Following a disheartening loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 15, the Green Bay Packers needed to salvage their opportunity for a first-round bye throughout the playoffs. A loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have resulted in a guaranteed road trip in January–including a likely trip to Dallas and then to Seattle. A win on the road would put the team in a great spot, with the Week 17 matchup against Detroit serving as a resolution to the battle for the division title.
It wasn’t a pretty start for the Packers–after three quarters, Green Bay led 10-3 against the Buccaneers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense. Fortunately, Aaron Rodgers battled through his cold and a calf injury to deliver a critical fourth-quarter drive culminated by his lone touchdown pass on Sunday, putting the game out of reach with less than three minutes to go.
With a 20-3 win behind them, let’s take a look at how each position group graded out.
While it may not have been Michael Jordan’s flu-game or reminiscent of Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL, Rodgers hung tough in an undesirable situation. Coming off arguably the worst game of his career, he performed admirably despite being in visible pain.
The injury seemed to happen on the second Packers’ drive when DE Michael Johnson slipped past David Bakhtiari unblocked, stripped the ball out from Rodgers’ hands and rolled up on his leg. Rodgers didn’t seem to have the same zip immediately after the injury but finished strong.
He finished the day completing 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards. And while the single touchdown pass doesn’t glow on the stat sheet, he put the Packers in position to score on multiple occasions. Credit should be given to Tampa Bay’s secondary–they did their best by often dropping in coverage, but Rodgers is just too hard to stop when he has time to throw.
J.J. Watt is doing everything possible to close the gap in the MVP race, but a win next week would be the performance Rodgers needs to win his second MVP award and earn the team a first-round bye.
After drawing criticism for abandoning the running game last week, we saw why a productive running game will be essential for the Packers going forward. Eddie Lacy picked up chunks of yards while the passing game struggled, then delivered the first big blow to Tampa Bay’s defense.
Since the bye week, #Packers RB Eddie Lacy is averaging 5.3 yards per carry (115 carries for 611 yards and 5 TDs). He averages 4.7 overall.
— Tom Silverstein (@TomSilverstein) December 22, 2014
With less than a minute left in the first quarter, Lacy took a toss to the outside, breaking a Danny Lansanah tackle and rumbling 35-plus yards to the end zone. It provided Green Bay with the boost their struggling offense needed, while also pushing Lacy past the 1,000-yard mark for the second-consecutive season. While it was Lacy’s 13th game under 20 carries, it was his ninth game with 100-plus total yards.
James Starks was ineffective on seven carries totaling just three yards, but FB John Kuhn delivered as a compliment to Lacy. Kuhn broke off a nice 11-yard run, but his best efforts came as a bulldozer, clearing out blockers and opening lanes for Lacy to run through.
Wide receiver/tight end:
Like their quarterback, Green Bay’s wide receivers sought to reverse their misfortune from the previous week and looked to bounce back strong against the Buccaneers. As Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel shared, WR Jordy Nelson took responsibility for the loss in Week 15.
Nelson made amends this Sunday–coming through with nine receptions, 113 yards and a crucial fourth-quarter touchdown. Nelson showed his versatility in this game, working the shallow field picking up chunks of yardage on each catch. It was the same method of attack for Randall Cobb, who had a career-best 11 receptions for 131 yards. The duo continues to build on a fantastic season, each surpassing the 1,000-yard/10-plus touchdown mark.
While Nelson and Cobb shined, rookie Davante Adams has run into a wall as of late. Communication and a understanding of routes are part of the learning curve for any rookie, but Adams also dropped two big passes on Sunday. The talent is certainly there to shine, but he will need to show it more consistently and be a weapon in the coming weeks.
It was a very quiet game for the tight ends in the box score–Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless combined for just 30 yards on four receptions, but their work as blockers earns a solid grade.
All season Green Bay’s offensive has drawn recognition from across the league. While Rodgers has been the driving force behind it all, the offensive line is the spine for this offense.
Tampa Bay’s secondary did admirable work, keeping the Packers from ever converting any chances deep. But they allowed 431 total yards because their defensive line was masked by a great performance by the Packers’ OL. Bakhtiari had a slip up here and there, the most notable instance coming on the Rodgers sack-fumble, but kept things in check overall.
It was once again the interior lineman that shined, allowing Rodgers to move around and step up in the pocket while waiting for a wide receiver to create a little separation from coverage. Tampa Bay’s pass rush was neutralized and didn’t fare much better stopping the running game. While they may not all make it on the official ballots, Josh Sitton and Corey Linsley are playing at a Pro Bowl-level.
Guys like Joel Bitonio, Zack Martin, Corey Linsley, Khalil Mack, etc. aren’t even getting talked about in ROY race. Would win some years.
— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) December 22, 2014
After four quarters, Green Bay held Tampa Bay to just one sack, two quarterback hits and four tackles for loss. Another outstanding performance by this unit, as they picked up more momentum while they prepare to face a fierce Lions’ front four.
If Green Bay wants to win against playoff teams, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is mandatory. While they certainly played an inferior opponent this week, Green Bay’s defensive line delivered.
Mike Daniels continues to play at a high level, mauling OG Logan Mankins throughout the game. Whether it was slipping past Mankins and pulling down Doug Martin for a minimal gain, or getting off a block and sacking Josh McCown. Datone Jones and Josh Boyd also brought outside pressure on McCown, though Jones biggest play came in the fourth quarter. McCown felt heavy pressure and was hit as he tossed the ball forward, Jones had the awareness to find it and pluck it out of the air. It sealed the game in the fourth quarter and will give the second-year player a positive boost going forward.
If Daniels, Jones and Boyd can provide the same pressure next week against an inconsistent Lions’ offensive line, it will make Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers’ jobs easier, while forcing Matthew Stafford into making poor decisions.
It was a sensational game for the Packers pass rushers. Green Bay totaled seven sacks and 5.5 of those came from the Matthews, Peppers, Mike Neal trio. Matthews had 2.5, Peppers got to the quarterback twice and Neal brought McCown down on a blitz as well.
While we didn’t see Matthews at inside linebacker as much this week, he was extremely effective as a pass rusher. Tampa Bay tried everything against him, but Matthews speed and quick hands were the unstoppable force against what appeared to be a piece of paper mache. Matthews has recorded a sack in three straight games and two-plus in consecutive weeks. Peppers has disappeared recently, but limited snaps and a big performance might re-energize him for the playoffs.
Sam Barrington did another fine job at inside linebacker, making stops in the run game and earning DC Dom Capers’ trust for shining when he was welcomed to the starting unit. He likely won’t ever be a great linebacker, but in the Packers’ situation, he has provided just what this defense has needed as a role player.
The secondary has not been a strength for the Packers this season, but this was a different group against the Buccaneers. Yes, there were some easy throws that McCown missed, but that can also be credited to a great pass rush.
I think Morgan Burnett played his best game as a Packer today.
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) December 22, 2014
Less than a week after being named a defensive captain for the playoffs, safety Morgan Burnett was the best player on the field this week. It looked like he played with a GPS on the field, always finding the ball carrier and wrapping up to prevent a gain of yards. Burnett finished with nine solo tackles and was exceptional versus the run, coming up to make stops right at the line of scrimmage. It was Burnett’s play that was key to holding Tampa Bay to just 16 yards on 14 carries.
Rookie Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix showed signs of improvement–after struggling with his tackling technique in previous weeks. He did a much better job staying square with the ball-carrier and wrapping up, bringing his opponent down securely. He also made a nice play in coverage, teaming up with CB Sam Shields to tip a deep ball away.
This is just the performance the secondary needed as they head back to Lambeau to face Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Johnson may no longer be the best wide receiver in football, but he is still a gamechanging playmaker and Tate has emerged as the perfect No. 2 receiver to complement him.
This unit’s biggest test will come next Sunday. We’ll see if they’re up to the task.