The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their Week Six game against the Green Bay Packers with a defense that was allowing the second-fewest yards and eighth-fewest points in the NFL. Conventional wisdom would have expected the Buccaneers to come out of that game, win or lose, with somewhat worse rankings in both categories, given that Green Bay was averaging 38.0 points and 445.5 yards per game.
Instead, the Buccaneers' rankings got better. Now they head into Week Seven ranked first in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed, after drubbing the Packers, 38-10, and holding them scoreless for three quarters. How did that happen? At the urging of Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers' defense let it loose.
There were some indications early in the week that the Bucs planned to throw caution to the wind and come after MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers aggressively. It was only Tuesday of last week when Head Coach Bruce Arians started setting the tone for the attitude he wanted his defense to adopt.
"One thing – you have to get after him, that's for sure," he said. "You can't play scared. Knowing that the ball is going up – back-shoulder throws, he's the best there is. You've got to cover your guys [and] you've got to do a great job. I think more so [it is] the improvisational plays when he gets out of there. That's really when he's at his best."
Meanwhile Bowles didn't want his players thinking in terms of what Rodgers and the Packers could do to them. On Thursday he stressed that Buccaneer defenders had to trust that their game plan would work and they had to talent to execute it.
"We have to play our game [and] we're more worried about what we do and think we can do to win as opposed to worrying about the opposition," he said. "[If] you have to worry about the opposition and then yourself, that's two birds with one stone. We try to concentrate on us. We know every week we're going to face a good opponent – in this case a great opponent – so it's a big challenge for us."
As the game got underway on Sunday afternoon, it didn't appear as if the players had fully taken that to heart. The Bucs were able to get pressure on Rodgers right away but he consistently escaped and made those improvisational plays Arians had warned about, leading a pair of scoring drives that gave the visitors a quick 10-0 lead. Arians said it felt as if the Buccaneers were holding their breath, waiting to see if something bad was going to happen.
That's when Bowles's lesson kicked in. Jamel Dean turned the game around with a 32-yard pick-six early in the third quarter and the Buccaneers got even more aggressive. Bowles sent blitzes after Rodgers on 46.7% of his dropbacks in the second quarter and 55.6% of them in the third quarter.
"Like Todd said, 'Let's let it go, man. Let's go play,'" said Arians. "Jamel's interception, then Mike [Edwards'] interception and knocking it in for touchdowns – then, it was our game."
Buccaneer defenders were able to see that, while Rodgers had moved the ball in the first quarter, it was on plays they believed they could defend. His success in that period didn't necessarily mean it was going to continue. The Bucs didn't to keep holding their breath.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 6 matchup against Green Bay.
"We just took control of the game," said linebacker Lavonte David, who recorded 1.5 of the Bucs' five sacks. "The main thing was that we were giving up little stuff here and there with him buying extra time. When we got that settled on the sideline, we were able to lock in, get to play our defense the way we want to and being able to go out there, wreak havoc and have fun."
Arians said the Buccaneers made some adjustments on the sideline after the first quarter, and the only reason that worked was because the defense had put together such a good week of practice. In particular, several players and coaches mentioned that the Thursday practice went to a new level, especially on defense.
"I could've told you last Thursday we were going to play [well]," said Arians. "We had Thursday and Friday practices that we've never had before. We've had great practices, but there was something special in the air on Thursday and Friday's practices."
With the adjustments made (and working) and the Buccaneers breathing easier, Bowles helped the defense take over by dialing up a wide variety of rush packages. After picking up nine first downs on the first two drives, Rodgers and the Packers were only able to record four more on their last 10 possessions. After Aaron Jones' touchdown run in the first quarter, the Packers never took another snap on the Buccaneers' half of the field.
"I thought Todd mixed it up really, really good with his fronts, blitzes [and] coverages," said Arians after the game. "You don't usually get Aaron confused – I don't think I've ever seen him confused. When you start running him down and chasing him out of there – early in the game he chased out and he made a lot of plays. We just kept chasing, it hemmed him up a little bit and we got some hits on him. The defensive line, linebackers and the secondary – it was a great defensive performance."
More important than any of Bowles' calls or any adjustments on the sideline was the week's initial message getting through. Heading into the game, the Buccaneers believed they could slow the Packers' express train down; after some early issues, they had to let go of any caution and try to take the game over.
"I think they knew it coming in – it was just a matter of letting loose, not being afraid to make a mistake and just go play," said Arians. "Todd did a great job – the whole coaching staff was over there talking to them about, 'Just turn it loose.' And they did. I thought Jamel's play was huge in the ballgame – as was Mike's. Carlton [Davis] was the one who really stripped it and got the ball up in the air. Just play like we're capable of playing and don't play…it's not 'scared,' just cautious.
"Turn it loose."