In the Bucs’ first match-up against the Packers in Week 6, they were able to get after Aaron Rodgers and force the veteran quarterback – and in turn the Packers’ offense as a whole – into their worst performance of the season, but can Tampa Bay repeat that nearly flawless performance with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line?
Probably not, but in this championship game the Bucs’ defense doesn’t need to be perfect, they just need to be championship caliber.
In what was likely an MVP season from Rodgers, the Packers’ 10 points against Tampa Bay was by far their lowest mark of the season, their net 107 passing yards was their second-lowest mark of the season, their 94 rushing yards was their fifth-lowest mark of the season, and their 201 total offensive yards was 90 yards short of their next lowest mark in 2020.
Bucs OLB Jason Pierre-Paul and ILB Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
But how did the Bucs get there?
Through Green Bay’s first two drives, producing a quick 10 points and a double-digit lead, it seemed as though the Packers would be well on their way to another Sunday of offensive dominance as they had produced a league-leading 38 points and 445.5 total yards of offense per game over their first four contests of the season.
What followed from the Bucs’ defense was nothing short of a master class.
With Green Bay boasting a 10-0 lead heading into the second quarter, cornerback Jamel Dean undercut a pass intended for Davante Adams on a shallow out route and took it back for a pick-six on the Packers third drive of the game. Safety Mike Edwards followed up Dean’s highlight with an interception of his own three plays later, off a pass breakup from Carlton Davis working in man coverage against Adams. The back-to-back drives ended by interceptions were not only Rodgers’ first two interceptions of the season, but they were the Packers’ first two turnovers conceded as a team at that point in the year.
Green Bay would fail to put another point on the board, being outscored 38-0 after the first quarter. With Tom Brady the Bucs’ offense flourished following a slow start. On the other hand Rodgers – and for one brief drive late in the game, backup Tim Boyle – saw a season-high 21 blitzes come from the Tampa Bay defense and Green Bay’s quarterbacks became the victim of five sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 21 pressures.
Now that performance from Tampa Bay was outstanding, but at best it’s a dream to think that the Bucs could repeat that showing and force Rodgers into the same level of play. A successful day from the Bucs’ defense on Sunday will still rely on pressure, as Rodgers has thrown 42 touchdowns with a 129.3 QBR when kept clean this season, per Pro Football Focus, but it will predictably be a much tougher road to get there than it was in Week 6. To make the task even worse, Rodgers has also been among the best quarterbacks against the blitz this season en route to an MVP-caliber campaign, amassing a 111.7 passer rating against the blitz in 2020 which also would have assuredly been even better if not for his awful showing against the Bucs.
PFF adds that through 10 weeks the Bucs’ defense had a pressure rate of 40 percent through 10 weeks, a number that has dropped to 32 percent since then, taking Tampa Bay’s mark from third-best in the league at that point to 14th. On the other side of the coin, Rodgers has faced the second-lowest pressure rate (21 percent) since Week 6 with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL in front of him.
But going along with the noted decline of Tampa Bay’s pass rush throughout the second half of the season, it’s important to point out that the Bucs will see the return of their star defensive tackle Vita Vea on Sunday, a crucial addition to the unit. At the time of Vea’s injury in Week 5, he joined the Rams’ Aaron Donald as the only two interior defensive linemen with a pass-rush win rate of 20 percent or higher on 100+ pass-rushing snaps and that could prove to be a game-changing factor as the Bucs’ defensive line faces one of their tougher tests of the season.
Bucs ILBs Devin White and Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will have to throw everything he’s got at Green Bay to create pressure, with disguised rushers from different directions, interior blitzes from linebacker Devin White to get Rodgers off of his spot and finding ways to take advantage of David Bahktiari’s absence on the left side of the Packers’ offensive line. After that, head coach Matt LaFleur’s ability to expertly scheme a quarterback-friendly offense in tandem with an elite quarterback in Rodgers will shift even more of the pressure in slowing down Green Bay to Tampa Bay’s secondary.
We can assume that Tampa Bay will stop the run, despite Green Bay’s pair of talented running backs in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, as the Bucs have notched a second consecutive season as the league’s best run-stopping unit. But the Bucs have also struggled at times at the second level, allowing the most yards per target to running backs in 2020 (4.2) and taking a significant step backwards throughout the year in pass coverage.
Per Sportsnaut, these are the Bucs’ defensive splits throughout the first and second half of 2020:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive stats (Week 1-8): 229.1 pass yards/game, 66.1% completion rate, 83.2 quarterback rating, 28 sacks, 11/11 TD/INT ratio, 70.4 rush yards/game, 3.2 yards per carry.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive stats (Week 9-16): 264.9 pass yards/game, 72.6% completion rate, 105.3 quarterback rating, 19 sacks, 16/4 TD/INT ratio, 85.6 rush yards/game, 3.9 yards per carry.
In Week 6 the Bucs’ were largely able to keep Adams in check, limiting him to six receptions on 10 targets for 61 yards while also coming up with two interceptions including the aforementioned pick-six on passes thrown in his direction. The secondary’s performance was spearheaded by spectacular games from Davis and Dean, combining for four receptions and 45 receiving yards allowed on 13 targets in coverage, adding two interceptions and four pass breakups.
But much like the Bucs’ performance as a whole from that game, it’s tough to trap lightning in a bottle and it’s nearly impossible to do it twice. Adams has dipped below that 61-yard mark on just three occasions since Week 6 while racking up over 115 yards four times since then. Davis is expected to be matched up with Adams on Sunday, as he was in coverage on five of the All-Pro wide receiver’s 10 targets in Week 6, but where Davis has flourished in press coverage, Adams’ 3.59 yards per route run against press coverage in 2020 landed as the second-best mark since PFF began tracking the stat in 2012. Davis will be one of the Bucs’ key players on defense this game and his self-described “graveyard” in coverage will once again be crucial as we shift into my next point.
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
After Adams, the duo of Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting will largely need to keep the Packers’ secondary receivers in Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling from beating them over the top. Adams will do his damage, but he isn’t someone that you necessarily need to expend defensive resources to keep under wraps vertically. This is where Winfield will come in, or Edwards should Winfield’s ankle injury hold him out. I predict a heavy dose of Cover 1 looks from Tampa Bay’s defense on Sunday, allowing the Bucs to take away the ground game and send pressure from multiple directions with Jordan Whitehead closer to the line of scrimmage. The Bucs’ deep safety will have to be cognizant of those downfield threats to allow Dean and Murphy-Bunting to play aggressive in their coverage and not succumb to a home run ball from Rodgers.
And then we get to the insanely talented linebacker duo of White and Lavonte David. Tight end Robert Tonyan has broken out this season, particularly in the red zone for Green Bay, and that should be David’s responsibility of the day. Tonyan hauled in 11 touchdowns on the year and LaFleur has masterfully found ways for him to get lost on the field with misdirection. David is your veteran and your anchor on the defense. While White has the speed and blitzing ability to create pressure and handle the Packers’ backs in coverage, if he can play the controlled and technically sound football that he did against the Saints, David must lock down Tonyan and the middle of the field.
So while the Bucs’ secondary has also become a more vulnerable unit since the Bucs and Packers first squared off, they’re fresh off of a stellar win against the Saints in which Tampa Bay created four turnovers, held All-Pro Michael Thomas without a catch and forced Drew Brees into one of the worst performances of his playoff career.
All-in-all the Bucs’ don’t need to be perfect like they were in Week 6 to beat the Packers, and they realistically can’t be expected to be, but they may have to win in a different fashion. It will take communication and focus to stay sound against LaFleur’s great offense, pressure at key times to keep Rodgers in check and a number of valiant individual performances working as one to get to the Super Bowl. This is a championship game, something that many of the Bucs’ stars haven’t experienced yet, but they won’t need a “perfect” performance to get a championship result.