The Green Bay Packers travel to Tampa to take on the Buccaneers in a Week 3 battle between two potential NFC contenders. The media will focus on the matchup between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady but there is so much more going on the field than that.
The Packers are coming off a 27-10 win over the Bears that evened their record to 1-1 while the Bucs improved to 2-0 after a 20-10 win over the Saints in New Orleans.
The Packers lead the all-time series between these former division rivals 32-22-1 in the regular season while the teams split their only two postseason meetings. The Buccaneers have won the last two meetings between the teams including the 2020 NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.
Here is a look at six key factors that will determine who wins Sunday’s game in Tampa:
- Run the Ball Between the Tackles
In the two most recent meetings with the Buccaneers, the Packers struggled to run the football. In the two most recent games with Tampa Bay, the Packers rushed for 94 yards in the 2020 regular season with much of that coming after the game was out of reach. In the NFC Championship Game that season, the Packers again fell behind early and again struggled to run the football, gaining just 67 yards on the ground in the game and running the ball just 16 times.
Too often in the past, the Packers have tried to run wide on the Bucs, which is difficult against a team with two speedy and talented run defenders at inside linebacker in Devin White and Lavonte David who can cover a lot of ground and track down runners especially on slow developing plays.
The Packers will need to run the ball between the tackles primarily and they cannot give up on the run even if it isn’t effective early in the game. Because more inside running is necessary in this game, we may see more of A.J. Dillon than Aaron Jones although it will depend on what’s working.
The Bucs will be without Akiem Hicks who did not practice midweek due to a foot injury but they still have Vita Vea, one of the better run-stopping interior defensive linemen in the league. The matchup between Josh Myers and Vea will be a key one for the Packers running game.
Thus far, Tampa Bay is allowing just 85.5 yards per game on the ground which ranks them 9th in the league. The Packers offense is 6th in the league with an average of 157 yards on the ground per game.
- Protect Aaron Rodgers
The Buccaneers lead the NFL with 10 sacks through the first two games of the season. Devin White has three sacks to lead the team while Shaquil Barrett has two.
The Packers need to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers and give him enough time to throw the football. That will require them to run the ball consistently and use play-action passes and an emphasis on quick release passes to set up downfield shots which may only come in specific situations.
The Packers offensive line got a big boost last week when Elgton Jenkins returned to the lineup and played right tackle. Jenkins was a bit rusty but still was better than the lineup the Packers had along the line in Week 1. Jenkins should be better each week as he returns to form.
The Packers are still unsure if they’ll have All Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari back for this game. He did not practice Wednesday and may be a game time decision. Bakhtiari will hardly be in midseason form if he does play but he would be another boost for the Green Bay offense although Yosh Nijman has played well in his absence thus far.
In each of the last two meetings between these teams, Rodgers was being harassed regularly and it limited his effectiveness. The Packers cannot allow that to happen again if they hope to win this game.
- Get Pressure on Tom Brady
Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense have struggled in the first two games although they won them both. Brady has completed just 59 percent of his passes and is has a low, 6.6-yards per attempt thus far.
He has been sacked only three times in two games in part because he is so good at releasing the ball quickly.
The Bucs offensive line is dealing with significant injuries right now which should help the Packers get pressure on Brady, something they’ve done well in the first two games with Preston Smith, Rashan Gary and Kenny Clark.
The Bucs are thin at offensive tackle with injuries to Donovan Smith and Josh Wells both banged up. Smith did not practice early this week.
The Packers need to try to disrupt Brady’s timing with his receivers. The Bucs are very banged up at wide receiver with Chris Godwin nut practicing due to a hamstring injury, Julio Jones hasn’t practiced yet because of a bad knee. Breshad Perriman and Russell Gage have been limited in practice while Mike Evans will miss the game because of a suspension for his part in a fight last week against the Saints.
Brady may struggle on his timing because he will be without many of his top receivers.
- Contain Leonard Fournette
The Packers run defense was a problem against the Bears and Chicago gained 180 yards on the ground. The Packers missed tackles and often took poor angles to the ball. The Packers currently rank 27th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game with an average of 153 yards per game.
With the Tampa Bay offensive line and receivers banged up, they may emphasize the run even more and rely on Leonard Fournette to carry the load. Fournette has gained 192 yards in two games and is averaging 4.3-yards per carry.
The Packers cannot allow the Bucs to control the clock and have long drives utilizing Fournette as their feature back. Kenny Clark, the Packers best run defending defensive lineman, is nursing a groin injury. The Packers also need more consistency from inside linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and rookie Quay Walker to help stuff the run and force the Bucs into must-pass situations.
- Spread the Ball Around in the Passing Game
The Packers were successful last week spreading the ball around through the air. Without Davante Adams, Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers spread the ball around and did a good job of scheming receivers open.
Sammy Watkins led all receivers with four targets while Jones, Dillon, Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson had three targets each.
The Packers receivers are dealing with injuries and illness with Cobb missing practice due to illness and Lazard, Watson and Watkins dealing with injuries that caused them to miss practice on Thursday.
The Bucs have talented corners in Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis III. Rodgers and LaFleur need to make the passing game efficient and effective and they cannot afford to turn the ball over and give the Bucs a short field.
- Control the Football and Win Time of Possession
Both teams have injuries and missing players along the offensive line and at receiver. Although the media is going to emphasize the Rodgers vs Brady angle, the team that controls the football more and wins the possession battle is likely to win this football game.
Neither Brady nor Rodgers is known for turning the ball over often, so taking control of the football and keeping the other offense off the field will be a big factor in who ultimately wins this game.
This game has major tie-breaking implications come playoff time and a win here could make the difference as to which of these two teams gets a bye or hosts a potential playoff matchup.
The Packers are catching the Bucs at the right time when it comes to injuries, but Rodgers has struggled in Tampa for throughout his career and the Packers are banged up in the receiving corps which is already a question mark when all their players are healthy.
If Bakhtiari starts this game, the Packers have a better chance to win, but my feeling is they hold him out for one more week and the Bucs find a way to win a close one.
Bucs 17, Packers 14