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Rodgers, Packers start hot, fizzle in embarrassing 38-10 loss to Buccaneers

Aaron Rodgers was flexing, the Packers were rolling, and then a pick-six turned the game on its head. In an eerily reprise of last season’s post-bye whooping, Green Bay couldn’t meet the intensity of a big game and got steamrolled.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Aaron Rodgers tossed two interceptions, half his entire 2019 total, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Favre had the Metrodome, a place where dreams of victory went to die for the Green Bay Packers. Raymond James Stadium looks to be Aaron Rodgers’ Metrodome, one that looked more like Thunderdome on Sunday afternoon. Rodgers threw his first interception of the season, a brutal pick-six with a 10-0 lead, and a second one just two throws later, setting off an avalanche of Buccaneers points in the sunny Florida weather. Tampa Bay’s 28-point second quarter set a franchise record, Todd Bowles’ swarming, blitzing defenses kept Rodgers seeing ghosts, and the Bucs coasted to a 38-10 victory. The game evinced troubling parallels to last year’s post-bye week beatdown at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.

For Green Bay, the similarities are troubling. Coming out of their back in 2019, they played sloppy football, turned it over, and lost in the trenches 37-8 to the team who ultimately ended their season. In that game, Rodgers ran for his life, missed receivers and played one of his worst games since 2015. Against freaky fast linebackers coming from every angle, Rodgers finished 16/35 for 160 yards, no touchdowns and two picks with the second-worst passer rating of a game he finished in his career.

Though this matchup felt flukier, with the tipped pick and a pick-six that has been more rare than UFA sightings for Rodgers, the Packers have to hope this isn’t once again a harbinger of playoff fates to come.

The game started like every other game this season for Green Bay, scoring on their first possession for the fifth consecutive time. A Rodgers scramble touchdown led to a Key and Peele celebration, though the touchdown was ultimately called back on a dubious call where apparently it’s possible for a player to give himself up while also trying to score a touchdown. Even Josh Jackson, starting in place of the injured Kevin King, made a play where his game is weakest: with a tackle to force a three-and-out on the Bucs first possession.

The pick-six changed everything, unleashing a slew of mistakes as the Packers’ usually reliable lines sprang leaks, an apt metaphor against a team named for plundering swashbucklers. And plunder the Bucs did. After Jamel Dean’s pick-six cut the lead to 10-7, a ricochet off the hands of Davante Adams, back from his hamstring injury, turned into another interception and suddenly a 10-0 lead evaporated into a 14-10 deficit.

By the time the first half concluded, the Packers wound up with almost as possessions without scoring points (5) as JK Scott had punts on the season coming in (7). And it looked even worse than that.

  • 3 plays, 0 yards — pick-six
  • 3 plays, 7 yards — interception
  • 3 plays, 0 yards — punt
  • 3 plays, -4 yards — punt
  • 5 plays, 2 yards — end of half

The team that won nine straight regular season games and came in on an all-time great offensive path to this point took all its regression in a quarter of football. It’s hard to blame the defense for how the run started, but 31 straight points doesn’t happen by fluke, even if seven of them weren’t their fault, and another score was set up by the other interception.

There’s no excuse for rushing three on a long third-and-goal, one that allowed Brady all kinds of time to find Tyler Johnson for the score. While Bowles dialed up linebacker blitzes seemingly all game, Pettine played conservatively and especially with the turnovers, that tact couldn’t hold.

One loss doesn’t end the season. The Packers still boast a favorable schedule down the stretch and even though they’re technically no longer in first place in the NFC North (that would be the 5-1 Chicago Bears). Their first month of the season was no fluke, but a lot of what happened in Tampa Bay was, particularly the interceptions Aaron Rodgers almost never throws. In the middle of the second quarter, the game felt like when the Madden CPU decides you just aren’t winning.

Still, Rodgers played sub-standard, missing throws like it was 2018. Without a turnover worthy play to date, Green Bay turned out to be lucky he only finished with two.

The pass rush, which has been mostly MIA this season, once again came up small while the Bucs made their run. Preston Smith can be found on milk cartons, not opponent backfield, Kenny Clark couldn’t find his footing coming back from a groin injury, and Za’Darius Smith didn’t build on a pair of quality games heading into the bye week. For Green Bay to truly compete for a Super Bowl, those guys have to start winning their matchups even as the NFL lets holding go around the league.

If there’s a silver lining on that side of the ball, Jackson played pretty well filling in for King, Montravius Adams showed up, and the run defense stymied Ronald Jones most of the game before garbage time. If the Packers were going to get steamrolled in a game, the conventional wisdom would likely have pegged it as a failure on the ground or giving up big plays over the top. Instead, it was death by a thousand cuts (and untimely turnovers). Play-to-play, Mike Pettine’s group played solid football, but couldn’t make the critical plays Bowles’ group made routinely. To wit, Tampa scored 31 points before ever getting to 300 yards of total offense.

In short, one defense played downhill, with their hair on fire, and the other played passively, trying not to get beat. With the offense firing like it has, that bend-but-don’t-break mentality, forcing teams to drive the length of the field works.

But the offense couldn’t find it’s footing with bodies flying everywhere. Without Tyler Ervin, the pre-snap motion disappeared, eliminating the horizontal advantage this offense so often creates. Matt LaFleur will have to find a better way to replace Ervin’s impact, which comes from so much more than what is in the box score.

Last season, LaFleur and Rodgers struggled to find ways to come back in games. When they fell behind to the Chargers and 49ers, the offense stagnated much the same way we saw Sunday. This could be where the Packers use a marquee receiver addition, someone who could have flipped the game with one play, but they don’t have that luxury. The head coach and quarterback will have to figure something else start.

For as outstanding as LaFleur has been since he joined the Packers, this is two bye weeks where his team looked sloppy and overmatched. It’s not as all clear Green Bay is as far behind Tampa Bay as they were with San Francisco, but contending teams tend not to have these brain farts. By the end of the game, the effort waned, the focus lagged, and the intensity didn’t meet the moment. The 2019 Packers came back from these kinds of hiccups to win 13 games and go to the NFC Championship Game. But to take the next step, to be like Tom Brady’s old team, these games must be eliminated. And their two-time MVP can’t have boogeyman stadiums because after all, the 2020 Super Bowl will be played at Raymond James.