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Is this real life? Buccaneers’ defense poses tough test for Packers, but it may be a mirage

Does the Packers’ next opponent have a great defense or is it fool’s gold?

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Following the bye week, the Green Bay Packers roll their way right into the national spotlight with the game that all eyes will be on this Sunday, Packers vs Buccaneers. FOX is so confident in this leading game that is the only one in the time slot, essentially making this a primetime game. While all the focus will be on the matchup of Aaron Rodgers vs Tom Brady, those players don’t actually face each other on any snaps.

Tom has been ... fine this season. Brady ranks 13th in DVOA, 21st in QBR, and 21st in EPA/play. Compare that to Aaron Rodgers, a man on fire, who leads the league in all three of those stats. There really hasn’t been any comparison between the two this year. Tampa Bay has actually gotten off to a pretty good start not because of their Hall of Fame quarterback, but rather their strong defense.

Per usual, let’s start with the fundamentals. Tampa Bay ranks 2nd in DVOA and 2nd in EPA/play. Their run defense is truly elite, as it ranks a clear #1 in both DVOA and EPA/play. Their pass defense is quite good as well, ranking 4th in DVOA and 5th in EPA/play. From the surface view, Tampa Bay’s defense looks awesome. What happens when we add some context, though?

Defense is quite reliant on the strength of the opposing offense. It is obviously much easier to stop the Jets than the Packers. The Buccaneers have not faced a particularly strong suite of offenses so far, as their offenses faced rank 24th. The Buccaneers have only faced one offense that ranks in the top 10 of DVOA and no top-10 units by EPA/play.

TB’s Offenses Faced

Team Off EPA/play Pass O EPA/play Rush O EPA/play Off DVOA Pass O DVOA Rush O DVOA
Team Off EPA/play Pass O EPA/play Rush O EPA/play Off DVOA Pass O DVOA Rush O DVOA
NO 18th 13th 16th 16th 16th 13th
CAR 12th 10th 21st 9th 10th 12th
DEN 29th 29th 19th 30th 31st 22nd
LAC 25th 17th 30th 21st 8th 30th
CHI 26th 25th 26th 26th 26th 26th
rbsdm and Football Outsiders

The Buccaneers haven’t played a strong offense yet and certainly nothing near the extent of the Packers offense. This will be a huge test for both units as the Packers have also not faced a defense similar in quality to Tampa Bay’s.

GB’s Defenses Faced

Team Def EPA/play Pass D EPA/play Run D EPA/play Def DVOA Pass D DVOA Run D DVOA
Team Def EPA/play Pass D EPA/play Run D EPA/play Def DVOA Pass D DVOA Run D DVOA
MIN 22nd 21st 22nd 15th 8th 27th
DET 32nd 26th 32nd 30th 16th 31st
NO 24th 29th 13th 6th 13th 5th
ATL 30th 31st 9th 28th 30th 10th
rbsdm and Football Outsiders

There is a discrepancy between the EPA/play and DVOA data for the teams that Green Bay has played. The big reason for that is that facing Green Bay’s offense has been disastrous for a team’s EPA/play, whereas DVOA has begun to adjust for opponents. Green Bay has probably faced one good but not great defense, one decent defense, and two very bad defenses. Tampa Bay has faced three average-ish offenses and two terrible ones. Sunday will be the biggest test yet for both units.

If Green Bay comes out and tries to Establish the Run, they will likely be wasting their time. Not only is Tampa Bay first this year in run defense, but they were also first last year. Stopping the run is prioritized by Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator. A major caveat to this is that Tampa has lost its mammoth middle man in Vita Vea. Vea suffered a devastating lower leg injury in their loss to Chicago last Thursday that ended his season. Vea is not only dominant against the run, but he ranked seventh among DTs in pressure rate this year. He is a force and losing him is disastrous for Tampa Bay.

It will be interesting to see how the Bucs’ defense performs without their star nose and how they will perform against an elite offense. So is Tampa’s defense real? It’s too soon to tell. My hypothesis is that they’re not quite as good as their numbers say, but a lot of their regression may be due to the fact that they’re losing one of their best player for the year. If the Packers offense marches on Tampa Bay this Sunday, there is no question about it, the Packers offense would be truly elite, but that also doesn’t mean that Tampa’s defense is fraudulent. Offense matters more than defense, even when trying to measure defense.