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Packers vs. Buccaneers Week 3 Preview: By the numbers

A matchup of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks is littered with availability questions.

Green Bay Packers vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2021 NFC Championship Set Number: X163504 TK1

After coming out flat, albeit less flat than last year, in Week 1, the Green Bay Packers turned things around with a dominant win over their little brother this past Sunday. The return of Elgton Jenkins into the lineup helped spark an outstanding Aaron Jones game, and the Packers' passing game very quietly was extremely efficient, posting 0.48 EPA-per-dropback.

The only reason the Packers' offense ran into any struggles was just because of random mishaps. Aaron Rodgers turned the wrong way on a handoff and Josh Myers snapped the ball off of Christian Watson’s butt, which we later learned was because Myers snapped on ‘one’ instead of on ‘two.’ If you eliminate these two drives, the Packers scored on five of their six other drives (excluding the end-of-game drive where they finished with a kneel.) Can Green Bay keep this performance going against a Tampa Bay team that DraftKings Sportsbook is projecting to win this week?

The Buccaneers have serious availability issues right now. Mike Evans is currently suspended for one game for getting into a fight with Marshon Lattimore.

In addition to being without Evans, the Bucs may very well be without their WR2 and WR3, as both Chris Godwin and Julio Jones missed last week’s game and their status for Sunday is uncertain. They recently signed slot receiver Cole Beasley to their practice squad, with the expectation that he’ll be elevated on Sunday, so that does not seem to speak particularly well to the organization’s confidence that Godwin will play. If all three of the Bucs’ top receivers are out, that will leave them with the quartet of Cole Beasley, Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman, and Russell Gage getting snaps at wide receiver.

Cole Beasley was once a formidable slot receiver, but his efficiency plummeted in 2021, as he averaged only 6.2 yards-per-target despite playing with Josh Allen. There frankly isn’t much data on the other receivers. Perriman had a brief breakout with Jameis Winston at the end of the 2019 season, but that has not sustained. Scotty Miller caused the Packers pain in the 2020 NFC Championship, but he only has eight targets in the past two seasons. The Packers' secondary should be able to handle this receiving corps, and they should be able to be quite aggressive in doing so.

With Brady having far weaker weapons than normal and also lacking the scrambling ability that can often make defensive coordinators more reluctant to have their defenders lock up in man-coverage, we could see the Packers play a man-heavy defense this week. Of course, it’s also possible that Green Bay sticks to their identity and continues their combination of zone and match defense, but this particular game provides them an opportunity to let their corners lock down sub-par receivers.

The big concern for the Packers' defense last week was their complete inability to stop the run. New year, same issue type stuff. Fortunately for the Packers, the Bucs have been absolutely disastrous running the football this year. They rank dead last in the NFL in EPA-per-rush at -0.326. DVOA is rosier but still places them at only 23rd. The primary issue for Tampa is along the offensive line. Coming into this game, it appears that their starting line will be Brandon Walton at left tackle, Luke Goedeke at left guard, Robert Hainsey at center, Shaq Mason at right guard, and Tristan Wirfs at right tackle. Walton is a 2020 UDFA who has 44 career offensive snaps, all of which were last week. Luke Goedeke has allowed five pressures on just 66 pass-blocking snaps, has a paltry 36 pass-blocking grade, and a still porous 57 run-blocking grade, per PFF. There does remain a possibility that starting left tackle Donovan Smith suits up on Sunday after missing last week’s game with a hyper-extended elbow, but as of Friday, there is no clear indication. Whether or not that helps will depend entirely on how useful the injured arm is.

The left side of the line is a major issue for Tampa, and something Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith should be able to exploit. Smith is fifth in the NFL in pressures with 11 and leads the league by a mile in pressure rate at 26%. Green Bay has not blitzed at all this year, which is quite bizarre, but given how successful the front four has been in applying pressure, it has not needed to. Along with Smith’s dominant start, Rashan Gary is fourth in pressure rate amongst 3-4 EDGEs at 20%. Kenny Clark has the highest pressure rate amongst defensive tackles at 19%. You don’t need to blitz if you’re getting tons of pressure with just four, and Green Bay is. This will be of vital importance against Tampa Bay as Brady as the best way to beat him has always been to be able to just get pressure with four.

On the other side of the ball, Tampa’s defense is off to a phenomenal start. There is the caveat that they have 16 Cooper Rush snaps and a full week of Jameis Winston playing with vertebral fractures, but it’s hard to have a better start to the season than they have had. The defense leads the league in total EPA-per-play, EPA-per-dropback, and is sixth in EPA-per-rush. There has been no salvation here.

There is something weird afoot with Tampa’s early season defensive numbers, though. Despite ranking sixth in EPA-per-rush, they rank 30th in rushing success rate, just barely ahead of Chicago. Part of this is the Bucs haven’t faced that many rushing snaps this year, as they’ve led for most of their game time. Their EPA seems pretty heavily influenced by just a couple of plays: a Tony Pollard loss of eight yards in week one, a few Taysom Hill direct snaps in week two, and one Mark Ingram fumble. Looking at the personnel, it should be expected that Tampa’s elite run defense should continue, but the early season divergence of EPA (which in small samples is heavily influenced by turnovers) and success rate is noteworthy.

On the passing defense side, there isn’t much to suggest the unit will struggle this year. Although Jameis had a vintage Jameis game, throwing them three interceptions, they also are top of the league in success rate. One key point, which is brought up often by our own Paul Noonan on the Reporting as Eligible podcast, is that Rodgers will need to stretch the field against this defense. There is something consistent about the games where Rodgers struggles, and you can see it in his passing charts.

In both of the 2020 games (playoffs above, regular season below), Rodgers was too passive. In order to beat Tampa, you have to be able to stress their defense vertically. Thankfully it appears that Christian Watson is able to do that, as he’s routinely been beating defenders deep or requiring safety help. If Green Bay tries to get cute with a lot of the jet/screen/RPO run solution game against Tampa, I fear the team won’t be able to consistently move the ball. This is a game that likely will require chunk plays to move the ball against a very good defense, and it will require Rodgers to trust his young deep threat.