The Green Bay Packers went 13-last year and made it to the NFC Championship Game, all under first-year Head Coach Matt LaFleur. Yet there were some who argued that the 2019 Packers were fortunate to win that many games and that their record was not indicative of their true talent level.
The first quarter of the 2020 season is a potent rebuke to that argument. With a roster largely unchanged from 2019, the Packers are off to a 4-0 start and are the NFL's highest-scoring team. Led by a quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who also seems to be intent on proving that he is still the league's best at his position, the Packers are averaging 38.0 points and 445.5 yards per game.
In his 16th NFL season and with his 37th birthday approaching in December, Rodgers currently has the best completion percentage (70.5%), touchdown percentage (9.4%), interception percentage (0.0%) and passer rating (128.4) of his career. His passing yards per game (303.5) and yards per attempt (8.7) would rank as his second-best seasons, and he even has the lowest sack percentage (2.1%) of his career. Rodgers may or may not maintain the top spot in all those categories for the remainder of the season but it's irrefutable that he's playing as well as he ever has in 2020.
Rodgers is also helped by a powerful rushing attack that is picking up 150.8 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry and is led by Aaron Jones, who is following his 16-touchdown breakout year in 2019 with another brilliant campaign. He and backfield mate Jamal Williams have also been big contributors in the passing game, with 254 yards and two touchdowns combined. In fact, that is one way that Rodgers has continued to pile up big numbers without the services of some of his top receivers; he's simply spreading the ball around and getting the most out of some unheralded players. Tops on that list is tight end Robert Tonyan, whose 13 catches for 173 yards and five touchdowns in just four games is a near match for what he had in his first two seasons combined (14-177-2).
Green Bay's defense hasn't been as overpowering as its offense but it ranks near the middle of the pack in most categories, including yards allowed (12th, 353.3 per game) and points allowed (18th, 25.3 per game). Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith is one of the NFL's best and most versatile pass-rushers, going after the quarterback from virtually every spot along the line. The secondary boasts a couple of young stars in safety Darnell Savage and cornerback Jaire Alexander, the latter of whom is sometimes deployed as a shadow to shut down the opposition's best receiver.
The Packers, making their third road trip of the season, have already logged away-game wins against two teams expected to be prime NFC playoff contenders in 2020. They started the season with a 43-34 drubbing of the Vikings in which they rang up 522 yards of offense and 31 first downs. A late Minnesota touchdown made it look closer than it was. In Week Three, the Packers left New Orleans with a 37-30 win. The Packers join the Seahawks as the only remaining undefeated teams in the conference, and they are the only undefeated team that has already recorded four wins against NFC opponents.
The Packers' defense has only forced three turnovers, including interceptions by Alexander and young corner Chandon Sullivan. That hasn't been a problem, however, because Green Bay's offense has yet to turn it over a single time through four games. Not only are the Packers the only team in the NFL yet to commit a turnover, they are the first team in NFL history to score 150 or more points and not turn it over once in a season's first four games.
Green Bay will try to remain perfect with another marquee matchup in Tampa, with Rodgers and Tom Brady facing off for just the third time in their respective careers. Each has won once. The Buccaneers are trying to rebound from their one-point loss in Chicago on Thursday night in Week Five and need a win to ensure they hold onto at least a share of first place in the NFC South. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when Rodgers leads the Packers into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday:
Aaron Rodgers is, of course, the Packers' biggest difference-maker and the main reason they are off to their 4-0 start. We noted his incredible accomplishments above and he'll certainly fit into the team "Strengths" below. Here, we'll stipulate that both Aarons, Rodgers and Jones, are among the best QB-RB tandems the Buccaneers will face all year and highlight four other Green Bay players who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday:
1. OLB Za'Darius Smith. One of the two "Smiths" the Packers brought in through unrestricted free agency in 2019 to man their outside linebacker spots – along with former Raven Preston Smith – Za'Darius has simply been one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL since arriving in Green Bay. His 18.5 sacks since the start of last year, including a team-high 5.0 so far in 2020, are the fifth-most in the NFL and his 45 QB hits are second in that span. However, while both Smiths are listed as outside linebackers, Za'Darius is really much more than that. Green Bay's coaches move him all over the line and rush him from an inside spot quite frequently. The Packers have discovered that Smith is even more effective rushing from the interior of the line, which starts with his 0.86-second get off after the snap when rushing from inside. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats database, since 2019, Smith has an 18% pressure rate when rushing the passer on a drop-back, the best by any NFL interior lineman (minimum 150 pass rushes). Smith also ranks 20th in pressure rate among edge rushers in that span, at 11.7%.
2. WR Davante Adams. Rodgers and the Green Bay offense have impressively kept humming along in the two-and-a-half games that Adams has missed due to a hamstring pull, but there's no doubt they would like to have their number-one receiver back. Adams was close to being cleared in Week Four but the team chose to take a conservative route knowing they would have even more time to rest during a Week Five bye. That would suggest they were targeting a Week Six return for Adams in Tampa. That will make things tougher on the Buccaneers' defense because Adams is one of the NFL's most productive and difficult to cover receivers. In the three halves before he was knocked out by the hamstring injury, Adams already had 17 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Impressively, those 17 catches came on just 20 targets. Adams has an extremely good release – or array of different releases – making it dangerous to use press coverage against him, as he can quickly get around the press and get vertical. When Adams isn't pressed, he creates separation quickly with sharp routes and cuts that are difficult to see coming.
3. DL Kenny Clark. Green Bay may also be getting back Clark after the 2019 Pro Bowler missed the last three games with a groin injury. It was obvious how important the Packers think Clark is to their defense when they gave him a four-year, $70 million contract extension in August. The importance of having Clark on the field is reflected in the stats, too. According to the Next Gen Stats, Green Bay has a 31.7% pressure rate on dropbacks by quarterbacks with Clark on the field since 2018. When he's not on the field, that rate has dropped to 22.2%. The good thing for Green Bay is that Clark likes to be on the field a lot. In 2019, he played the third-highest percentage of his team's defensive snaps among all NFL interior linemen. The 6-3, 314-pound lineman provides the type of interior pressure that teams covet but have difficulty finding, as evidenced by his 16.5 sacks and 22 QB hits over the past three seasons.
4. C Corey Linsley. When the Packers' offensive line has drawn attention in recent seasons for its strong play, the compliments have often gone to their long-term tackle duo of David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga (since departed). Even in 2020, if there's a breakout star on that line it's second-year guard Elgton Jenkins, who has also made a start at tackle this year. Amid all that, Linsley has quietly developed into one of the NFL's best centers and he's one of the main reasons the Packers' offensive line has ranked among the best in 2020 in both run and pass blocking. Bucs DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches said this week that Linsley is "a great vet," "a savvy guy who does a lot of things." Green Bay's powerful rushing attack has been at its best when it has run the ball straight up the gut so far this season, averaging 7.8 yards per carry on 24 runs up the middle. That's their highest average of any direction they've sent their ballcarriers.
As noted, the Packers are the NFL's highest-scoring team so far in 2020 and virtually all of their league rankings on that side of the ball are in the top five. That includes first-place rankings in interception rate (a cool 0.00%) and sacks-allowed rate (2.16%). Green Bay is the only team in the league that ranks in the top 10 in both rush and pass offense (5th and 3rd, respectively) and in fact are the only team to rank in the top 10 in both categories. On defense, the Packers rank 12th overall, are ninth against the run and have the league's sixth-best sack rate. Here are some more specific areas in which the Chargers have done well early in the 2020 season:
· NFL offenses are converting third downs at a higher rate than ever in 2020; if the league-wide success rate on third downs of 42.9% after five weeks holds it will mark the first NFL season ever to finish over 40% in that category. Even in that more offensive environment, the Packers are particularly good at converting third downs, ranking third in the league at 51.1%. Green Bay has not been daunted by longer third downs, either, as they have succeeded on 50% of their third-down tries that needed between seven and 15 yards.
· Rodgers has already tossed 13 touchdown passes and Jones has run four more in, but the Packers have also been able to run up the score when they fall short of the end zone. That's because veteran kicker Mason Crosby has yet to miss on eight tries. That includes successful shots from 52, 49 and 48 yards already. Crosby is also 17 for 18 on extra point attempts.
· The Buccaneers defense will need to remain vigilant even when there is little time left on the clock in either half. So far, Green Bay has had the most effective two-minute offense in the NFL, ranking first with 21 points on drives started in the last two minutes of a half. The league average in that situation is 8.5 points per team.
· The Packers have not hurt themselves with penalties too much in 2020 so far. Their 19 overall penalties drawn is the fourth-lowest total in the league, though of course they have played one fewer game than the majority of teams due to their Week Five bye. They also have had only three declined penalties against them, meaning they are average just over five flags a game. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense has been guilty of just 10 penalties so far, or 2.5 per game.
The Green Bay defense has only produced three takeaways so far and the Packers are allowing 7.44 yards per pass play, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. There's almost nothing to nitpick on the other side of the ball at this point, but the Green Bay's goal-to-go touchdown percentage of 72.7% is only 20th in the league. In addition:
· The Packers have had some struggles on defense with missed tackles. According to NFL stat service SportRadar, Green Bay defenders had 45 missed tackles through the first four games of the season. The Packers' rate of 16.7% of tackles missed is second-highest in the NFL, behind only the Raiders' 18.1%.
· As solid as the Packers' placekicker has been, the punting unit has not gotten good results so far. Punter J.K. Scott ranks last in the NFL in both gross punting average (41.0) and net punting average (36.1). Of course, we are also talking about a very small sample size; Scott has only had to punt seven times so far. Last year, Scott averaged 44.0 yards per punt, with a net of 39.9.
· Green Bay's defense has not been particularly effective in the red zone. The Packers have faced 20 drives that penetrated their red zone and 13 of them have resulted in touchdowns. That 65.0% touchdown rate is eighth-worst in the NFL. Opponents also got field goals out of the other seven possessions, as Green Bay is one of five teams that have not yet stopped a red zone drive from resulting in points.
· Green Bay has a +3 turnover differential despite only forcing three takeaways. Two of those were interceptions, one each by cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Chandon Sullivan. Packer defenders haven't gotten their hands on too many passes overall, tying for last in the NFL with 12 passes defensed. Green Bay has only played four games, but even on a per-game rate that's tied for the 25th-lowest average of passes defensed.
(Note: All rankings mentioned above are from before the rescheduled Tuesday night game between Buffalo and Tennessee was played.)
NEW FACES IN 2020
The Packers were surprisingly active in unrestricted free agency in 2019, and effective as well, particularly with the additions of the pass-rushing duo of Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith. This year, they stayed closer to organizational form, making just a couple low-key additions. Green Bay's 2020 draft also appeared to be more about the franchise's future than winning in 2013. Still, there are a couple of newcomers in notable roles for Green Bay in 2020.
1. T Ricky Wagner. Bryan Bulaga manned the Packers' right tackle spot for most of the last decade, when healthy, and played at a high level. Bulaga finally departed via free agency this spring, going to the Chargers, and the Packers have started three different players at right tackle through their first four games. One of those is Wagner, whom the Lions cut in March after he started three seasons for them at right tackle. Green Bay signed him four days later and he has logged one start so far, in Week Two against his former team.
2. QB Jordan Love. Green Bay gave up a fourth-round pick in this year's draft to move up four spots to draft Love 26th overall. The former Utah State quarterback hasn't played a snap yet but his presence might be helping the team simply because of the extra motivation it seems to have added to the already highly-motivated and highly-successful Aaron Rodgers.
3. RB A.J. Dillon. After taking Love in the first round the Packers followed up with Dillon, the 247-pound power back out of Boston College, in the second round. So far, Green Bay hasn't needed much of a contribution from Dillon to put together a powerful rushing attack, as the Packers have averaged 150.8 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry while only handing off to the rookie eight times. Dillon has averaged 4.3 yards per carry, though.
1. LB Christian Kirksey. Kirksey was probably the Packers' most notable veteran addition during the 2020 offseason, as the team brought him in to replace their departed tackle leader, Blake Martinez. Kirksey started the first three games and is indeed the team's leader in tackles so far, but he won't play against the Buccaneers. Kirksey was placed on injured reserve due to a right shoulder ailment in Week Four and must remain on that list for at least three games.
2. WR Allen Lazard. Green Bay famously elected not to dip into the deep group of wide receivers in the 2020 draft but Lazard was emerging as a productive complement to Davante Adams in the early going, with 254 yards and two touchdowns through the Packers' first three games. However, he needed surgery for a core muscle injury and is currently on injured reserve, too.
3. WR Devin Funchess. The Packers did try to add to that receiving corps in free agency, signing Funchess after the former Panther had been limited to one game with Indianapolis last year. However, Funchess elected to take the option to opt out of the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.