The 2020 NFC Championship Game will pit two of the league's three highest-scoring teams at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers are loaded with star-caliber players on offense and both are led by one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play.
This is reflected in the league's offensive rankings, beyond just the scoring chart. Most of the evidence would suggest that the defenses for both Bay teams will be up for a serious challenge on Sunday. For instance, both offenses rank in the top 10 in points, net yards, passing yards, yards per play, yards per pass play, sacks per pass play and red zone touchdown efficiency. The Bucs have the edge in a couple categories, like sacks and passing yards. The Packers rank higher in some others, like yards per play and red zone efficiency.
There is one area, however, in which the Packers' offense seems to have a significant edge over the Buccaneers' offense. While Green Bay's attack during the regular season featured the NFL's eighth-ranked ground game, with 132.4 yards per game, the Bucs tied for 28th in that department, with 94.9 yards per game. Green Bay's average of 4.78 yards per carry, which ranked seventh, is also much better than the Bucs' average of 4.12, which ranked 25th.
It might appear from those numbers that the Aaron Rodgers will have a better chance of leading a balanced offense, and reaping the advantages that brings, than will Tom Brady. However, that might not necessarily be the case. There is, of course, the matter of Tampa Bay's run defense, which has led the NFL two years running and could stop the Packers from ever finding that balance. Perhaps just as importantly, the Bucs' own rushing attack seems to have found its footing at just the right time.
With Ronald Jones II out for the Wild Card game, Leonard Fournette shouldered the load as the Bucs rushing attack went for 142 yards against Washington. Jones returned for the Divisional Game in New Orleans and split the job roughly down the middle, getting 62 yards on 13 carries to add to Fournette's 63 on 17 runs. Overall, the Bucs ran for 127 yards against a very good Saints defense. Those games represent two of the team's four best rushing performances of the entire season.
"It helps the whole team when they're just running like that," said wide receiver Mike Evans of Fournette and Jones. "They're two phenomenal backs. They're both really explosive power runners. When they're going, we've been tough to beat. That's been shown all year. When they both have good games, I think we're on the winning end most of the time. When they run the ball well, we win. It helps all of us."
The Bucs really haven't had too many games this season when both Jones and Fournette have been available and heavily involved. The best example during the regular season was probably the Week Seven thrashing of the Raiders in Las Vegas, in which Fournette ran 11 times for 50 yards and Jones got 34 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Most recently, Jones missed time while on the reserve/COVID-19 list and then had to sit out in Washington after aggravating a quad injury. When he returned in New Orleans, the Bucs saw what they could do with both him and Fournette playing at a high level.
"Both of those guys I consider starters, so it's a matter of just getting guys in there and keeping them fresh," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Who has got the hot hand and that whole thing. I thought 'Ro' had his confidence back and really hit the holes hard. I thought Leonard [also] played outstanding so yeah, it's a heck of a one-two punch and having fresh legs out there all the time."
Getting Fournette and Jones going early in Green Bay could be essential to the offense finding a groove on Sunday, thanks to the style of defense the Packers often play. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Green Bay has used "dime" personnel (six defensive backs) on 49% of their plays, including the postseason, which is the highest rate in the NFL. The Packers have kept six or fewer players "in the box" against opposing offenses on 68% of their defensive snaps, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. Both of those strategies essentially invite teams to run at them between the tackles.
Meanwhile, the Bucs have proved effective at exactly that, running the ball up the gut of the defense. According to Next Gen Stats, Tampa Bay's running backs gained 239 rush yards over expected on runs inside the tackles in 2020, the second-highest total in the league. Center Ryan Jensen, who obviously has a lot to do with that success in the middle, has seen what a difference it can make in recent games.
"Being able to control the line of scrimmage and being able to run the ball efficiently has been huge for us, obviously, in the last five to six, seven weeks," said Jensen. "For us, it just helps open up everything else for the passing game, the play-action, and running the ball and wearing pass-rushers out is always a good thing to do."
Indeed, if the Buccaneers can run the ball effectively between the tackles it will add bite to their play-action game. Overall, Tampa Bay hasn't used the play-action at a high rate, ranking 30th in the league at 18%, but it has been a more common strategy for the team of late, and an effective one.
"Play-action – if you're not running [well], you might as well just go maximum protection and just drop back," said Arians. "When you're running it, that fraction of changing someone's eyes an initial step in the wrong direction gets people open and it makes it easy. So yeah, they go hand in hand."
Unsurprisingly, the Bucs' running backs relish the opportunity to set the tone for the offense, which is known more for its quarterback and incredible array of pass-catchers.
"We love it," said Jones. "Me, the O-line and all the guys always talk about staying balanced. We know what we have out there at quarterback. It's good to keep that balance and be able to impose our will on the defense.
"I definitely look forward to the opportunity. Going up there to Lambeau, being able to establish the run, stuff like that. The big boys up front are ready for it and we're up for the challenge so I can't wait."