Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s NFC Championship Game will take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, as the Green Bay Packers will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:
BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT
Six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in many types of offenses in his career. From operating on a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to being the quarterback of a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and orchestrating an offense that revolved around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.
For the better part of the last 20 years, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed over the offseason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has adjusted to head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 43, has shown little signs of slowing down – accumulating 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007.
Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive, but it seemed as if they had potential to do more damage in the NFL than they had with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Evans has responded with a career-high 13 touchdowns and Godwin was on pace to tie his career-bests in receptions and touchdowns despite playing in only 12 games.
Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense besides deep threat Scotty Miller and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard (who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon) were a pair of veteran imports – Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Brown, the enigmatic former All-Pro, is still as dangerous of a route-runner as ever and posted 45 catches and four touchdowns in just eight games (a projected rate of 90 receptions and eight scores over a full season). Unfortunately for the Bucs, Brown is out for Sunday’s game with a knee issue.
Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can execute almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries, forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots, but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns.
The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Ronald Jones had a career-high 1,143 yards from scrimmage and is backed up by short-yardage specialist Leonard Fournette and former All-Pro LeSean McCoy. They run behind an underrated offensive line composed of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Aaron Stinnie and Tristan Wirfs, who had an impressive rookie year at right tackle.
Since Week Nine the Bucs’ offense has become more productive, with a notable uptick in usage of 12 personnel (one running back and two tight end packages) play-action and more pre-snap motion. That has helped Tampa become more productive as of late, but will they continue to utilize it against Green Bay?
TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS VARIED AND COMPLEX
Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes, and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.
Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and trade deadline pickup Steve McClendon are the team’s main defensive linemen, and they may get some added muscle in former first round draft pick Vita Vea, who may return after recovering from an ankle injury. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football.
While the Bucs were the best defense in the league against the run and fourth in sacks, they were just 21st against the pass and could probably stand to add some talent in their secondary. Beyond promising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell – leave a lot to be desired.
Given that Green Bay has shown many ways to beat Cover Four this year – and that Tampa and the Carolina Panthers confused Aaron Rodgers with nickel 3-3-5 packages (three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs) and Cover Three (three-deep zone coverage with one safety patrolling centerfield and another near the line of scrimmage) earlier this season – will the Buccaneers go back to what made them successful the first time around on Sunday? Or will they stay true to themselves and use what brought them this far? This chess match bears watching.
PACKERS’ OFFENSE STILL DANGEROUS, JUST IN A DIFFERENT WAY
After 13 years, four trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl victory in 2010, longtime Packers coach Mike McCarthy was let go by Green Bay after 2018. A sense of staleness had grown around the franchise and general manager Brian Gutekunst sought to revive his team with new blood in the form of Matt LaFleur.
The second-year head coach was the Tennessee Titans’ play-caller that same year and prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Like his former colleagues, LaFleur has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field. Additionally, unlike McCarthy’s matchup-based system, LaFleur’s playbook relies more on the design of his plays and the progressions of the quarterback – and it’s taken well to this roster.
The Packers’ offense continues to run through Aaron Rodgers. Still one of the league’s best at 37 years old, Rodgers is as strong-armed and accurate as he was earlier in his career, and his intelligence and athleticism continue to remain sharp. What’s interesting about Rodgers though is that sometimes the favorite to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will try to pull off sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long in order to make a greater play than what the original call designed.
According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit: “Though he is capable of beating defenses with presnap reads and quick throws, Rodgers frequently passes up open receivers and leaves clean pockets, which would warrant a reprimand for most QBs. But he’s so exceptional that he often goes on to make a better play.
“The tricky part is that Rodgers’s approach is more conducive to spread formations and isolation routes which, when relied upon too heavily, can lead to dry spells in the passing game. The challenge is to find the proper mix.”
Rodgers’ targets include an extraordinary route runner in Davante Adams (who is especially adept on double moves and is a favorite target on third down), Marques Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard and all can carry out Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the Packers’ offense, and not only do they excel at such pass-patterns but they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down – especially Adams, who can also play in the slot. Green Bay’s tight ends also occasionally get in on the action – notably within the red zone – and they’re a mix of young and old, featuring 15-year veteran Marcedes Lewis, breakout performer Robert Tonyan (who had a career-high 11 touchdowns in 2020) and Jace Sternberger.
Not only are the Packers a good passing team, but they can also run the ball with ease. Aaron Jones is Green Bay’s starter in the backfield and was on pace for a career-high 1,262 yards rushing if not for two games missed due to injuries. His backups, Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon, can also get the job done as they combined for 747 yards on the ground this season.
Executing blocks for Jones and company are normally longtime stalwarts David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley, second-year guard Elgton Jenkins and imports Billy Turner and Rick Wagner. The problem for Green Bay though, is that Bakhtiari – one of the best left tackles at the professional level – is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL and has been replaced in the starting lineup by Lucas Patrick, with Turner sliding over from guard to tackle.
LaFleur has a tactic that he has used to defeat Cover Four, or “quarters” coverage, all season long and out of different personnel groupings and formations. He will ask two outside receivers to execute deep curl routes while an outlet receiver – either a tight end or running back – runs a flat route to the sideline and a slot receiver goes deep down the middle of the field on a post pattern. The slot wideout is the primary target and will split the two deep safeties while one overreacts to the curl patterns. Will this continue against Tampa Bay’s favored zone coverage?
GREEN BAY’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE
Mike Pettine, former Cleveland Browns head coach and defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, took over for Dom Capers as Green Bay’s play-caller one year before LaFleur arrived. While Capers was a fan of the fabled zone-blitz, Pettine favors a Rex Ryan-style system that leans on overload blitzes, man-press coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where.
Sometimes the complexity of this defense, what with its emphasis on disguise and communication, can lead to communication breakdowns. But if executed well enough, the results can be outstanding.
While the Packers’ defense was in the middle of the pack in many categories this year, they did finish the regular season ninth in total yards allowed, seventh against the pass and tied for 10th in sacks – numbers that are sure to make any defensive coordinator smile. The defensive backs that have been integral to those accomplishments are All-Pro Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Tramon Williams and Josh Jackson at cornerback and a pair of versatile safeties in Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos. These six defensive backs will be on the field most of the time on Sunday, as Green Bay loves to use dime personnel (they have utilized it on nearly half of their plays – the largest figure in the NFL).
Clay Matthews III and Nick Perry, the longtime pass rushing duo for the Packers, were replaced last year by veterans Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Each responded with career-best statistics, as they racked up 13.5 and 12 sacks, respectively, and combined for 16.5 quarterback takedowns in 2020. Joining them at linebacker are Christian Kirksey and Krys Barnes.
Green Bay’s defensive line is unique in that they aren’t taught to control one or two gaps. Unlike other coaches, Pettine asks his defensive tackles and ends to beat their blocker first and worry about their gaps later. Pulling off these tasks are Kenny Clark, who is very athletic for his 315-pound frame, Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke.