win.


Holding On to the Top Spot – Sunday's game at Lambeau Field took on more playoff-chase significance for both teams thanks to the Buccaneers' critical win in Atlanta and the Packers' unexpected loss to the Giants. As noted above, the Buccaneers caught up with the Falcons and stayed even with the Saints, all at 6-7 with four games to go. With Atlanta headed to Charlotte to take on the one-win Packers and the Saints getting the Giants at home, the Bucs know there's a very good chance they need to win in Green Bay to keep pace. A loss to an NFC opponent would also hurt them in a couple potential tiebreaking scenarios. As for the Packers, they had won three in a row, including impressive back-to-back wins over the Lions and Chiefs, to get back in the Wild Card race, at least, but the loss in the Meadowlands puts them three behind the Lions in the NFC North hunt. Still, the Packers currently own the third Wild Card spot and have to worry about a large pack of contenders, including five other 6-7 teams.

Keeping It in Gear – A very positive trend has begun to develop for the Buccaneers' offense. For three weeks in a row, the ground game has produced its best output of the season. After rushing for 125 yards in a loss to Indianapolis in Week 12, the Bucs upped that to 128 in a win over Carolina and then 148 last Sunday in Atlanta. Tampa Bay has also averaged 4.6 yards per carry over that three-game span, after ranking last in the league through 13 games at 3.1. Bowles credits an offensive line that is increasingly playing as a cohesive unit and has seen improvements from such players as Cody Mauch and Aaron Stinnie, as well as a more disciplined approach to picking his lanes for Rachaad White. Can the Bucs improve on their best rushing performance for a fourth straight week? They will be facing the 31st-ranked run defense this weekend, as the Packer shave allowed 141.8 ground yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. The Giants ran the ball 34 times for 209 yards against Green Bay last weekend, though it's worth noting that the Packers were without their leading tackler, linebacker Quay Walker.

More Defensive Shuffling? – The Buccaneers were thrilled to get defensive captain Lavonte David back in the mix last week after a two-game absence, and his presence made a noticeable impact, particularly in helping hold a powerful Atlanta rushing attack under 100 yards. However, the team had to play without one of its other top run defenders, and its sack leader, when Vita Vea couldn't play due to a toe injury. Vea was a game-time decision, which could mean he's on track to return this week, but Bowles didn't commit to that in his press conference on Monday. The Bucs could also get cornerback Jamel Dean and linebacker Devin White back after they missed the last three and two games, respectively, but have a new concern with their other starting cornerback, Carlton Davis. Davis had a strong game in Atlanta with an interception and three pass break-ups, but he left the game early due to a groin injury, which is the same ailment that caused David to miss two contests. Starting safety Ryan Neal also left the Falcons game early with hip and back injuries while defensive lineman Will Gholston was knocked out with a knee injury. The Buccaneers' defensive lineup will likely look a little different in Week 15 than it did in Week 14 as the recent shuffling on that side of the ball continues.

Will They Show Him Love? – As noted, Jordan Love has looked promising in his first season as the starter, perhaps promising enough to stick as the next long-term answer after 30 seasons of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. And Tampa Bay's defense has allowed a lot of passing yards this season, ranking 30th with 264.1 yards allowed per game. However, the Buccaneers are 10th in the league in sacks, with 38 and can bring pressure from a wide variety of sources. They have nine different players who have recorded 2.0 or more sacks, including Vea (5.5), rookies Yaya Diaby (5.0) and Calijah Kancey (4.0) and safety blitzer extraordinaire Antoine Winfield Jr. (4.0). Todd Bowles is known for aggressive play-calling on defense and the Buccaneers generally have one of the highest blitz rates in the league. Love is no rookie, but he is still relatively inexperienced, and aggressive play-callers generally try to shake up young passers with as much pressure and confusing defensive looks as possible. That said, the Packers' offensive line has done an excellent job of keeping that pressure off Love this season, ranking sixth in the league with a 5.80% sack rate allowed, even with standout left tackle David Bakhtiari on injured reserve. Love had struggled a bit when pressured through 12 games, ranking 30th in the league in both completion percentage and dropback success rate on those plays, but he had one of his best games under pressure last week against the Giants. New York blitzed incessantly in that contest but Love completed 14 of 20 passes for 177 yards, one touchdown and one interception when blitzed.


1. Packers G Elgton Jenkins vs. Buccaneers DL Calijah Kancey

With Bakhtiari out, Jenkins is the Packers best and most seasoned blocker. He has proved capable of dominating at any spot on the line but has currently settled in at left guard, so he should see plenty of Kancey on Sunday. Heading into last week's game, Jenkins had allowed a 5.0% pressure rate this season, third lowest among all left guards in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-5, 311-pound blocker has not allowed a sack this season. He has been to two of the last three Pro Bowls, interrupted by an injury-plagued campaign in 2021. Jenkins is explosive out of his stance on run plays and is hard to beat one-on-one in the pass rush. Kancey, the Bucs' first-round pick in this year's draft, collected his fourth sack of the season last Sunday in Atlanta and leads all NFL rookies with nine tackles for loss. Kancey is very quick of the ball and good at shooting through gaps into the backfield, but he has also showed that he can hold up against the run this season despite being a somewhat smaller interior lineman.

2. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Packers CB Carrington Valentine

The Falcons based their defensive gameplan in Week 14 on stopping Mike Evans at all costs, so the Bucs had to find their yards and points elsewhere. One key contributor was Godwin, who led the team with five catches for 53 yards and was targeted 11 times. Baker Mayfield trusts Godwin in key situations, such as third down, and looked his way in one of the most critical moments in the Atlanta game, hitting him for 32 yards on third-and-10 on the game-winning drive. Godwin is very good at making catches in traffic, maintaining possession through hard hits and picking up yards after the catch. With the Packers trading Rasul Douglas at the deadline and frequently being without Jaire Alexander due to multiple injuries, the alliterative duo of Carrington Valentine and Corey Ballentine have had to step up on Green Bay's defense. Ballentine had 40 games of NFL experience before this season but Valentine was a seventh-round draft pick just this past May. The 6-0, 189-pound Valentine has impressed since he took over for Douglas, playing fast and with the type of confident swagger a cornerback needs. His tight coverage has forced opposing quarterbacks to throw into tight windows on 35.9% of the times he's been the targeted defender, the fourth highest among all NFL cornerbacks.

3. Packers TE Tucker Kraft vs. Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr.

The Packers selected two tight ends in the first three rounds of the draft in April, but it was second-rounder Luke Musgrave who got the most action early in the season. Though he went on injured reserve in Week 12, Musgrave is still the team's third-leading receiver, with 33 catches for 341 yards. With Musgrave out, however, the Packers have turned to Kraft, a third-round pick, to carry the load. In fact, Kraft played every single offensive snap in Green Bay's loss to the Giants and ended up with a season-high four catches for 64 yards. Kraft is big (6-5, 254) but has deceptive speed and is athletic enough to make tough grabs on imperfect throws. Winfield has countless duties in the Bucs' offensive, and he's been performing them at an All-Pro level, and occasionally that includes providing coverage on a tight end. As much as the Bucs like to get Winfield around the line of scrimmage due to his sure tackling and blitzing ability, he is just as valuable in coverage. He is tied for the team lead with two interceptions (a potential third in Atlanta was erased on a penalty away from the ball), and is first in passes defensed with 11. Winfield may have some battles with Kraft both in coverage and when his blitzing off the edge.

4. Buccaneers G Cody Mauch vs. Packers DL Kenny Clark

Mauch, a second-round rookie who made the training camp transition from left tackle to right guard, experienced some of the ups and downs one would expect from a rookie in that difficult situation early in the season. He has shown steady and expected improvement, however, and the coaches have praised his play in recent games. That improvement is a factor in the Bucs' rushing attack suddenly having some teeth. Mauch has also helped Mayfield stay reasonably clean, as Tampa Bay ranks eight with a 6.36% sack rate allowed. Clark moves all around on the Packers' interior line and is one of the league's best in that spot, as evidenced by his two Pro Bowl selections. Green Bay's pass rush is led by outside linebackers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, who have a combined 14.5 sacks, but Clark has provided the most pressure from the inside, with 4.5 sacks. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Clark has 18 QB pressures since Week 10, the second most by an interior lineman in that span, and he has improved his pressure rate from 8.0% to 14.6%. When Clark lines up over Mauch, the rookie will be in for the type of challenge that he is increasingly showing he is able to challenge.

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