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OPPONENT: Green Bay Packers
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WHERE THE PACKERS STAND: The Packers are 4-3 and in second place in the NFC North division.
PACKERS HEAD COACH: Mike McCarthy
PACKERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Joe Philbin PACKERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Don Capers PACKERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Shawn Slocum
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 28th (272 ypg) RUSHING: 24th (98 ypg) PASSING: 23rd (174 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 28th (376 ypg) RUSHING: 30th (162 ypg) PASSING: 15th (214 ypg)
GREEN BAY PACKERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 9th (373 ypg) RUSHING: 16th (114 ypg) PASSING: 9th (259 ypg)
GREEN BAY PACKERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 4th (283 ypg) RUSHING: 9th (99 ypg) PASSING: 9th (184 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … the Packers rank tied for first in the NFL with a plus-12 turnover ratio?
SCOUTING THE PACKERS
Quarterbacks Despite being swept by their former quarterback, Brett Favre, the Green Bay Packers still have posted a winning record (4-3) through the first seven games of the season. Favre's successor, fifth-year signal caller Aaron Rodgers, has a lot to do with that.
A former first-round draft pick, Rodgers has completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 1,989 yards and tossed 14 touchdowns this season. Despite throwing under heavy duress more often than not, Rodgers has been a good caretaker, throwing just two interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Rodgers has been sacked a whopping 31 times through seven games. Believe it or not, that sack total would be worse if it weren't for Rodgers' mobility.
Rodgers has rushed 29 times for 188 yards (6.5 avg.) and one score. However, one thing that could slow him down is an ankle injury Rodgers sustained in Green Bay's loss to Minnesota last week. That could bode well for the Bucs, but only if their defensive front four can find a way to pressure him on a consistent basis.
Running Backs The strength of Green Bay's top 10-ranked offense is its passing game, but the Bucs have one of the worst run defenses in the league, which means the Packers could attempt to run the ball early and often Sunday.
The Packers certainly have the resources to run the ball effectively. Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,200 yards last year and is on his way to another 1,000-yard season. Through seven games, Grant (6-1, 226) has rushed for 525 yards (4.1 avg.0 and three touchdowns. He's also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, having caught 16 passes for 124 yards.
While Grant is Green Bay's primary running back, the Packers could call on recently re-signed Ahman Green (6-0, 217) and Brandon Jackson (5-10, 220) to contribute via the ground attack. Green, who is in his 12th season, is no longer in his prime and has just two carries since his return.
Receivers One of the reasons why Rodgers has been so successful since replacing Favre as Green Bay's starting quarterback is because of the weapons he has in the passing game, including wide receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.
Jennings (5-11, 198) was Rodgers' primary target last year, gaining nearly 1,300 yards receiving and scoring nine touchdowns. That success has earned Jennings extra attention from opposing defenses, which has slowed his production a bit. Still, Jennings has been quite productive, catching 30 passes for 444 yards (14.8 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Driver (6-0, 194) has taken advantage of the attention Jennings has received. The 11th-year veteran currently leads the team in receptions with 33 for 542 yards (16.4 avg.) and eight touchdowns.
Both Driver and Jennings are capable of being effective in the short-to-intermediate part of the field and stretching the field, which will make them difficult for Bucs cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, who leads the team in interceptions with four, to cover. That's exactly what Jennings did in last year's meeting with the Bucs, catching touchdown passes for 48 and 25 yards.
The Bucs have allowed their fair share of deep plays in the passing game this season. That simply can't happen Sunday. The Bucs may play more Cover 2 than usual in order to call on safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli to help limit the big-play production of Driver and Jennings. They will also help cover Packers tight end Donald Lee (6-4, 248), who has 22 catches for 169 yards, but still is looking for his first score of the year.
Offensive Line If the Buccaneers are going to upset the Packers Sunday, this is the unit they must exploit. Green Bay's offensive line has been dreadful, allowing 31 sacks through seven games, an average of over four per contest. Miraculously, the Packers still have managed to convert 42.3 percent of their third downs this year.
In their defense, the Packers have been without starting tackles Chad Clifton and Allen Barbe for parts of the season, which has allowed rush ends to get after Rodgers. Clifton (6-5, 320) is expected to play against the Bucs. Although he likely will have rust to shake off, Clifton's return isn't necessarily good news for Bucs right defensive ends Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder, who have struggled to get after the quarterback on a consistent basis.
Barbe (6-4, 305) is also expected to play vs. Tampa Bay. No matter which player is playing right tackle for the Packers Sunday, Bucs DE Jimmy Wilkerson, who leads the team in sacks, must turn in one of his best games as a pro in order to pressure Rodgers and help shut down Green Bay's potentially potent running game.
The Packers offensive line will actually be one of the smaller units the Bucs defensive line faces this season, although Green Bay right guard Josh Sitton's 6-foot-3, 317-pound frame could give Bucs defensive tackle Ryan Sims some trouble in the trenches.
Green Bay may elect to call on center Jason Spitz (6-3, 302) to help Sitton, a second-year player and former Central Florida standout, double team Bucs defensive tackles Chris Hovan and rookie Roy Miller. It will be critical for Tampa Bay's defensive tackles to sustain a push up front to help collapse the pocket on Rodgers.
Defensive Line New defensive coordinator Don Capers has turned Green Bay's defense around. Last year, this group finished the season ranked 20th in the NFL. This season, the Packers have adjusted quickly to Capers' 3-4 scheme. They currently rank ninth overall in total defense.
This won't be the first time the Bucs face the 3-4 defense this season. The Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots run their own versions of this particular scheme. However, Sunday does mark the first start of rookie quarterback Josh Freeman's career, and facing the Packers defense will be no easy task.
Like most 3-4 defenses, the Packers have plenty of size up front. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (6-2, 330) anchors the middle of the line while defensive ends Johnny Jolly (6-3, 320) and Cullen Jenkins (6-2, 305) play outside.
Jolly, who has one interception, and Pickett do a good job of taking up space and allowing linebackers to hit gaps and penetrate the offensive backfield. Jenkins is easily the best playmaker in this group. He has 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception this season. Jenkins lines up on the right side, which means Bucs left tackle Donald Penn and second-year left guard Jeremy Zuttah will have their work cut out Sunday.
But all three defensive linemen are more than capable of making plays against the Bucs offense line, which has underachieved, even with the return of starting center Jeff Faine. Jenkins, Jolly and Pickett have combined for 7.5 tackles for a loss. The Packers will also work first-round pick B.J. Raji (6-2, 337) into the lineup as a pass rusher in certain situations.
The Buccaneers must establish the run with Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward in order to help things open up in the passing game. Tampa Bay's offensive line can help do that. One thing it can't afford to do is commit penalties and put the Bucs offense in long down and distance situations. That isn't a formula for success in Freeman's first start as a pro.
Linebackers The Packers have 12 sacks this season. Most of Green Bay's quarterback takedowns have come from its talented stable of linebackers.
Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk (6-1, 248) and Nick Barnett (6-2, 236) are former first-round picks and responsible for helping to shut down the running game. They do a good job in that regard. Hawk is third on the team in tackles and has forced two fumbles. Barnett leads the Packers in tackles and has added one sack and five tackles for a loss. Hawk and Barnett pose a serious threat to the interior part of Tampa Bay's offensive line, including Faine, Zuttah and right guard Davin Joseph, who must be assignment sound in order to keep Hawk and Barnett out of the backfield.
Green Bay's outside linebackers include another former first-round pick in rookie Clay Matthews (6-3, 235). He has impressed in his first season, notching three sacks and four tackles for a loss. Although Matthews is a rookie, the player the Bucs might attempt to attack in the running game as well as the passing game is left outside linebacker Aaron Kampman (6-4, 265). The Packers attempted to trade Kampman before the trading deadline because he isn't considered a good fit for the 3-4 scheme. However, Kampman has made some plays, notching 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Keep an eye on Kampman. He is scheduled to become a free agent in 2010 and is a player the Bucs could target as a pass-rushing defensive end. On Sunday, Tampa Bay may attempt to go after Kampman, especially with tight ends Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens, who appear to have favorable matchups with the eighth-year player.
Secondary If Freeman has to throw the ball more than 25 times in this game the Bucs will be in serious trouble. That's because the rookie quarterback will be attempting to throw against one of the league's best secondaries, evidenced by the fact that the Packers have 11 interceptions and are allowing opposing offenses to convert just 35 percent of their third downs through seven games.
The strength of this unit is Green Bay's cornerbacks. Charles Woodson and Al Harris are seasoned veterans. Each player is in his 12th season in the NFL, but neither is showing signs of slowing down.
Woodson (6-1, 202) leads the Packers with four interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. Harris (6-1, 190) has two interceptions of his own. Bucs wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton have good size to match up with Woodson and Harris, but the key question is do they have the speed to separate enough to convince Freeman it's safe to throw the ball their way on Sunday?
If the Bucs can get their running game going it would help Bryant and Clayton get in some one-on-one matchups with Woodson and Harris. It would also allow the Bucs to get rookie WR Sammie Stroughter on the field more often.
A solid running game could force Packers strong safety Atari Bigby (5-11, 213), a former Central Florida standout, to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which would allow Freeman to showcase his strong arm on deep pass attempts. However, Freeman must not only account for Green Bay's talented cornerbacks, he must also beware of free safety Nick Collins (5-11, 207), a former second-round pick with 11 career interceptions.
Special Teams The Bucs are going on their third kicker and the season isn't even halfway over. The Packers haven't had that problem. Packers K Mason Crosby has drilled 14-of-18 (77.8 percent) of his field goal attempts, and he's perfect inside 40 yards.
Green Bay punter Jeremy Kapinos is averaging 45 yards per punt. He's pinned seven of his 27 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Kapinos and Crosby likely will be kicking to Bucs second-year return specialist Clifton Smith, who should return from a concussion this week. Smith will have to establish good starting field position for the Bucs offense in order for Tampa Bay to score enough points to win this game.
New Bucs K Connor Barth and punter Dirk Johnson will kick to Packers return specialists Tramon Williams (5-11, 191) and veteran Ahman Green. They are averaging 11.8 and 20.1 yards per punt and kickoff return, respectively.