Overview: After a much-needed week off to nurse some bumps and try to get the nightmare of the London Massacre out of their domes, the Buccaneers return to the field this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium for a tilt with their former NFC Central rival, the Green Bay Packers. The Bay of Pigs, as Chris Berman donned it. Both teams come in looking to turn their seasons around, but for different reasons. The Packers come to town fresh off of the receiving end of a William Gay-esque trucking courtesy of Adrian Peterson and the Vikings. The Packers actually held up ok against AP and the Viking rushing attack on Sunday (allowed 110 yards), but surrendered 4 TD passes to the ol' gunslinger in an emotional homecoming at Lambeau. The Bucs come in looking for something, anything, to spark a fading, winless team following a curbstomping on the other side of the pond at the hands of the Patriots. Moreover, there are growing rumors among media outlets of off the field issues between the head coach and certain players. Well, the future is now in Tampa, as the Bucs have given the keys to the offense to rookie QB Josh Freeman in what will be his first career start. However, the Bucs are going to have to establish a consistent running attack to have any chance to sustain drives against the Packer defense.
3 Brief Keys to a Packer Victory:
1. Stick to the basics - run the ball. With the talent Green Bay has under center and at WR, the Packers have had success through the air. However, as will be discussed later, they have had major protection problems this month, with Rodgers winding up on his back far too often. No need to put Rodgers in harm's way too much this week. If the Packers feed the ball to Ryan Grant, they should find success against a Buccaneer defense that ranks dead last statistically against the run in the NFL.
2. Force Caddy off the road. With a rookie QB at the helm and two great cover corners, it's no doubt the Packers will try to take the Buccaneer running game out of play and force the Bucs to use Josh Freeman's untested arm to move the ball. Also, I doubt Freeman will be given much flex to audible at the line, so the Bucs could be looking at an aggressive set of run blitzes and unblocked safeties on a regular basis.
3. Your defense is quicksand... bury the new kid early. If the Pack can drop Freeman a few times early or force a turnover or two, the playbook will likely tighten up quickly and the young QB will become more and more timid to make another mistake. Doing so will force the Bucs into more predictable running plays early and into the Packer defensive front, which is playing well lately.
3 Brief Keys to a Buccaneer Victory:
1. Finally live up to that "we're going to be a violent team" moniker. For a team that has a healthy, impressive stable of backs and an O-line line chock full of returning starters, they sure don't do much to show them off. Take the fight to the Green Bay front 7 and run the ball early and often. Dive plays, misdirections, off-tackle runs, end arounds. For every running play, every down and distance, this team has a back for it. Finally use them all properly.
2. Baby steps... manage the game efficiently and stay out of 3rd and longs. Easier said than done, but sticking with the running game more than they have so far on 2nd down and 6-8 yds should make for more manageable 3rd down opportunities. Running the ball early will help establish play action at key times as well. Also, RB screen passes and WR hitches and screens are effective against the right defensive sets. Use them much more than you have so far. Remember, baby steps for your baby QB.
3. Continue to make life miserable for Rodgers. 19. That's how many times poor Aaron Rodgers has been sacked the past four games, averaging almost five per game. Rodgers and his stable of talented wideouts can decimate a defense if given time, so it'll be essential for Jimmy and Stylez to generate consistent pressure out of 4 and 5 man rushes, disrupt Rodgers, and put the Packers in a fair number of 2nd/3rd and long situations.
Buccaneer Offense vs. Packer Defense
The 2009 Packer defense ranks statistically as one of the league's best, although part of those stats come from holding the inept Lion and Brown offenses to 3 total points. They rank 2nd in total YPG at 283.4 and 10th against the run at 99.4 YPG. What's more impressive about that defensive statistic is that they've held the great Adrian Peterson to under 100 yards rushing in each game. The Packers employ a 3-4 front. A great part of the success of this scheme lies in their magnificent set of linebackers. Aaron Kampman moved to OLB from his 4-3 DE position and has held his own against the run, but is not generating much of a pass rush, totaling 2.5 sacks in '09. 1st round pick Clay Matthews mans the opposite side OLB. Matthews has already made impact plays as a rookie, stripping Peterson and returning it for a TD in the Pack's first matchup with Minny. Headhunters AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett man the middle of the line. All in all, this front 7 is big, physical, and very capable of stopping the run, but is susceptible in the passing game. There are opportunities for Winslow and Stevens to take advantage of some one-one-one matchups in man coverage on shorter routes.
That being said, everything starts up front for the Green Bay defense with their massive Nose Tackle, 340 lb Ryan Pickett. He's a space eater than commands double teams. The question is whether the center and guard can hold him in place or whether he can step into the A-gap and push the linemen back a few steps, closing the lane and forcing the RB outside towards the OLBs. If the Bucs want to establish a power interior running game (which are primary fakes for play-action), Jeff Faine and Zuttah/Joseph will have their hands full. They will have to at least hold the big guy at bay and create some narrow interior lanes for the backs.
Where the Buccaneers might find success running the football is off-tackle on the left side. RDE Cullin Jenkins is about 20 pounds lighter than his LDE counterpart, Johnny Jolly, and has generally been a more effective pass rusher than run-stopper. Big Donald Penn and Stevens can knock holes between the RDE and ROLB, with Earnest Graham opening up a hole to the secondary with a kickout block on the ILB.
In the secondary, veterans Al Harris and Charles Woodson are as good a pair of cover corners as a coach could hope for. They love to crowd the WR at the line and jam him off his routes. Although not as young as spring chickens anymore, both have seen it all and should be able to stick with the Buccaneer wideouts, although Bryant still can create some opportunities deep. However, as we've seen this season so far, if there's one spot where the Packer defense is soft, it's in the secondary right down the middle of the field. The Vikings exposed this weakness in both matchups, with Favre torching the secondary right down the middle. Moreover, both starting Packer safeties have missed time this year due to injury and SS Nick Collins left Sunday's game after colliding with FS Atari Bigby and is expected to be listed as questionable on this week's injury report. If the Bucs run the ball and work the short passing game as they should, the opportunity should be there to mix in shots to Antonio Bryant on a deep post in play action or the occassional seam/deep-in patterns to Winslow.
It's worth noting that the Defensive Coordinator Dom Caper has gone under scrutiny from his own players for questions of his schemes in recent games, namely their last 2 matchups with the Vikings. Charles Woodson and DEs Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins have spoken out against the Packers' lack of aggressiveness against QB Brett Favre, and both have received private conversations from coaching for their dissent. Another team with internal turmoil... not a bad thing for the Bucs. With a first-time QB taking the reins for the Bucs, Capers would be foolish not to bring more pressure.
Packer Offense vs. Buccaneer Defense
The Packers' passing offense may rank 9th in the NFL, but Rodgers is having an MVP-calibur season. For the great numbers that Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have put up so far, Aaron Rodgers actually leads the NFL in pass efficiency at just over 110. He's been nothing short of great, especially with him having to continually check for pressure due to suspect offensive line play. He can scan the field, read the defense, and find the open receiver, spreading the ball around early and often to James Jones, Jennings, Driver, Finley, Havner, Donald Lee, and Ryan Grant.
However, the Green Bay offensive line, as noted, has been violated by opposing defenses this month, allowing 19 sacks in 4 games and a league-high 31 sacks on the season. The news isn't great for the Packers, as both tackles are fighting the injury bug. LT Chad Clifton is questionable for Sunday's game with a bum ankle, with RT Mark Tauscher fighting a sore knee. Although the Bucs haven't been confused recently as a team with a consistent pass rush, they should be able to reach double digits in QB hits on Sunday and hopefully tally 3 or 4 sacks. Heck, they'd better or else...
... Aaron Rodgers will pick them apart. The Packers love to run 3 and 4 wide in one back sets, creating opportunities on deep drag/in routes and timing patterns with their athetic receivers, presenting matchup problems for many teams in one-on-one situations. With Elbert Mack struggling this season, the Bucs will have trouble matching up against the Packers' slot receivers. TE Jermichael Finley, who is considered 50/50 to play Sunday, is a big target and a true threat down the field. If he's unable to go, Donald Lee is not much of a drop off and is a big weapon in play action between the backers and safeties and even more so in the red zone when matched up against a linebacker.
The Packers employ a zone blocking run scheme. Although their offensive line has been battered in the pass rush, they are agile and capable of getting outside in run blocking and getting to the secondary for the extra downfield block, making the offtackle runs and outside stretch plays a significant part of their running attack. It will be important for Hayes, Black, Piscitelli, Talib, and Barber to get off blocks and prevent Grant from getting a big lane outside and away from the middle of the defense.
What Will Happen: With a young QB at the helm, the Bucs will finally come out running the football effectively, mixing in an assortment of short passes early. However, the Packers defensive front will bend in the red zone and hold the Bucs to field goal attempts much of the day. The Bucs will get a strong push on Rodgers in the first half, but will tire in the 2nd half, as Rodgers finds more time to connect with Driver and Jennings, with Ryan Grant putting the game away in the 4th quarter late.
Line: Green Bay -10.5
Final Score: Packers 27, Buccaneers 16