The Green Bay Packers (4-0) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) meet at Raymond James Stadium Sunday at 3:25 p.m. (CST). And don’t be surprised if they square off later in the year, as well.
The Packers lead the NFC North and the Buccaneers are tied for first place in the NFC South. And early indications are that both teams could challenge for supremacy in the NFC when the postseason arrives.
Green Bay has been the NFL’s most dominant team to begin the 2020 season. The Packers (4-0) are one of just four teams that remain unbeaten. And of that group, Green Bay has the largest point differential at plus-51.
The Packers rank first in scoring offense (38.0), second in total offense (445.5) and 12th in total defense.
The Buccaneers have been lights out on the defensive side of the ball. Tampa Bay has the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense (58.4), the second ranked total defense (298.2), as well as the 12th-ranked scoring offense.
Green Bay enters this showdown of NFC heavyweights as a 1-point favorite.
Here’s a look at each positional group and which team has the edge.
Tom Brady spent his first 20 seasons in New England where he won six Super Bowl championships, went to the big game nine times and won three NFL MVP awards. Most historians consider him the greatest player in National Football League history.
Brady became an unrestricted free agent in March and signed with Tampa Bay, where he’s off to a solid start. Despite a bevy of injuries to the Tampa Bay offense, Brady has thrown 12 touchdowns, four interceptions, is completing 64.3% of his passes and has a 96.8 passer rating.
“If you don’t have a good plan and if you don’t do a good job disguising and you go into a game with just a handful of calls and hope to out-execute him, you’re going to be in for a long day,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of Brady. “You’ve heard the cliché before, but he’s playing chess while other people are playing checkers.”
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has gotten off to the finest start of his career, throwing 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions through four games. Rodgers is completing 70.5% of his passes and averaging 8.7 yards per pass attempt.
With Rodgers playing at an MVP-level, Green Bay ranks No. 1 in scoring offense (38.0) and No. 2 in total offense (445.5).
“I think everybody is pretty much in awe of how he makes it look so easy,” Brady said of Rodgers. “Just the throwing motion, the velocity on the ball. The placement of the ball. How quickly the ball gets from his hand to the receivers’ hands.
“And it’s just been unbelievable to watch over the years, and he’s really kept it going. He’s a great passer. He’s very efficient. His touchdown-to-interception ratio — he basically doesn’t throw interceptions and throws a lot of touchdowns. His decision-making is just phenomenal. When you do that as a quarterback, you put your team in a position to win.”
Green Bay’s Aaron Jones ranks third in the league at 93.5 rushing yards per game. Jones is also averaging a whopping 5.8 yards per carry, which ranks second among running backs with at least 50 carries.
“He’s a great player, I can see,” Tampa Bay outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said of Jones. “And if he gets going right away, he’ll definitely make you pay. But we know what we have to do for us to win this game, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
No. 2 Jamaal Williams is averaging 27.0 rushing yards per game. The duo helped Green Bay rush for 259 yards in Week 2, which was the most by a Green Bay team since Dec. 28, 2003.
Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones posted consecutive 100-yard games the last two weeks for the first time in his career. Even more impressive, though, is Jones currently leads the NFL in yards after contact with 221.
Jones (5-11, 225), a second-round draft pick in 2018, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds coming out of USC. He’s not fast, but he is extremely powerful.
“Ronald Jones, he’s just been doing a great job for them all season,” Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “He has great vision. You see him, he’s getting ready to get tackled in the backfield and spinning off tackles and all that kind of stuff, and gaining seven, eight yards.”
Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, has an ankle injury and is a game-time decision. Fournette had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in Jacksonville, including a career-best 1,152 last season. The Jaguars couldn’t trade him this summer, though, so they released him instead and he immediately signed with Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (ankle) and Chris Godwin (hamstring) are both expected to play, despite nagging injuries.
Evans has exceeded 1,000-yards receiving each of his first six years in the league. He’s big (6-5, 231), strong and fast and is tied for the NFL lead with six receiving touchdowns.
Godwin led Tampa Bay with 1,333 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season and was named to his first Pro Bowl. The duo is arguably the best in football.
“He’s a premier outside receiver and a premier slot (receiver),” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said of Godwin. “I mean, there’s very, very few of those guys who can play all over the field and very few block like he blocks and sets up the play-action and sets the tempo. … He’s big in the screen game. Underneath stuff that he takes to the house. Very few guys are like him in this league.”
Veteran tight end Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement in April and is a shell of his former self, with just 12 receptions to date.
Green Bay expects No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams to go. Adams missed the last 2 ½ games with a hamstring injury and sent out an angry tweet about being held back before a Week 4 win over Atlanta.
“I mean we try to prepare the same way every week with whoever’s up,” Packers wide receivers coach Jason Vrable said. “We usually do some extra meetings toward the end of the week to make sure everybody’s caught up on the plan. You obviously love having your No. 1 out there as a coach. It’s that comfort factor.”
Tampa Bay ranks 12th in sacks allowed per game (1.6) and 25th in rushing offense (99.4).
Veteran left tackle Donovan Smith has allowed three sacks in the first five games, while rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs is an athletic big man (6-5, 320) with terrific speed and length.
Left guard Ali Marpet is having a tremendous year. After stints at center and right guard earlier in his career, Marpet has found a home at left guard.
Center Ryan Jensen (6-4, 319) is extremely physical, while right guard Alex Cappa has a nasty streak, but is limited athletically.
Green Bay has allowed just three sacks through four games and has the lowest sack percentage (0.75) in football.
“I think we’re playing with pretty good fundamentals,” Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said. “That’s one thing we’re always stressing is just playing with good body position. There’s a lot of times we get ourselves in bad position but we’re using our hands well, or we’ve got our feet under us or whatever it is, guys are doing a good job just playing with good fundamentals overall.”
Tampa Bay has the NFL’s top ranked rushing defense, allowing just 58.4 yards per game. The Buccaneers also rank No. 1 in yards allowed per carry at 2.7.
Ends Ndamukong Suh (two sacks, three tackles for loss) and William Gholston (two sacks, four tackles for loss) are a pair of veterans who are extremely tough to dislodge. Nose tackle Vita Vea suffered a broken leg last week, but Rakeem Nunez-Roches is a solid backup who was already playing 38% of the snaps.
No matter who the Buccaneers have faced to date, they’ve stymied the run game.
New Orleans’ magnificent Alvin Kamara managed just 16 yards on 12 carries in Week 1 (1.3 average). Carolina’s brilliant Christian McCaffrey had only 59 yards on 18 carries in Week 2 (3.3).
Denver had just 42 yards on 14 carries in Week 3 (3.0), then the Los Angeles Chargers had only 46 rushing yards on 23 carries (2.0) in Week 4. Last week, Chicago managed just 35 rushing yards on 14 carries (2.5), even though Vea suffered a broken leg in that game.
“With this defense, I don’t think nobody can run on us,” Tampa Bay outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said this week. “We take too much pride in it to let a team come up in here and just run on us and try to get it going as well as passing, too.”
Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark (groin) has played just 6% of the defensive snaps this year, but is expected back. Green Bay ranks ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (105.8), but Clark’s return will undoubtedly bolster a unit that’s been playing better than expected.
“I think the front guys played extremely well,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of his defensive line. “I think they accepted the challenge as a group. We challenge them as a coaching staff, but they didn’t need it. They knew without Kenny in there that room needed to step up, and I think they did.
“We’re hopeful. We’ll see where Kenny is at the end of the week. We’re hopeful to get him back, but if we don’t, this is a group that based on what they’ve done the last couple of weeks we’re certainly very confident.”
Tampa Bay has one of the best quartets in football.
Inside linebackers Devin White (40 tackles) and Lavonte David (39 tackles) fly to the football and both have 3.5 tackles for loss.
White, the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.42 seconds coming out of LSU. David, a second-round pick in 2012, has more than 1,000 tackles, 22 forced fumbles, 12 interceptions and 22.5 sacks in his terrific career.
“The first thing that jumps off the tape is just their speed,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of White and David. “You see them flying around the field.
“They’re great at really everything that they do whether it’s in coverage, whether it’s man-to-man coverage, zone coverage, whether they’re blitzing the quarterback. They’re just two dynamic football players. They’re two of the best in the business.”
Jason Pierre-Paul (four sacks, four TFLs) and Shaq Barrett (three sacks, four TFLs) form one of the top outside linebacking duos in football.
Green Bay outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith ranks third in the league with 5.0 sacks, but fellow outside ‘backer Preston Smith has just 0.5 sacks and 1.0 pressures.
Preston Smith has been asked to play more coverage than in 2019, but his lack of pressure should be a concern.
“It’s part of the plan right now,” Preston Smith. “There’s going to be some games I’m going to have to drop back a lot more than I’m used to or a lot more than in the past, but I believe in the plan that’s in and I believe in the system.
“It’s all going to all pay off because I’m going because I’m going to have a lot more games where I rush a lot more and I drop less. It’s only four games. We’ve only played four games this season. It’s a long season ahead, it’s a lot of rushing ahead and it’s a lot of big plays to be made ahead. That’s the mindset I always have each and every week.”
In 2019, opposing quarterbacks completed just 59.7% of their throws against the Packers, which ranked third in the league. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 81.1, which was the sixth-best rate in football, and averaged just 7.4 yards per pass attempt.
Things haven’t been as rosy this season.
At the quarter pole, opposing quarterbacks are completing 72.2% of their passes, have a passer rating of 107.2 and are averaging 8.4 yards per completion.
Green Bay performed better in a Week 4 win over Atlanta, when it held Matt Ryan to a passer rating of 92.4. But to date, the Packers’ secondary hasn’t been nearly as good in 2020 as it was in 2019.
“Last year we started out hot,” safety Adrian Amos said. “We had lapses, you know, here and there, but just like then and now, it’s a new year and we have to figure out what works for us, grow into our identity this year and we have to make those plays.”
The Buccaneers rank 16th in passing yards per game allowed (239.8) and 12th in opposing quarterbacks rating (91.2).
Tampa Bay left cornerback Carlton Davis (abdomen) is questionable for the game. Davis, who ranked second in the NFL in passes defensed last season, is the Buccaneers’ top corner and his absence would be a major blow.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who had a team-high three interceptions as a rookie last year, starts on the other side. Bunting has long arms (31¾”), ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds coming out of Central Michigan and has a knack for winning 50-50 balls.
Rookie strong safety Antoine Winfield, a second-round draft pick in April, has terrific versatility. Free safety Jordan Whitehead is a hard hitter who was limited all week with a knee injury.
Buccaneers veteran Ryan Succop, who’s made 82.2% of his career field goals, handles the kicking duties. Punter Bradley Pinion is off to a terrific start, with a gross average of 46.7 and a net of 43.0.
Jaydon Mickens, playing with his fourth NFL team, handles kickoffs (22.0) and punts (6.8).
The Packers will be without return ace Tyler Ervin. Darrius Shepherd and Josh Jackson are the frontrunners to handle those duties.
“We’ve got multiple guys back there that go back and catch,” Packers special teams coach Shawn Mennenga said. “We practice in case a number of scenarios happen, we’ve got to have multiple guys ready.”
Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur has started his career with an impressive 17-3 record (.833). That’s tied with three other coaches for the best 20-game start in league history behind only San Francisco’s George Seifert, who went 18-2 in 1989-90.
Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians is a two-time NFL Coach of the Year.
Arians went 9-3 as the interim head coach in Indianapolis in 2012, then went 49-30-1 from 2013-17 in Arizona. Arians led the Cardinals to the playoffs twice, including the 2015 NFC Championship Game.
Arians retired after the 2017 season, sat out a year, then returned to coaching in 2019 when he took the Tampa Bay job. Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles is one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in football, with a blitz ratio above 40% most seasons.
“He definitely does some different things and he is definitely very aggressive,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of Bowles. “In the past, you know, that is something he’s always been known for is giving unique looks and bringing pressures from all over the place and everybody is, has a chance for a pressure, whether it’s a corner, a safety, a linebacker from overloads to different front alignments.
“So I think he’s just always trying to, kind of how we utilize those motions, trying to cause different issues for the defense, I think he’s trying to create different fronts and pressures to try and create and choose for an offense. So I think it’s going to be a nice chess match on Sunday.”
Prediction: Tampa Bay 30, Green Bay 27
Reischel’s Record: 4-0
Source: Forbes – Business