The Tampa Bay Buccaneers punched their ticket to the fourth NFC Championship Game in franchise history with a 30-20 win at New Orleans on Sunday night. The Buccaneers avenged two regular-season losses against the Saints and took out the second-seeded team in the NFC and the winners of their own division. Things don't get any easier next weekend, of course, as the Bucs now must take on the top seed, the 14-3 Green Bay Packers, in what is likely to be a very chilly Lambeau Field.
How can the Bucs get past presumptive NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and a team that has won seven in a row and nine of its last 10? Let's take a look at how the Buccaneers' offense matches up with the Packers' defense. Later in the week, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali will examine the matchup between the Packers' offense and Tampa Bay's defense.
The first thing to do in assessing this matchup is to look back at Tampa Bay's 38-10 dismantling of the Packers in Week Six, the only game all year that Green Bay has lost by six points. The second thing to do is to quickly set that game aside. If the Buccaneers thought that a lopsided loss in the first half of the season was predictive of what would happen in a playoff rematch, they wouldn't have needed to show up at the Superdome Sunday. One of those two regular-season wins by the Saints over the Buccaneers came by a humbling 38-3 margin in Week Nine.
The Buccaneers know the Packers won't be scared of them when they come to Lambeau for the rematch, just like they were fully confident heading into New Orleans.
"It was not a shock to us that we won – we went there expecting to win," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "We're such a different team than when we played back in November. Same thing – Green Bay's a different team than we played back then, so those games don't really matter anymore."
The Packers' offense actually might not be that much different. They started the season as hot on offense as they are right now, and the game in Tampa Bay proved to be a blip. It was the only one in which Rodgers suffered multiple interceptions or failed to throw a touchdown pass. Green Bay's defense, on the other hand, is definitely playing much better than it was in October. By the time the Packers left Raymond James Stadium in October, they were allowing 27.8 points and 347.4 yards per game. Over the past six weeks, however, Green Bay has surrendered just 17.3 points and 299.2 yards per game.
"Anything can happen during a football game," said tight end Cameron Brate, who has 130 receiving yards in the two playoff games so far. "I just remember in that game the offense didn't have to do too much. We had a pick-six on defense, and then two plays later we got set up inside the five-yard line. It was just a game that our defense kind of dominated. It's definitely a different team than we faced Week [Six]. I think it's a game hopefully like yesterday, where the defense can get some turnovers, because our offense on a short field is pretty tough to defend. It's definitely going to be a challenge. I don't think it's going to be 38-10 on Sunday, but I'll take it if it is."
If the Buccaneers want to look backwards for lessons as to how to overcome the Packers' defense, they should just turn to their first two playoff games, not to mention their 4-0 finish in December. Tampa Bay has been providing Tom Brady with outstanding protection, and that has led to explosive offensive numbers and almost no turnovers. The Bucs had struggled against the Saints' pass rush in the first two meetings, giving up five sacks and committing five turnovers in those games combined, but only let Brady be taken down once. That helped the visitors win the turnover battle, 4-0, and turn those short fields into 21 points.
"At this point, it's kind of understood," said Brate. "Ball security is job security, and if you want to win football games in the playoffs, you've got to protect the football. That's the reason we won yesterday, 4-0 in the turnover battle. It's going to be hard to win a game if you turn the ball over four times."
So this battle will start up front, just as it did in Washington and New Orleans. The Packers' pass rush is red hot, with 24 sacks in the last seven games, including four of Jared Goff in last weekend's Divisional win over the Rams. Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith is the main problem; in his two seasons since coming over from Baltimore as a free agent, Smith has registered 13.5 and 12.5 sacks and made two Pro Bowls, and sure enough he got one of those four sacks of Goff last weekend. The Packers move Smith around a lot and in each of the past two years he's actually been a better pass-rusher when lined up on the inside. Rashan Gary, the team's first-round pick in 2019, is also starting to come on and, after a five-sack regular season, got 1.5 sacks and three QB hits against the Rams.
"I think their defense is really, really playing well," said Arians. "Their young secondary, a couple of guys are playing outstanding. Their pass rush is good."
Still, the Buccaneers do match up well in this area. In the regular season, the Bucs' offense ranked second in sacks-allowed-per-pass play, at 3.51%. The Packers' defense was eighth in this category, at 7.65%. However, as an overall defense Green Bay has not rushed the passer nearly as well in 2020 as it did last year; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Packers' pressure rate dropped from 33.0% last year to 22.2% in 2020, the biggest decline of any team.
When Smith, Gary and Preston Smith are coming from the edges, they'll have to deal with rookie phenom Tristan Wirfs, who allowed all of one sack during the regular season, and left tackle Donovan Smith who is currently playing some of his best football of the season. Left guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen are good matches inside for Za'Darius Smith and nose tackle Kenny Clark, who also had a sack and a half against the Rams. The Bucs are integrating a new right guard into the unit after the loss of Alex Cappa, but Aaron Stinnie was roundly praised for his efforts in his first career start on Sunday. He'll have to be ready for the Packers bringing both Smiths on the same side and running stunts to try to get one of them free to Brady.
"I thought our offensive line protected and blocked [well] – the tight ends, you can put them in there too," said Arians. "Aaron Stinnie played his tail off."
If the Buccaneers want to keep the Packers pressure off Brady, it would help if their late-season trend of a more effective running game continues. That may be possible given a Packers' defense that has been roughly average against the run, ranking 13th in yards allowed per game (112.8) and 14th in yards allowed per carry (4.55). Rams rookie Cam Akers was able to rack up 90 yards on 18 carries last weekend in Green Bay, averaging 5.0 yards per tote.
Kenny Clark is strong against the run in the middle of the Packers' defense and safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are good in run support, too. However, Marpet and Jensen have been getting outstanding push up the middle and both Fournette and Jones have hit the playoffs with fresh legs. Jones has missed time with a finger fracture, a quad injury and a stay on the COVID list, all within the last month, but he returned to add a spark last week as the Bucs split the load almost evenly with him and Fournette in the rushing attack.
"Yeah, that's kind of been the plan all year," said Arians. "Just trying to keep them both fresh. Getting RoJo back and getting him back in shape from the COVID and the finger. I think Leonard's done a great job in his absence and 'Ro' really added a spark when he got in there, so it's a good one-two punch."
The Buccaneers ran the ball more and threw across the middle often to Fournette and Brate in New Orleans because the Saints played a lot of two-deep safety and tried to take away the big plays to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. If the Packers take a similar approach, look for Brady to continue taking what the defense is giving. However, if Green Bay plays more single high and man-to-man coverage, it could set up very entertaining battle in the secondary.
Green Bay has a talented defensive backfield, with former first-round pick Jaire Alexander ably manning the left cornerback spot. He led the team with 13 passes defensed in the regular season and according to Next Gen Stats has not allowed a touchdown catch as the nearest defender since the first week of the regular season. Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan round out the nickel package and Savage has developed into a very productive two-way safety who can provide deep coverage (four interceptions, 12 passes defensed) or come up into the box to drop ballcarriers.
Of course, the Buccaneers have the firepower to overcome just about any secondary. They could be a little thinner than last week depending upon the results of an MRI on Antonio Brown's knee, but they have young playmakers like Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson ready to step up.
Given that this game will pit two of the NFL's three highest-scoring teams against each other, we could see a shootout on Sunday afternoon. However, since both teams have top-10 defenses and there is the possibility of Lambeau weather dampening the fireworks, it could also be a defensive struggle. One thing is for certain when it comes to the Bucs' offense against the Packers' defense, however: Turnovers – or the lack thereof – will be the key. And that is a lesson the Buccaneers can take from that first meeting in Week Six.
"Win the turnover battle," said Arians. "We got the ball away from them – one was a pick-six. Any time you go on the road in the playoffs, you've got to win the turnover battle if you're going to have a chance."