Having talent, or players that possess talent helps cover up deficiencies. It is a pretty straightforward simple statement. But it is one that best describes how the Green Bay Packers defense has performed late this season. Their talent has helped overcome the deficiencies that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine brings to this unit. Even with curious decisions by Pettine, the Packers defense has performed strongly down the stretch. They will need to continue that streak on Sunday in the NFC Championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, one specific area of the defense might be the key to a Packers victory. The Green Bay Packers pass rush will need to show up on Sunday against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers if they are going to be NFC Champions.
Green Bay Packers Pass Rush Will Be Key To Stopping Buccaneers
Even early in his career, you would have never confused Brady with Lamar Jackson. Now at 43 years of age, he poses zero threat with his legs. But if you don’t pressure him, and allow him to sit in the pocket, Brady will beat you with his arm.
That is exactly what the Buccaneers offensive line has allowed Brady to do this season. The Buccaneers offensive line finished the regular season with just 22 sacks given up. That ranked them third in the league (a spot behind the Packers offensive line). It is important to protect aging quarterbacks, especially one that whines as much as Brady does when he is hit.
The Packers pass rush will need to get to Brady early and often. It won’t be easy, but the Packers pass rush has the talent to do so. Not just on the outside, but on the inside. They will also need to have some help from the Packers secondary as well.
Covering up the Buccaneers Receivers
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich love to stretch the field deep. However, that isn’t Brady’s game. Brady wants to get the ball out quickly to prevent hits on his aging body. At the start of this season, the offense did it Arians and Leftwich’s way, attempting to stretch defenses with wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But after the offense struggled, Brady took control of the offense.
That meant quick passes, relying on Brady to get the ball out quickly. The change in offense turned out to be a success. The offensive line wasn’t asked to hold their blocks as long which led to fewer hits on Brady. While Evans and Godwin are better at stretching the field, they adapted. The change in philosophy also allowed tight end, Rob Gronkowski, to get more involved in the passing game.
The Packers pass rush will need to pressure Brady. Yes, sacks would be the goal. But as Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith has said, pressures are just as vital as sacks. For those pressures to occur on a higher level, that means the Packers secondary must do their jobs.
A Jaire Alexander-Goodwin matchup favors the Packers. Alexander is one of the top cover corners in the NFL, he matches up well against most wide receivers. Kevin King was the expected matchup against Evans. However, once again, King is battling an injury. King and his injury history make former Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga look like Lou Gehrig. If King can’t go, the Packers will have an issue finding someone to match up against Evans. Possible replacements might be Chandon Sullivan, Josh Jackson, or even recently signed Tramon Williams.
The Packers secondary must do their job to allow the Packers pass rush to do theirs. If the secondary can make Brady hold the ball a second or two seconds longer, it could allow the Packers pass rush to get him.
Pressure From the Inside
From all indications, nose tackle Kenny Clark is starting to hit his stride. He has shown the ability to create pressure from the interior throughout his young career. That was on display last week in the Packers victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Clark registered one and a half sacks last week as well as had two quarterback hits. His push up the middle was exceptional, which should worry Brady. Interior pressure is very difficult to escape, especially for someone as immobile as Brady is. Not only is Clark hitting his stride, but he is healthy. That should put some fear into the Buccaneers starting guards Ali Marpet and Aaron Stinnle as well as center Ryan Jensen.
Clark will need some help though. Fellow defensive tackle Dean Lowry is going to need to take some pressure off of Clark for the Packers pass rush to be successful from the inside. After a downright awful start to this season, Lowry started to play a little better later in the season. His play still hasn’t matched what he is getting paid, but the improvement still gives the Packers hope. He will need to contribute, at the very least for taking pressure off of Clark.
Let the Dogs Loose
If you are talking about the Packers pass rush, it all starts with their outside linebackers.
Za’Darius Smith is the leader of the Packers pass rush. He led the Packers with 12.5 sacks in the regular season and last week against the Rams chipped in another. Expectations will be high for him on Sunday. While Pettine will line him up in a variety of spots, his primary focus will be against the Buccaneers starting left tackle Donovan Smith.
Za’Darius Smith does his best lining up on the outside, so hopefully, Pettine will keep him there throughout the game. If he does (which is a big if, since Pettine is known to do the wrong thing), Smith should match up well against Donovan Smith.
The real wild card for the Packers pass rush is outside linebacker, Rashan Gary. In his second professional season, Gary has come into his own. During the regular season, he registered five sacks. He also had 11 quarterback hits. Last week he also had one and a half sacks with three quarterback hits. Gary is starting to feel comfortable as an outside pass rusher. However, he has the build to lineup inside as well. That is why it is so curious why Pettine insists on lining Smith up in the middle so often rather than Gary.
Preston Smith will also see snaps on Sunday and is expected to be the starter. But really, the key for the Packers pass rush comes down to how Za’Darius Smith and Gary play on Sunday. Both have been playing at a high level as of late and both have favorable matchups. If they execute as expected, the Packers pass rush should have a big day. In doing so, it should limit Brady and the Buccaneers offense and give the Packers a great opportunity to be the NFC champions for this season.
Embed from Getty Images