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The Packers and Buccaneers have amazingly similar defenses

The Bucs have one of the NFL’s best defenses. The Packers? One of the worst. They’re also eerily similar.

Los Angeles Chargers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

I don’t think anyone really understands the Green Bay Packers’ defense, which currently ranks 29th overall by DVOA. As my cohort Rcon has pointed out a few times, the pass defense is actually quite good outside of garbage time. While the run defense is bad by almost any definition, parsing the pass defense is extremely difficult and the biggest uncertainty in determining whether this team is a real contender or if they’ll crash and burn against better competition.

Things get even more confusing when you take a look at their pass defense splits. Generally when teams struggle against the pass, they struggle against wide receivers. Passes to receivers are among the most efficient plays in football, and teams that check down to running backs, or lesser tight ends, tend to have less efficient offenses because of it. Football Outsiders breaks down pass defense as DVOA versus #1, #2, “other receivers,” tight ends, and running backs. Other is generally meant to convey slot receivers, though it can also refer to 4th and 5th receivers. When a team is as far down as the Packers you expect to see a bunch of rankings in the 20s, but instead…

Packer Defense vs. WR DVOA Splits

Receiver Type DVOA DVOA Rank PA/Game
Receiver Type DVOA DVOA Rank PA/Game
Primary -15 9 7
Secondary 49.8 32 4.9
Slot or Lower -47.9 2 6.4
Tight End 29.5 29 5.2
RB 41.5 32 8.1

Green Bay is actually excellent against number one targets, thanks largely to Jaire Alexander, and absolutely dominant against slot receivers thanks to Chandon Sullivan, who has seen no dip in his efficiency even with a bigger workload. They have not been efficient against number two receivers, but we need to take this news with a huge grain of salt. For starters, that’s also the least targeted group, and so whatever damage number two receivers have done, it’s been limited by opportunity. And if Kevin King hasn’t seemed bad to you, or to warrant a last place DVOA ranking, I would agree.

This is where garbage time really seems to play a large part, as they Packers have been happy to let guys like Olabisi Johnson of the Vikings, or Quintez Cephus of the Lions go wild. Because Packer opponents have been largely missing their primary receivers due to injury (Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Kenny Golladay), the receivers pushed up into that second spot have been kind of bad (Johnson, Cephus, Olamide Zacchaeus, Emmanuel Sanders). When the Packers have had a big lead and reverted to an often too-soft prevent, they are happy to let the lesser receivers take up targets. Garbage receivers in garbage time can make for a high DVOA.

Green Bay has also been bad against tight ends according to DVOA, but again, this obvious weakness has barely been targeted, and the tight end position is so poor this year that allowing above-average production really isn’t all that bad because “average” production has been kind of terrible. Finally, I don’t think anyone would argue that the Packers have been good against receiving backs, and running backs have caught a very high percentage of available targets, but the only reason they are this bad is Alvin Kamara. We can’t discount Kamara’s effort, of course. It happened, and it could happen again. But so far, it’s been an isolated incident.

This leads us to Tampa, which ranks as one of the league’s best defenses, 2nd overall by DVOA. The funny thing is, well, just look at this, and then look at the Packer chart above.

Tampa Defense vs. receiver type by DVOA

Receiver Type DVOA DVOA Rank PA/Game
Receiver Type DVOA DVOA Rank PA/Game
Primary -43.6 3 9.4
Secondary 44.3 29 5.6
Slot or Lower 3.9 21 2.9
Tight End 22.3 24 6.1
RB -27.6 7 8.9

Like the Packers, the Bucs excel against number one overall receivers. Like the Packers, they’re good in only one other area. Stopping pass-catching running backs is all well and good, but if you allow tight ends and other receivers to beat you, it’s hard to see how it matters. That “slot or lower” column may be deceiving as teams rarely target the slot receiver against Tampa, but it’s surprising nonetheless.

Looking at how Tampa defends specific areas of the field, they excel at taking away the right side of the field due to the work of CB Carlton Davis (who also draws primary receivers frequently), but they struggle left, middle, and, well everywhere else. Their run defense is beyond reproach, and Aaron Jones is likely to have a tough time on Sunday, but I think it’s fair to say that their lofty defensive reputation, especially regarding DVOA, is built on three things:

  1. Preseason projections. The Bucs had a good defense last season and finished strong.
  2. That run defense, and not-as-smart teams running into it for the sake of balance.
  3. Very, very bad opposing offenses (Carolina, Denver, Chicago).

That last one really sticks out, as the Saints, while aided by a Janoris Jenkins pick-6, put up plenty of points, and San Diego, led by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, really had no problem moving the ball. Offense is up league-wide and I don’t doubt that Tampa is one of, if not the best defense the Packers have seen so far, but I also don’t think they’re quite the immovable force that DVOA makes them out to be.

Offensively, the Bucs have been pretty good, which isn’t surprising. Tom Brady, even in his old age, is still a smart, accurate passer, and he’s managed to incorporate a fair number of explosive plays to complement his trademark short game. Mike Evans has been dominant around the goal line, and a red-zone battle with Kevin King (if healthy), one of the league’s elite red zone corners, should be a fun battle (if the two players play — both sat out practice on Wednesday). Evans is currently 5th in DVOA, just behind Scotty Miller, who looks like he was designed in a lab to be a Tom Brady target.

If Chandon Sullivan, who practiced fully on Wednesday, is good to go after suffering a concussion last week, that will help to limit the slot game and the Packer secondary is capable of hanging with any receiving group. But if all else fails, the Bucs can fall back on outstanding running back Ronald Jones, currently 3rd in rushing DVOA.

I see two key factors deciding the game offensively. The first is the health of the Packer corners and Tampa receivers. Chris Godwin has missed several games with a hamstring injury, but he has made progress this week and might be able to go. With their full complement of receivers, plus Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, the Bucs can create all kinds of problems for the Packer secondary. Green Bay should be up to the challenge if everyone is healthy, but Kevin King did miss Wednesday practice with a quad, Chandon Sullivan needs to clear the concussion protocol, and Jaire Alexander is nursing hand and leg injuries. If any one of them misses the game, or is at less than 100%, it gives the Bucs a substantial advantage.

The second big thing is Bruce Arians, and his love of passing. Tampa and Green Bay are both extremely pass-heavy teams in game-neutral situations.

That’s smart coaching, and Tampa is a good passing team, but given the Packers’ extreme weakness against running the ball, it might actually make sense to lean on the run more than they usually do. Bill Belichick probably would have done so, and he remains the best in the business at repeatedly pounding on an opposing weakness, but Bruce Arians loves passing, and so the Packers will probably avoid this mismatch unless they fall behind.

While the Tampa defense has been good, there are plenty of holes for Aaron Rodgers to exploit, and I expect he and Matt LaFleur to bring a solid plan to pick on those holes. Brady will put up some points through the air, but he’s also thrown four picks and fumbled four times on the season, and his age is starting to show. Rodgers never turns the ball over, and he’s likely to have Davante Adams back. That should be enough to put them over the top.