On Thanksgiving Day, as the Green Bay Packers extended their record to 11-0 by beating the Detroit Lions, 27-15, wide receiver Greg Jennings contributed five catches for 74 yards and a touchdown to the victory. It was a typical performance for Jennings, who has 835 yards and eight TDs this year after racking up 1,265 and 12 in 2010.
Four days earlier, however, Jennings had posted his smallest stat line in more than two years. The Packers still won, defeating the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 35-26, but Jennings was held to just six yards on two catches. The last time he had finished a game with six yards or fewer was in Week Two of the 2009 season, when the Cincinnati Bengals shut him out to snap his streak of 44 games with at least one catch.
The man most responsible for Jennings' uncharacteristic day was Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib.
Believing that a zone-heavy defense was just an invitation to a slow death against Aaron Rodgers and his multitude of talented targets, the Buccaneers played man-to-man coverage on almost every snap of their upset bid at Lambeau Field. That meant a busy day for all five of the cornerbacks kept active by the Bucs, but an especially big challenge for Talib. Tampa Bay's defensive game-planners decided their best strategy was to limit Rodgers' two favorite weapons, Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley. For the first half of that task, the Bucs tasked Talib with shadowing Jennings' every move. Ronde Barber, whom Head Coach Raheem Morris sometimes refers to as his 'tight end killer,' spent much of the day on Finley.
"Going into the game, we targeted Jermichael Finley," said Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake. "Aaron Rodger loves Jermichael Finley and Jennings and we thought we did a pretty good job against those guys. But their third and fourth guy beat our third and fourth guy, and at the end of the day they made two more plays than we did.
"I was proud of my guys, but they made two more plays than we did. We played man almost every single down against probably the hottest quarterback in the league right now, and we made him have a frustrating day. But at the end of the day, they made two more plays than we did."
Indeed, Rodgers still threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and Jennings' low numbers were balanced by Jordy Nelson's six catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns and Donald Drivers' four catches for 72 yards. After the Bucs had pulled within two points late in the fourth quarter and failed on an onside kick attempt, it was Nelson who beat fifth cornerback Myron Lewis down the left sideline for a game-clinching 40-yard TD.
That was one of those two plays Lake mentions, and you can bet a good portion of Monday's film study in the DBs' meeting room was devoted to correcting what went wrong on that play. Talib, however, didn't have much to explain the day after the game. His performance looked just as good on tape the next day. Morris said it might have been the best game Talib has played in his four NFL seasons, and Lake clearly agrees.
"Talib, whoa. If you watched 'two-five' against Jennings every snap, it was an impressive performance," said Lake. "The two catches that Jennings did have, one was a bare bubble, which means a run was called. Aaron Rodgers came out and threw the bubble screen and 'two-five' sliced him down for a two-yard gain. The other one was an all-out blitz, Talib came up and bumped him and it may not have been a catch. It was a four-yard catch, but if you look at it he didn't even have control and [Talib] worked it out at the very end."
The Buccaneers play the Tennessee Titans next, in a Week 12 game at LP Field in Nashville, and as Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck pointed out earlier this week, there's a good chance they'll be utilizing man-to-man coverage with great frequency again. Hasselbeck said he barely recognized the Bucs' supposed "Tampa Two" defense when he watched their recent game tapes.
Statistically, the Bucs' pass defense isn't having the sort of season that it has grown accustomed to over the last two decades, during which it ranked in the NFL's top 10 in yards allowed in 13 of the last 15 seasons. Through 10 games, the Bucs are 29th in yards allowed through the air, though games against Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Matt Schaub are obviously responsible for that, in part. However, it's not the gradual shift to more man coverage that has been the cause for those high yardage totals, according to Lake, and Hasselbeck agrees, calling the secondary the strength of the Bucs' defense.
"A lot of the big plays that we've given up have actually been in zone coverage," said Lake. "It's been our safeties in two-man not playing deep enough. The very first play against Houston, we were in a quarters defense where we should have three guys back, and it was a blown coverage there [on an 80-yard TD pass]. It wasn't man-to-man coverage. Probably the worst man-coverage play we gave up was the last one, Jordy Nelson with Myron Lewis. I've been real happy with our man-to-man coverage. I think it's making the quarterback have to hold the football and hoping allowing for our rush to continue to develop."
If that pass rush continues to get better, and starts recording more sacks and fewer instances in which the quarterback escapes the pocket, the Bucs' man coverage may prove even more successful. As Lake pointed out, Rodgers was something of a double threat last Sunday, outstanding in his normal drop-backs but even more dangerous when he scrambled and extended plays.
"We talk about plastering all week, talk about plastering your guy," said Lake. "So now our corners have to chase that guy another 20, 25 yards, and then the plays over. So we had to shuffle guys in and out, and it was like man-to-man defense in basketball. We were pointing out guys and getting everybody lined up. I'll tell you what, it was fun to watch, we had a lot of success, but like I said they made two more plays than we did."
One More Vet
On Friday, the Titans released a week-ending injury report that listed Hasselbeck as "probable" for Sunday's game. Thus, it appears that only half, instead of two-thirds, of the Buccaneers' remaining six games will feature rookie quarterbacks in the opposing huddle.
In May, shortly after the 2011 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com pointed out that, potentially, the team could play up to six games against rookie passers in the coming fall. That potential was the result of an intriguing run of quarterbacks in the first two rounds of the draft, from Jake Locker to Tennessee at pick #10 to Andy Dalton as the Cincinnati Bengals' second pick.
Of course, those six rookie matchups required some circumstances that, unsurprisingly, didn't come to pass. In Week Two, the Minnesota Vikings were still riding veteran Donovan McNabb when the Bucs visited, keeping first-rounder Christian Ponder on the bench. In San Francisco, Alex Smith's fine bounce-back season has kept Colin Kaepernick on the bench, so the Bucs didn't face him in Week Five.
Still, it seemed possible early this week that four of the Bucs' remaining six games would be against rookie quarterbacks. Barring injuries, it's likely that Carolina's Cam Newton, the first overall pick, will start against Tampa Bay in Weeks 13 and 16. In Jacksonville, first-rounder Blaine Gabbert has been starting since Week Three and should do so again when the Bucs visit in Week 14.
Last Sunday, Hasselbeck left Tennessee's game at Atlanta with an elbow injury and Locker led an impressive if ultimately unsuccessful Titan rally. However, with Hasselbeck practicing fully on Thursday and Friday, it appears as if the Locker Era will have to wait a bit longer in Tennessee, as will Tampa Bay's shot at a string of rookie passers.
Of course, that doesn't mean it will be an easy stretch run for the Buccaneers' defense. Newton has had an impressive rookie campaign, completing 60.0% of his passes, compiling a respectable 80.0 passer rating and also rushing for 411 yards. Gabbert has had a rougher go of it, ranking last in the NFL among qualifiers with a 64.4 passer rating, but he will have had 11 starts worth of experience by the time the Buccaneers visit. And, if for some reason Locker plays on Sunday, he'll be building on a relief performance in Atlanta in which he tossed two touchdown passes and finished with a passer rating of 103.7.
As for Hasselbeck's status, his appears to be one of the more favorable on Tennessee's injury report, from the Titans' point of view. Tennessee has already ruled out former Buccaneer Barrett Ruud, their starting middle linebacker, with a groin injury and headed into the weekend with five other players who are considered questionable for Sunday's game. Those five are defensive tackle Karl Klug (knee), linebacker Colin McCarthy (knee), defensive end Derrick Morgan (ankle), tackle Michael Roos (groin) and tackle David Stewart (calf).