Tampa Bay had its opportunities to sneak out of Green Bay with a streak-busting statement victory Sunday afternoon but Aaron Rodgers and the undefeated Packers were not to be denied, holding off the Bucs for a 35-26 win.
The Buccaneers twice pulled within two points of the defending Super Bowl champs during the second half only to see Green Bay respond with touchdowns on its ensuing possessions following both Tampa Bay scores.
Perhaps Sunday’s most pivotal moment came late in the fourth quarter when Bucs head coach Raheem Morris called for the team’s second onside kick of the day just after narrowing Green Bay’s lead to 28-26.
Rather than kick it deep and let the defense try and get the ball back with over 4 minutes remaining, the Packers took over at Tampa Bay’s 46. Three plays later, wide receiver Jordy Nelson badly beat cornerback Myron Lewis down the left sideline and Rodgers hit him in stride for a game-clinching 40-yard touchdown.
The victory extends the Packers’ winning streak to 16 games and improves their record to a perfect 10-0, while Tampa Bay lost for the fourth consecutive time and fell to 4-6.
The Buccaneers’ defeat came despite outgaining Green Bay’s fourth-ranked offense in total yardage, 455-378, and Josh Freeman (28 of 38 for 342 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) standing toe-to-toe with MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers (23 of 43 for 299, 3 TDs 1 INT).
Tampa Bay held a 121-91 advantage in yardage on the ground, primarily behind the strong, determined running of LeGarrette Blount. The second-year back posted his second 100-yard game of the season, rumbling his way to 107 on 18 touches (5.9-yard average).
After getting waxed by Houston at home last Sunday 37-9 and being challenged by the coaching staff to step it up, Tampa Bay largely answered the call by playing one of its better overall games of the season. Despite falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Bucs did not allow the game to get out of control and kept within striking distance throughout the day.
Separating the teams on this day, though, was the Packers’ ability to capitalize on another slow offensive start for Tampa Bay and make the most of second-chance opportunities.
The first of these new-life chances came during Green Bay’s first offense possession. Tampa Bay had the Packers stuffed deep, but back-to-back neutral zone infractions turned a daunting third-and-16 situation from the 6 into third-and-6 from the 16. The Bucs defense held to force the punt, but Jacob Cutrera’s ability to disrupt Tim Masthay’s kick led to Masthay dashing nine yards for a first down.
Rodgers and Green Bay’s potent offense took full advantage by running 11 more plays and scoring on nose tackle-turned-fullback B.J Raji’s 1-yard run up the middle to stake an early 7-0 lead.
Along with Tampa Bay’s four-game skid continuing on Sunday, the Buccaneers’ streak of scoring no more than seven offensive points in the first quarter climbed to 64 and helped Green Bay jump out to a 14-0 lead by early in the second period. Tampa Bay’s offense managed just a single first down in the initial 15 minutes of play and the Packers took their two-score advantage on a 5-yard pass to sparsely used tight end Tom Crabtree. The touchdown came on a blown coverage by linebacker Quincy Black and the Bucs secondary that left the second-year Packer wide open in the right side of the end zone to record his third catch of the season and first career score.
The Bucs’ highlight reel play of the game came only two snaps from scrimmage later and at no better time. Freeman first moved Tampa Bay to the Bucs’ 46 with a 28-yard, back-shoulder hookup to wide receiver Arrelious Benn. He then handed off to Blount and the 6-foot, 247-pound running back took it from there, breaking four tackles, juking cornerback Sam Shields and stiff-arming linebacker Erik Walden to complete an impressive 54-yard touchdown run. The play was a career-long for Blount and appeared to reenergize the Tampa Bay sideline.
The Bucs cut the lead to 14-10 on Connor Barth’s 23-yard field goal after a solid drive of 11 plays and 75 yards stalled out at the Green Bay 5. It was Tampa Bay’s first trip of the day into the red zone and the Bucs weren’t able to completely cash in a first-and-10 from the 10 situation.
Tampa Bay scored on all four trips inside the Green Bay 20, with two touchdowns and two field goals. In contrast, the Packers ended four of its five red-zone opportunities with six.
Green Bay received prime field position when the Bucs’ surprise onside kick failed to travel the mandatory 10 yards and kicker Michael Koenen was the first to touch the ball. Needing to cover only 38 yards, Rodgers picked apart the Tampa Bay pass defense and scored on a 5-yard quick slant to Nelson.
The Bucs then suffered another missed chance keep pace with the high-scoring Packers, now trailing 21-10. Working with less than two minutes, Freeman’s march toward field goal range ended in Green Bay territory when a poor pass on the run went to Packers cornerback Tramon Williams instead of Bucs wide receiver Mike Williams.
Tampa Bay again had to settle for another three points off Barth’s right foot when its first possession of the second half came to a halt at Green Bay’s 14. More powerful running from Blount and four Freeman completions allowed the Bucs to cover 67 yards in 10 plays and get as close as the 4. The positive momentum was killed with Freeman’s would-be touchdown fade pass to Kellen Winslow was nullified by an offensive pass interference flag against the tight end.
Even with the lost touchdown reception, Winslow had himself a career day in Green Bay. The 132 yards on nine catches was a profession high and Sunday also represented Winslow’s first 100-plus performance since picking up 102 yards on seven receptions during Week 10 at Miami in 2009.
Another of Freeman’s favorite targets showed encouraging signs of emerging from a sophomore slump mired with dropped passes and a lack of being able to get open. Williams, the Bucs No.1 receiver, secured seven of the 11 balls thrown his way for 83 yards and his second touchdown of the season. His only other score came in a Week 1 loss against Detroit.
Trailing 21-13 following Barth’s field goal, a Bucs defense exposed by poor tackling and all-around ineffectiveness during its prior three losses stepped up to keep Tampa Bay in the hunt. Cornerback Aqib Talib’s diving breakup of a pass over the middle intended for wide receiver Greg Jennings forced Green Bay to punt from its own 41.
The Bucs defensive front got to Rodgers for two sacks, hit him four times and repeatedly flushed him from the pocket. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn and tackle Brian Price registered the sacks, cornerback Elbert Mack snagged his first interception of the season and strong safety Sean Jones and linebacker Quincy Black led the team with eight tackles each.
Tampa Bay regained possession at its own 9 and Freeman engineered an eight-play, 91-yard scoring drive capped by Williams’ touchdown on a 9-yard quick slant to the left side. Morris and the Bucs correctly opted to go for the tie rather than an extra point, but Winslow dropped Freeman’s two-point pass in the end zone that left Green Bay on top, 21-19.
The Bucs’ ability to quickly build on that momentum began to then suffer from a familiar season-long foe – penalties. Tampa Bay looked to have forced the Packers into a quick three-and-out with over 11 minutes remaining, but a third-and-4 incompletion to Jennings turned into a first down because of cornerback Myron Lewis’s defensive holding infraction against Nelson away from the play. Green Bay took advantage with four plays of over 10 yards and two more Bucs penalties. Fan-favorite fullback John Kuhn finished the drive off with a 2-yard run plunge and Lambeau Leap into the stands.
Mack’s aforementioned interception of Rodgers came less than two minutes later with the score still 28-19 and bailed out a rare Bucs special-teams coverage lapse. Packers return man Randall Cobb took a Koenen punt 60 yards and into Tampa Bay territory after the Bucs went three-and-out. Rodgers gave the ball right back on the drive’s first play, though, when his pass to wide receiver James Jones was jumped by Mack and returned to midfield. It was only Rodgers’ fourth interception of the season.
Working with his shortest field of the day, Freeman connected with Winslow for six yards on a big third-and-5 play one snap prior to hitting Benn 37 yards down the left sideline to the Packers’ 2. Freeman tossed his second touchdown of the day on a play action pass to wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe cutting across the end zone from right to left. Barth’s point after reduced Green Bay’s lead to 28-26 with 4:25 still showing on the clock.
That was as close as the visitors would get when Tampa Bay’s onside kick attempt failed, Nelson beat Lewis down the sideline and Rodgers hit him in stride for a quick six. Trailing 35-26 and needing two scores, the Bucs’ dim chances grew darker when their next offensive play resulted in a tipped-ball interception by Tramon Williams. It was the fifth-year corner’s second pick of the game.
While the silver lining of Sunday’s loss was progression and rejuvenated effort, Tampa Bay still failed to realize an uptick in the win column. The Bucs’ next chance to do so will come next Sunday at 1 p.m. in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans. Tampa Bay will try end its longest losing streak since dropping five straight from Weeks 10-14 during 2009’s 3-13 season.
Sunday’s game was played in front of 70,498 fans at sold-out Lambeau Field under cloudy skies. The game-time temperature was listed at 32 degrees and there was a slight northerly wind of 7 miles per hour.
Starting on defense for Tampa Bay was: LE Michael Bennett, DT Brian Price, DT Albert Haynesworth, RE Adrian Clayborn, SLB Quincy Black, MLB Mason Foster, LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Ronde Barber, CB E.J. Biggers, SS Sean Jones, FS Corey Lynch.
The Bucs lined up offensively with: WR Mike Williams, LT Donald Penn, LG Jeremy Zuttah, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood, TE Kellen Winslow, WR Arrelious Benn, RB LeGarrette Blount, FB Erik Lorig and QB Josh Freeman.
Seven Buccaneers were listed as inactive. They were LB Dekoda Watson, CB Anthony Gaitor, WR Michael Spurlock, OT Demar Dotson, DT Frank Okam, DE Derek Hardman and FS Tanard Jackson.