I think I can speak for a lot of Bucs fans in saying that retiring Drew Brees was one of the greatest moments in team history. One that I never thought would happen, especially because of their recent defensive performances.
However, this defense proved me wrong as they forced three turnovers from a man who is known for protecting the football. They finally got the monkey off their back and are headed to the NFC Championship game to face off against a Rodgers-led team that they beat 38-10 in Week Six.
With so much on the line, I highly doubt the result will be anywhere close to the same. Not only is Aaron Rodgers’ defending his legacy here, but his team will be fielding one of the best offenses in the NFL.
They can throw, they can run, they can use misdirection, and they can score....a lot. Through the regular season the Packers were the highest scoring team in the league, averaging 31.8 points per game offensively.*
Since the Week Six matchup, the Packers have won 10/12 of their games and found their last tally in the loss column all the way back in Week 11 against the Colts. The scariest part about this though, is that they aren’t winning solely because of Rodgers playing at an MVP level.
In fact, the Packers are the eighth best rushing team in the league by yards per game as they rack up ~132 yards per week on the ground.* They’re able to achieve this not only through Aaron Jones being Aaron Jones, but also through scheme.
Matt LaFleur has really implemented an offense that is difficult to defend as any given play can be anything. They can run, pass, or use play-action from the same formations which keeps defenses guessing. This is somewhat akin to what Sean McVay is doing in L.A. and what Kyle Shanahan is doing in San Francisco.
In any case, they’ll need to put together a full game to win. In the Wild Card game it was the offense, in the Divisional it was the defense. It’s time to bring those together and get this team firing on all cylinders.
Let’s take a look at what they can do to accomplish this:
Run the ball efficiently
While the passing game has taken it’s place as the most efficient way to move the ball, we can’t sit here and pretend that never running it is a good thing. Analysts and fans alike recognize the importance of the pass, and statistics like EPA prove that running the ball is less significant than passing.
That’s no secret. However, running the ball in certain situations is necessary to keep a defense guessing. Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have used old-school “establish the run” mantra and often run it in situations that they shouldn’t. While they may not run it as often as other teams, their use of the run on first down has been far too high at some points this year.
While running on first down is obviously going to happen, the sheer number of first down rushes is the problem. We did see this start to happen less and less as the season wore on, yet against the Saints, it came back in full swing.
The inherent problem with running often on first down is that teams will begin to pick up on it after a drive or two, and it becomes overly predictable. That is why I stipulate that running the ball efficiently will be a key to winning this game, as opposed to just running it in general.
Why run it against stacked boxes over and over again hoping that something changes when you have the potent passing game that you do? I’ll never understand.
Against the Packers, running the ball will be important especially as it will help in the time of possession department. Yet, the Buccaneers have to be smart about it.
Look at how the Rams drew up a run against the Packers:
The Packers play this with six in the box and a HUGE gap between the 1-technique and the wide-9 defender. They’re essentially begging you to run the ball through this gap and that’s exactly what the Rams do for eight yards on this play.
This is exactly the type of front that the Bucs should run against. When they played the Saints, they lined up and ran the ball when there were eight guys in the box and the running game was significantly hampered in certain circumstances when that was the case.
Here’s a look at another run against a six man box that goes for 10 yards this time. While there is no significant natural gap like we saw before, there are only six defenders versus six blockers, and the right end is so far away from the play-side that he doesn’t need to be blocked.
This wasn’t some special run, or some wildly drawn up play. It was simply man on man blocking that opened up a big enough lane to pick up a first down.
When you look at the statistics, the Packers are a middle of the pack kind of run defense in terms of yards per game allowed, as they’ve allowed ~113 yards per game on the ground.* Ultimately, this is the same defense that allowed 158 yards to the Bucs in Week Six and one that the Bucs can have continued success on.
Yet, they have to make sure that they don’t become overly predictable. Otherwise, we may see some more early game three-and-outs which could swing the game in the Packers direction quickly.
Be better on third down
So this is the second week in a row that I am listing this, and that’s because the Bucs were bad on third down yet again. If it weren’t for the defensive performance, the Bucs might be preparing for the off-season right about now.
The last time the Bucs played the Packers, their third down statistics were actually worse percentage-wise than they were last week. In Week Six, the Bucs were 5/12 on third down (41.6%) and last week, they were 8/17 (47.1%).
While both of these percentages are serviceable for a sixteen game average, they might not be good enough to get it done in the playoffs. This is especially true when playing the Packers as they were able to pick up 66.7% of their third down conversions against the Rams just one week ago.
Here’s a play from the Week Six matchup that just makes me wonder what they were thinking:
So this was late in the game, when the Bucs were already up by a lot. However, why would they willingly throw a third down play away? Well they wouldn’t, which is what makes me question the play call here.
This is a third and two and the running-game was working so well all day, yet they send all four of their receivers straight upfield. Essentially four verts on a third and two...makes no sense to me at all and it’s something that just can’t happen this week.
Let’s take a look at another bad one from the same game:
This is yet another third and two. This time, the play call is even more egregious considering that the Packers were ahead by three at this point in the game (we won’t talk about how they didn’t go for it on fourth and inches).
Remember in the previous section when I talked about the box and how the Bucs love to run at loaded boxes? Well, I guess they got their fix here.
The Packers have seven guys in the box versus the Bucs seven blockers, seems ok right? Well no. This is because there are five defenders on the play-side, and only four blockers there. This makes it so that the nickel that followed Godwin could easily make the play from the outside.
It’s quite funny that they used motion (at a time when they hardly did that) and it ended up hurting the play more than it helped seeing as they brought the defender who would eventually make the play into the box.
Even more egregious was the fact that they used LeSean McCoy, a shifty, dance-around back, instead of their punisher Ronald Jones II. How many times have we seen RoJo run someone over for extra yards? Seems like every run at this point.
In any case, they better improve on third down or this one may get out of hand early.
Get pressure on Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers is obviously one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game and has arguably been playing at an MVP level this season. The only game that you can look at and say that he isn’t, came against this Bucs team in Week Six.
Why did the Bucs have so much success against Rodgers? Well, he was pressured practically the entire game. He was uncomfortable and it was evident through his body language that he was showing that day.
So what can the Bucs do to make him uncomfortable again? Do more of the same. While I don’t think they can come in with the same exact game plan and win, they should borrow a lot of the pressure packages that they utilized throughout that game as they got to him quickly and often.
In the Divisional Round, the Rams weren’t really able to accomplish this and he had his way with them. The top defense in the NFL entering into that game looked confused, lost, and overwhelmed.
The only time that they really made Rodgers look human, was when he was pressured up the middle. Here’s a look at that:
On this play, a rib-less Aaron Donald was able to drive the guard right into Rodgers’ lap. This forces Rodgers to get the ball out faster than he wanted, and his footwork showed it. He ended up throwing off of his back foot and the pass wasn’t anywhere near his target.
While the Rams didn’t hit home, they affected Rodgers which ultimately affects the Packers overall success. Enough of this, and the Bucs will be in a good position to frustrate the man once again.
Another positive aspect of pressure when playing Rodgers, is that sometimes he’ll just toss up a prayer. Here’s a look at that (which actually ended up happening two plays in a row):
While the Packers ended up shellacking the Rams, the game was close at this point. If the Rams are able to come down with this, it could’ve been a different ball game.
But alas, it wasn’t. In either case, this pressure forced Rodgers to just toss up a ball and it is nearly intercepted. In fact, it should’ve been. This is exactly the kind of throw the Buccaneers want to see Rodgers make, and he made it multiple times in this game.
Limit the big plays
This is easier said than done, especially when talking about the Green Bay Packers and their incredible offense. However, it can be done.
Part of limiting the big plays goes hand in hand with pressuring Rodgers, as leaving him unchecked will lead to huge gains play in and play out. However, the Bucs will need to do more than that to stop him.
One of the most dangerous aspects of Rodgers’ game is his ability to break contain and find an open receiver on the scramble drill, and he does this often.
Here’s a play against the Rams that came with less than a minute on the clock in the second quarter:
The Rams collapse the pocket a bit here, but they’re unable to contain Rodgers and it allows him to run around and buy time for Robert Tonyan to get wide open. What was initially a well-covered play, turns into a nightmare for the Rams and it’s because they couldn’t keep Rodgers contained.
If they’re able to get some outside rush here too then maybe he would’ve just had to throw it away. Instead, he steps back, finds space, and extends this play for much longer than he should’ve and the Bucs can’t let him get away with things like this.
Even with all the talk about Rodgers, their running-back room is also pretty good and they have had quite a bit of success when they run the ball. The running-back group, led by Aaron Jones, averages 4.8 yards per carry, which ranks fifth best in the league.*
How does this relate to limiting big plays? Well, they have quite a few big runs on the season, with a 60 yard run coming just last week against the Rams. Here’s a look at how this happened, and what the Bucs can do to prevent it from happening to them:
The Rams were doomed from the snap on this play and here’s why. The Packers motion Davante Adams across the formation, which forces the only second level defender in the box to shift over with him.
Once the ball is snapped and the lineman get their line-level blocks, Jones has nothing but green grass ahead of him. Since there were no linebackers at the second level, this left a guard one on one with a safety in the hole which is never a matchup you want as a defense.
If the Bucs want to ensure that they’re able to stop these kinds of long runs, they have to make sure that they keep someone at the second level at all times. With someone like Devin White, even if he doesn’t make the tackle, he’s going to disrupt it enough that someone else can make the tackle before it breaks out.
Against the Saints last week, Jason Pierre-Paul tripped Alvin Kamara in a similar situation, which may have saved a big run at that point. I don’t want the hopes of this defense to be placed in tripping someone, so they’re going to need to make sure they have advantageous numbers in the box.
We know the Bucs can beat this team. We’ve seen it before after all. However, we can’t sit here and pretend that Green Bay hasn’t gotten better since then on both sides of the ball.
It’s going to take a near perfect game to take out this team in their own stadium in the biggest game of the year in the NFC. To do this, the Bucs will have to pressure and contain Rodgers, which can also help to limit the production of a guy like Davante Adams.
On offense, they have to make sure that they scheme situations better. Not only will the play-calling have to be less predictable (as it was prior to the Saints game), but it has to be better on third down.
One more win and the Buccaneers will be the first team to make a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Let’s see if Brady and the Bucs will have what it takes to take down Rodgers and the Packers in a snowy Lambeau.
If they don’t win, we can’t say that this season wasn’t a success. But it would be that much sweeter with a trip to the Super Bowl, wouldn’t it?
*Per Pro Football Reference