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Divisional Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints

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Three crucial questions the Bucs must answer during Championship Weekend

Will the Bucs be able to reach their second Super Bowl?

The Bucs have made it this far, but will have to play their best game of the year if they want to make it to the big game.
| Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were finally able to overcome the giant that was the New Orleans Saints last week.

Their reward? A trip to Lambeau Field, where the Green Bay Packers are looking to extract some revenge of their own.

The “Battle of the Bays” takes on a whole new meaning this week. Both teams will be fighting for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV, but the Bucs will need to answer these three questions if they want a shot at winning the Lombardi in their hometown.

Can the Bucs create pressure like they did back in Week 6?

The Week 6 matchup is long gone. These are two different teams compared to the teams that played back in October, so you don’t want to take away too much from that game. However, if you were forced to take one thing from that game and insert it into the NFC Championship matchup, then one has to hope that the Bucs’ ability to create pressure in Week 6 can bleed over into Sunday’s contest.

We all know pressure is the key to stopping —or at least slowing down— great quarterbacks. Per Pro Football Focus, the Bucs pressured Drew Brees on 32% of his dropbacks in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, which is above their season average of 27.2%, but they’ll need to replicate their Week 6 performance if they want to keep Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense at bay.

Per Sports Info Solutions, the Bucs pressured Rodgers on 22 of 41 dropbacks, which is an absurd 54% pressure rate that includes quarterback hits on 29% (12 of 41) of dropbacks, as well. Tampa Bay was able to get to Rodgers through creative blitzes, good play in the secondary, and just good, old-fashioned execution.

We’ll start with the creative blitzes.

Todd Bowles has the defense lined up in a tite front and instead of the usual duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on the outside, it’s Lavonte David and Devin White. Center Corey Linsley slides the protection to the right, which makes sense because White is considered a better pass rusher than David.

Nadmukong Suh takes Bakhtiari’s inside shoulder and Aaron Jones focuses on Barrett long enough for David to slip through the backdoor and get the sack. This change in alignment confused Green Bay’s offense and essentially gave the unit little to no chance on this play:

This next play doesn’t result in a sack, but it’s an example of how pressure can just completely screw with an offense. It’s another creative blitz, as well.

The key to this pressure is on the defense’s right side of the formation, where Anthony Nelson (No. 98) has his hand in the dirt and JPP is standing over the B gap. Rodgers brings Robert Tonyan (No. 85) closer to help with the protection, but Bowles’ blitz confuses the third-year tight end.

Tonyan’s and left tackle David Bakhtiari’s initial thoughts are that JPP and Nelson will rush but that’s not what happens. JPP drops into coverage while Nelson rushes. Tonyan is still focused on JPP, however, which is what lets cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting into the backfield and almost leads to a sack. Rodgers just has to throw the ball away and live for another day.

Murphy-Bunting’s pre-snap alignment also helps on this play. He’s lined up directly across from Allen Lazard, which gives the look of man-to-man, but SMB blitzes once the ball is snapped:

Bowles even used simulated pressure back in Week 6. It looks like the Bucs are going to blitz, but they only send White and the three down linemen while David and Pierre-Paul drop back in coverage. It fools Rodgers and the pressure forces him out of the pocket. This play would’ve resulted in an intentional grounding penalty if Suh didn’t give Rodgers a love tap at the end:

The best part about Tampa Bay’s defense is that the inside linebacker duo of White and David is the most athletic duo in the league, so it allows the Bucs to be able to do a lot of things that most defenses can’t do.

This is another blitz that’s derived from David coming off the edge. This sack is more the result of a perfectly-timed play call, but you can still see how the design confuses the Packers’ protection and how David uses his speed and athleticism to finish the play:

And then sometimes you just have to beat your assignment and make a play. That’s exactly what William Gholston, the 4i, does here. He launches out his four-point stance and drives Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins (No. 74) into the backfield. It forces Rodgers into making an inaccurate throw. If he would’ve had time, there’s little doubt he would’ve hit the wide-open Marcedes Lewis streaking down the seam:

With all this being said, Sunday’s matchup won’t be easy for the Bucs. The Packers have one of the best offensive lines —if not the best— in the league. Green Bay’s front five not only features two All-Pro selections and a Pro Bowler, but the unit also finished first in both ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate and Run Block Win Rate. In terms of overall pressure, Green Bay allowed the lowest rate in the league during the regular season (14.1%).

The Packers offensive line also gave up 21 sacks during the regular season, which is the second-fewest amount in the NFL. Five of those came against the Bucs, however, which means the Pack only gave up 16 sacks in the other 15 games.

Bakhtiari —one of the All-Pro selections— won’t play in this game due to a torn ACL suffered in practice a few weeks ago. That sounds great on the surface, but the Packers showed that they can get by without him in last week’s game against the Rams. Packers running backs ran for 191 yards on 32 carries and the offensive line allowed just one quarterback hit and zero sacks on 37 dropbacks. For context, the Rams were the second-best team against the run in terms of DVOA and averaged over 3.0 sacks and close to three quarterback hits per game during the regular season.

The offensive line is great, but the Bucs will have to account for another element in Rodgers’ legs. He’s not the scrambler he was 5-6 years ago, but he can still make plays out of structure. Just watch him avoid this sack and hit Tonyan for a 33-yard completion against the Rams:

That’s vintage Rodgers.

The Packers offense is in full swing right now and it’s going to be really hard to stop them, but if the Bucs can recreate some of their Week 6 pressure magic then there’s an excellent chance they will win this game.

How will the Bucs perform on third down and in the red zone?

Tampa Bay came into the playoffs as the 11th-best team in terms of third down conversion rate (43.5%) and the seventh-best team in terms of converting red zone trips into touchdowns (68.9%). On defense, the Bucs own the 14th-best allowed third down conversion rate (40.0%) and are 20th in allowing opponents to convert red zone trips into touchdowns (62.7%).

Much has changed over the last two games, however, as the Bucs have taken a step back in almost every category.

We’ll start with the defense. Tampa Bay has allowed the Washington Football Team and New Orleans Saints to convert 52.0% of their third downs, which is the highest rate out of all the teams left in the playoffs. One would think that the Bucs couldn’t much worse than a 62.7% touchdown rate inside the red zone, but the Bucs have allowed their last two opponents to convert at a 66% rate (4-of-6), which would’ve registered as the fifth-worst rate during the regular season.

Things aren’t that much better on offense. The Bucs have converted 45% of their third downs in the playoffs, which is obviously better than their regular season average, but it’s the short yardage situations that are a bit of a concern. The Bucs converted 3-of-4 3rd and 3 or less situations against Washington, but were just 2-of-7 in the same situations against the Saints (2-of-6 if you want to remove Tristan Wirfs’ holding penalty on 3rd and 1).

Per Sports Info Solutions, the Bucs have the lowest EPA/att and the lowest positive play percentage of the remaining playoff teams when throwing on 3rd and 3 or less. The Bucs have fared much better when running the ball (three carries for 12 yards, two first downs), but they’ll have to step it up on 3rd and short when playing good teams like the Packers. There’s no other way around it.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons
Byron Leftwich and Tom Brady need to solve the Bucs’ red zone woes this weekend.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Tampa Bay’s red zone offense has been pathetic in the playoffs. As it currently stands, the Bucs are converting red zone trips into touchdowns at a 36% rate (4-of-11), which is completely unacceptable. If this were the case during the regular season, the Bucs would’ve finished dead last by a wide margin. The Bucs would’ve been among company such as the New York Jets, New York Giants, Cincinnati Bengals, and Dallas Cowboys —which is obviously not good company to be in when talking about offensive production of any regard.

It becomes even more worrisome when you look at how prolific Green Bay’s offense is in the red zone. The Packers converted a whopping 80% of their red zone trips into six points during the regular season and were pretty much on pace last week against the Rams. Sure, the final stat sheet says the Packers were 3-of-5, but they were really 3-of-4. The second missed conversion opportunity happened because the Packers were taking snaps out the victory formation at the Rams’ 9-yard line.

If the Bucs want to win this game, they’re going to have to get better in the red zone on both sides of the ball. This becomes even more crucial in the playoffs. Every play inside the 20 matters.

Tom Brady knows this and even said as much after the win in Washington. “We hit some big plays [and] made some chunks. I think just not scoring enough in the red area is probably the thing that bothers us,” he said after the game. “[We] missed the two-point play [and] had other opportunities to score and just didn’t quite take advantage. [We] moved the ball OK – I think we had decent yardage – but at the end of the day, it comes down to points. We’ve got to do a better job scoring more points.”

Will there be an emotional hangover from the win over the Saints?

Tampa Bay’s win over the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round was —and still is— a big, big deal. Teams are supposed to wipe their memory of the previous game Men-In-Black-style 24-hours after it ends, but it doesn’t always work out like that.

Especially after a big win over an arch rival that was on the verge of beating the Bucs for a sixth straight time. Those who follow the Bucs also know that there is a storied history when it comes to these two teams and emotions.

Divisional Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints
Things are going very well for Mike Evans’ first playoff run.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The players like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, etc. have never experienced a win like last week, either. Sure, they’ve won some big games during the regular season, but none of those even come close to equaling the depth of the win over the Saints.

All of this adds even more fuel to the fire of last week’s win. But how will the Bucs respond this week? It’s safe to assume that they’ll be up and ready to go (I mean, who wouldn’t be?), but there have been instances where we’ve seen teams come out looking flat.

And when you juxtapose all of this with what the mindset is on the opposite sideline, it becomes even more clear that the Bucs need to get over their most recent accomplishment. This Packers squad is anxious to return the favor from Week 6 and beat the brakes off the Bucs.

But if you listen to players like Suh, it seems like the Bucs are on the right track in terms of their mindset for this week.

“My intent is all about the keys for us continuing to play at a high level,” Suh said. “I think for a young guy like [Devin White] to recognize that and see that as an important piece and knowing that we need to stay focused on that as well as executing, we should be in a good place going into this Packers game.”

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