Sun, 07 Mar 2021

Packers' 'Big Three' Are NFL's Most Difficult to Stop

Buccaneers
21 Jan 2021, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Scouting Report: QB Aaron Rodgers is coming off one of the best seasons in NFL history and is flanked by elite offensive stars in WR Davante Adams and RB Aaron Jones…Plus, other key players and strengths and weaknesses for the Packers Scott Smith

The 2020 Green Bay Packers are just what one would expect a team set to host a conference championship game to be. One with multiple elite-level strengths and few weaknesses. One with Pro Bowl and All-Pro players dotting the depth chart on both sides of the ball (in this case seven Pro Bowlers and four first-team Associated Press All-Pros). One that doesn't beat itself (league-low 11 giveaways, only 684 penalty yards). One that rarely loses at home (8-1 at Lambeau this year). One with a star quarterback, and maybe an MVP candidate.

Those last two both refer, of course, to Aaron Rodgers, who is the single biggest reason the Packers are one game away from their first Super Bowl appearance since 2010. The easy joke is that Green Bay's MVP this year is actually Jordan Love, the quarterback the team selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, a move that supposedly inspired Rodgers to put together one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. The truth is, no matter where he gets his motivation from, Rodgers is just a supremely gifted passer and football player whose 'down years' would be career peaks for many other quarterbacks.

This was no down year. Rodgers is widely regarded as the league MVP favorite after throwing for 4,299 yards, completing 70.7% of his passes and compiling a 48-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio that looks like a typo. In fact, no quarterback had ever thrown 45 or more touchdown passes and five or fewer interceptions in a season before. Rodgers' passer rating of 121.5 was the second-best single-season mark in NFL history...though not his own personal career high. He also holds the record of 122.5, set in his first MVP season of 2011.

Green Bay's offense features a proverbial "Big Three," with wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones joining Rodgers as Pro Bowl selections. The Rodgers-Adams tandem is the NFL's most lethal connection, and Adams led the league with an incredible 18 touchdown catches to go with 115 receptions for 1,374 yards. Jones, who is both elusive and powerful and always appears to be running with a purpose, added 1,459 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Lately, the Packers have expanded their ground game to be more of a three-headed attack with Jones, Jamaal Williams and bruising rookie A.J. Dillon, which seems a bit unfair. The Packers even found a productive tight end, this time in-house, with former practice squad player Robert Tonyan, who had more touchdown catches in 2020 (11) than he had total receptions in 2019 (10).

All of this talent operates behind one of the best offensive lines in football, although that group lost its most decorated player when four-time Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari tore an ACL in Week 16. Bakhtiari and versatile chess piece Elgton Jenkins were both Pro Bowl selections this year, while center Corey Linsley joined Bakhtiari as first-team All-Pro picks. The talent of that group is reflected in the Packers' rankings of eighth in rushing yards per game (132.4), seventh in yards per carry (4.78) and fifth in sacks allowed per pass play (3.99%). Football Outsiders ranked the Packers' line fifth in terms of run blocking and sixth in pass blocking.

It all added up to 31.8 points per game during the regular season, making Green Bay the highest-scoring team in the league. The Buccaneers memorably held the Packers scoreless for the last three quarters in a 38-10 win at Raymond James Stadium in Week Six - three months or a lifetime ago, depending upon your perspective - but Green Bay was only limited to fewer than 30 points in three other games this season, including the playoffs.

The Packers' defense doesn't have quite as lofty a spot in the league rankings but did finish ninth in total yards allowed per game (334.0) and seventh in passing yards allowed per game (221.2). A pass-rush led by Pro Bowler Za'Darius Smith (12.5 sacks) wasn't quite as smothering as it was in 2019 but still racked up 41 sacks and ranked eighth in sacks per pass play rate (7.65%). In addition to Smith, who rushes both off the edge and from the inside, the Packers' front features a force in the middle in Kenny Clark, who had 1.5 sacks in the Packers' Divisional win over the Rams.

Two of the Packers' four leading tacklers are its rangy safety duo of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage. Both can cover deep or make plays in the box and occasionally rush the passer. Amos had two sacks, two interceptions and nine passes defensed to go with his team-high 83 tackles, while Savage recorded 75 stops, one sack, four interceptions and 12 passes defensed. The star of the Green Bay secondary is Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Alexander allowed just 4.5 yards per target as the nearest defender during regular season, third-best among all NFL defensive backs. Early in the season Green Bay used Alexander to shadow the opposing team's top receiver, such as the Bucs' Mike Evans in Week Six, but since Week 11 he has played almost exclusively at left cornerback.

Green Bay's special teams features a veteran placekicker in Mason Crosby who was perfect on field goals this year, though he only had to try 16 of them with the Packers scoring 66 touchdowns. Crosby was 59 of 63 on extra point attempts. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter at Lambeau Field on Sunday when they battle for a spot in Super Bowl LV:

PACKERS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

Aaron Rodgers would be at the top of any list ranking the biggest difference-makers for the Packers, and his favorite target, Davante Adams, wouldn't be far behind. The Packers' offensive line sent two players to the (virtual) Pro Bowl and had a third earn first-team All-Pro honors, and even without Bakhtiari that group as a whole makes a big difference for the Packers. We'll stipulate all of those as obvious picks here and highlight four other Green Bay players who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday:

1. OLB Za'Darius Smith. Smith is listed as one of the Packers' two starting outside linebackers, along with Preston Smith, but his pre-snap location heat map in Next Gen Stats shows that he actually lines up all along the defensive front. He tends to move to the inside more often on third downs, about 40% of the time, and he's actually been more effective as an interior rusher in each of his two seasons in Green Bay. In that span, Smith has 26.0 sacks, which is tied for the third most in the NFL since the start of 2019, as well as 60 quarterback hits. Only Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt has more. Smith only recorded one QB hit against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Week Six but, unfortunately for Tampa Bay in the rematch, he has been hot lately, with 4.5 sacks and eight QB hits in the Packers' last six games. When Smith is at his best, he tends to spend all day in the opposing backfield - on three different occasions in the regular season he was credited with six or more quarterback pressures. His excellent results as a pass-rusher come from his incredibly quick get-off, which allows him to shoot gaps between the linemen and get directly into the quarterback's face. Earlier in the season, Next Gen Stats measured Smith an average get-off after the snap of 0.86 seconds when rushing from the inside.

2. RB Aaron Jones. A fifth-round pick in 2017, Jones had a breakout year in Matt LaFleur's first season at the helm, particularly in terms of finding the end zone, with his 19 touchdowns tying for the NFL lead. Though he didn't score quite as often in 2020 - nine TDs on the ground, two on catches - he was arguably even better this year. His average of 5.5 yards per carry was up nearly a full yard from 2019 and ranked fifth in the NFL among qualifying rushers. With Williams and Dillon also proving effective in the backfield, particularly of late, the Packers are also able to use Jones efficiently and keep him fresh. For instance, he had 99 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries in the win over the Rams and 94 yards on just 10 carries in the Packers' rousing 40-14 cold-weather victory over Tennessee in Week 16. At 5-9 and 208 pounds, Jones isn't as big as Williams or (especially) Dillon, but he still is able to bounce off tackles and surge forward, sometimes multiple times on the same run. He had 592 rushing yards after contact during the regular season and his average of 2.95 yards after contact per carry was the second-highest in the NFL among qualifying runners. (The Bucs' Ronald Jones, at 3.04, was first, by the way.) With his superb vision and ability to quickly get up to speed when he finds a seam, Jones is perfect for a zone blocking scheme, where he can either get outside and use his breakaway speed or find a gap to cut back into and elude would-be tacklers for extra yards.

3. S Darnell Savage. One of the reasons Green Bay's defense has been much stingier down the stretch and in the playoffs, with just 17.3 points and 299.2 yards allowed per game, has been the surging play of their safety duo of Savage and Amos. Savage, for instance, notched his fourth interception and broke up three passes in the Packers' big Week 16 win over Tennessee, then came back the following week with 10 tackles against the Bears. A first-round pick in 2019 who had a fine rookie year with two picks and two forced fumbles, Savage was already smart and athletic but he now has quicker recognition of what the quarterback is doing and is playing more instinctively. As a deep cover man, he can close extremely quickly and shut down big plays or create turnovers. He has blazing speed, running a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting combine, while also showing off his athleticism with a 39.2-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot-6 broad jump. Savage is also a sure tackler - he had several one-on-one stops of the enormous Derrick Henry in that Titans game - and he can contribute as a blitzer, as he did on one key third-down pressure of Ryan Tannehill in that same contest.

4. G Elgton Jenkins. The Packers' 2019 draft is starting to look very good. Twelfth-overall pick Rashan Gary had 5.0 sacks this season and showed up big in the first playoff game with 1.5 more. The Packers then traded up nine spots to get Savage at number 21, which appears to have been an astute move. Then Green Bay really struck gold with its second-round selection of Mississippi State's Jenkins. Jenkins figures to be a mainstay on the Packers' line for a long, long time, though it's not as easy to predict exactly where on that line he will be playing from season to season, or even game to game. The Packers believe he is capable of excelling at any of the five spots on the line, and in fact he has already taken regular-season snaps in each spot. This year, he became the first Green Bay player since 1970 to make starts at tackle, guard and center. His start at tackle was on the right side in Week One, but he also moved into the left tackle spot against San Francisco in Week Nine when both Bakhtiari and Ricky Wagner left the game with injuries. For now Jenkins is giving the Packers superb blocking at the left guard position, good enough to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl in just his second season. He is strong and powerful and can stand his ground against bull rushes but also moves around very well and is quick for a big man. Jenkins play all up and down the line in 2020 is one of the main reasons Rodgers was only sacked 20 times on 546 dropbacks, and not at all in the win over the Rams. With Bakhtiari out, the Packers will rely even more on Jenkins to be a dominant force up front.

STRENGTHS

Green Bay's offense can run or pass the ball with equal effectiveness, leading to an average of 6.29 yards per play that ranked second in the NFL in the regular season. That included top-seven rankings per play both in the passing game (second at 7.81) and the running game (seventh at 4.78). While Jones and Adams are Rodgers' best two weapons, the Packers run deep in potential playmakers, with six different players who caught 30-plus passes and eight who scored three or more touchdowns. Green Bay converted close to half of its third downs in 2020, ranking second in that category, too. The Packers' defense was good in situational football, ranking eighth in red zone TD efficiency (57.7%) and tied for 10th in third-down rate allowed (39.5%). Here are some more specific areas in which the Packers were among the league's best in 2020:

* Green Bay's offense goes from great between the 20s to downright deadly in the red zone. Not only did the Packers lead the NFL with a touchdown rate of 80.0% in the red zone (48 of 60) in 2020, but that was the highest percentage any team has recorded since at least the 2000 season, when that data is first available. The main reason is the decision-making and pinpoint passing of Rodgers, who completed 72.0% of his passes in that portion of the field and recorded 35 touchdowns against no interceptions. Rodgers favored Adams in those situations, with Adams leading the league in both catches (23) and touchdown receptions (14) on red zone plays.

* As noted above, the Packers' defense just cracked the top 10 in terms of third-down conversion rate allowed. What is particularly notable about that strong third-down defense is that Green Bay has been able to do it while usually just sending four pass-rushers at the quarterback. The Packers' blitz rate of 23.4% on third down was the third-lowest in the league behind Philadelphia and Chicago. As a point of contrast, Tampa Bay's defense blitzed on 40.8% of third downs during the regular season.

* Yet another area in which the Packers' offense excelled due to Rodgers' abundant talents was in extending plays and getting big gains out of improvisational work. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Rodgers threw eight touchdowns and wasn't intercepted once on plays that took four or more seconds to get the pass off. Rodgers was only sacked on 18.5% of such plays; the average for QBs around the league when holding the ball four-plus seconds is a 29.3% sack rate.

* Not only was Mason Crosby perfect on his field goal attempts in 2020 - 18 for 18, including the first playoff game - but he stayed perfect despite a relatively high degree of difficulty. Half of those 18 field goals came on attempts of 40-plus yards, including four that were beyond 50. Those four three-pointers came from 51, 52, 53 and 57 yards. The Packers' offense may not bog down often, but when it does LaFleur has a kicker he can trust to make it from long range.

WEAKNESSES

The Green Bay defense has only produced three takeaways so far and the Packers are allowing 7.44 yards per pass play, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. There's almost nothing to nitpick on the other side of the ball at this point, but the Green Bay's goal-to-go touchdown percentage of 72.7% is only 20th in the league. In addition:

* The Packers' defense recorded 41 sacks during the regular season, tied for 10th-most in the league, but their three best pass-rushers from 2019 all saw their pressure rates decline significantly in 2020. Za'Darius Smith went from 73 pressures last year to 50 this year and Preston Smith dropped from 45 to 26. Kenny Clark missed time early in the season due to injury, which partly explains his drop from 50 pressures to 19, but his pressure rate also fell from 10.7% to 6.1%.

* As good as Crosby has been on field goals, the Packers' special teams have had troubles in other areas, particularly in the return game. Green Bay ranks 30th in punt return average (4.8 yards), 31st in kickoff return average (18.9), 32nd in punt return average allowed (17.1) and 23rd in kickoff return average allowed (24.2). Punter JK Scott also ranked 28th among 30 qualifying punters with a net average of 37.0 yards, thanks in part to one blocked punt and three touchbacks.

* While the Packers are in the better half of the league in the rankings for penalties and penalty yards, and the team's offensive line is one of the NFL's best, they have surprisingly been flagged for offensive holding 19 times. The 180 yards those penalties have cost them are the sixth-most by any team in the league and have led to eight drives being stalled.

* As historically good as the Packers have been in the red zone on offense in 2020, their defense was not among the league's best in that part of the field. Green Bay ranked 19th in the league with a touchdown-allowed rate of 57.7% in the red zone, and 28th with an overall scoring efficiency allowed of 92.3%. It was the pass defensed that struggled the most, allowing a red zone passer rating of 111.0 that was fourth worst in the league. The Packers were one of four teams that did not have an interception in their red zone in 2020.

NEW FACES IN 2020

The Packers were surprisingly active in unrestricted free agency in 2019, and effective as well, particularly with the additions of the pass-rushing duo of Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith. This year, they stayed closer to organizational form, making just a couple low-key additions. Green Bay's 2020 draft did bring a big new presence to the offensive backfield, one that has come on late in the season.

1. DL Damon Harrison. Harrison was a late addition to the Packers' defense, claimed off waivers from Seattle on New Year's Eve day. He has only played 15 snaps through his first two games in Green Bay but that number could go up on Sunday because the Packers were definitely excited to add him after his request to leave Seattle was granted. Said LaFleur at the time: "He's going to be a guy who I think can give us a lot in terms of playing the nose. He's a really good run defender and he has been for a really long time. Just excited to get him in the building."

2. T Ricky Wagner. The Bucs picked up Wagner in March after he was released by Detroit as one possible option to replace long-time right tackle stalwart Bryan Bulaga, who had departed in free agency. Wagner was in and out of the lineup during the first three months of the season but the Packers are fortunate to have him after the loss of Bakhtiari. Since Bakhtiari went on injured reserve, Billy Turner has moved into the left tackle spot and Wagner has settled in back at right tackle.

3. RB AJ Dillon. Not only did the Packers spend their first-round pick on Jordan Love but they then went with the 247-pound Boston College running back in the second round when most observers were expecting a receiver. Green Bay's passing attack has worked out just fine in 2020 without a new rookie and now Dillon is starting to make his rather large presence felt in the Packers' backfield, most notably with his 124-yard performance against Tennessee in Week 16.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. T David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari's season-ending injury has been noted several times above but he remains the most significant player the Packers will be without in Sunday's game. Green Bay has 12 players on I.R. but none of the others would be starters if they were active. Bakhtiari got his fourth Pro Bowl nod before he tore his ACL and he was also a first-team All-Pro in 2018.

2. RB AJ Dillon. Dillon makes both of these lists because he left Green Bay's game against the Rams early last Saturday due to a quad injury. The Packers' rushing attack will still be in good hands with Jones and Williams but Green Bay would probably like to have their biggest back available if the weather turns nasty on Sunday.

DL Kingsley Keke. A fifth-round pick in 2019, Keke only played nine percent of the Packers' defense snaps as a rookie but had become a regular in the defensive-line rotation in 2020, playing 40% of the team's snaps in the regular season. Keke had added some spark to the pass rush off the bench with 4.0 sacks and eight quarterback hits. However, he has missed the last two games due to a concussion.

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