We’ve been waiting for this one since Tom Brady ditched Bill Belichick and took his talents to Tampa. The long awaited Rodgers vs. Brady matchup would happen in 2020, as long as there was a season.
Well, so far so good. Both teams look like the class of their divisions and though it’s being billed as the final meeting between these two all time greats, they could very easily meet again in January.
Let’s just hope this team comes out if its bye better than last year’s team did–the (first) blowout in the Bay against the 49ers. We know that the biggest benefactors of the week off are Kenny Clark and Davante Adams, both of whom appear poised to return after missing most of the last three games. You get two of your top five players back for the biggest game of Week 6? Yes, the bye was early but giving Clark and Adams an extra week to heal up was worth it. Whether it saps the team of its early momentum, we’ll find out by Sunday night.
The matchup we’re all waiting to see, of course, is not Rodgers vs. Brady, but the Pack’s elite running attack against the Bucs top-ranked run defense. Tampa Bay’s front seven is as strong as any in the league, but they’ll be missing their Kenny Clark, massive nose tackle Vita Vea was lost for the season in last week’s Bears game with a broken leg.
That’s a gigantic loss for their defense, despite the formidable Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston manning the line. They don’t get burned by splash running plays because of the speed and athleticism of linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White, so LaFleur will have to dial up some new wrinkles that the Bucs haven’t seen on tape–another advantage of the bye week.
Matt LaFleur’s diverse looks and jet action will try to keep the Bucs off balance, but one big piece, Tyler Ervin, will miss this game with a wrist injury. His loss for the return game will be felt as well, but so will his speedy presence on jet sweeps. Will LaFleur put Aaron Jones in those spots at times? Will Darrius Shepherd get a chance? The Packers have had plenty of time to scheme it up–you have to figure they knew Ervin’s status for a while now. Sounds like Shepherd, Malik Taylor and Josh Jackson are all in the mix to handle returns.
Rodgers should like the matchups with his receivers. The Bucs’ defense is weakest at cornerback and their best guy, Carlton Davis, is questionable with an abdomen injury. The other two guys will have their hands full, whether Davis plays or not. Safety Jordan Whitehead has missed most of practice this week but sounds like he will give it a try. Former Gopher Antoine Winfield has been a stud at strong safety; he’s made big plays in every game and is always around the ball. Those of us who followed his Big Ten career are not surprised to hear that.
I see both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams continuing to showcase their versatility–both could have big days in the passing game. Adams will get plenty of attention from the Bucs, which should open things up for Robert Tonyan again. It will be interesting to see whether the Pack elevates Equanimious St. Brown from IR…both he and Kamal Martin returned to practice this week.
The Bucs have plenty of shiny toys for Brady to play with…most have been dealing with injuries much of the season, but they’re all back and available for the Packer game. Talented wide receiver Chris Godwin has missed the past couple of games and Mike Evans has been playing through an ankle injury that has really limited him to red zone targets of late. Throw in the aging Rob Gronkowski who, along with Cameron Brate, will try to make up for the production lost when OJ Howard’s injury knocked him out for the season. Another former Gopher, Tyler Johnson, turned heads with a couple of very nice catches and runs in the Bears game. He earned more snaps, even with the return of Godwin.
Unfortunately, we won’t find out till game time whether Kevin King will be able to play. He left the Falcons game with a quad injury and finally practiced, limited, on Friday. If he goes, he’ll likely have to deal with Evans all afternoon–his size matches up well with him. I expect Jaire Alexander to follow Godwin around and render him invisible, like he did with Calvin Ridley.
The running game gets buoyed by the return of Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy. Ronald Jones has been the workhorse the last couple of weeks, but now Bruce Arians has a stable he can rotate in to test the Pack’s run defense. The Bucs are counting on being productive on the ground, because the Bears showed us that the offensive line can be dominated by a good pass rush and Brady didn’t handle the pressure well these days. Left tackle Donovan Smith has really struggled and the line as a whole has been sub-par and has been heavily penalized. Both Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary are listed as questionable, but I expect them both to go and wreak havoc on Brady and the Bucs.
The Pack’s favored by one on what is expected to be a tropical afternoon with temps in the 80s–Green Bay will wear the home green jerseys, since the Bucs get the option to where the whites. You just know this game means a ton to Rodgers–not just to beat Brady, but also to make a clear statement to the NFC that the Pack is the team to beat (Seattle’s time is coming as they begin to play some tough division games).
I fear that the Pack may come out flat and they’re bound to turn the ball over at some point. The loss of Ervin means every punt will have us holding our breaths just hoping whoever’s back there hangs on to the ball. Tampa Bay has had its own mini-bye, ten days since the Bears game and Brady’s been hearing how he can’t count to four ever since. He’ll make the most of the challenge of dueling with Rodgers.
The Pack’s bound to lose some games this season and this looks like one of the toughest left on the schedule. But I will not pick against this team until someone beats them.
Packers 27 Bucs 26