The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a great defense.
The Packers knew this coming in.
They didn’t change their gameplan, though – they ran largely the same offense they’d run all year.
Did they learn anything? What could they have done differently?
These are the kinds of questions I like to think about to try to understand the game better. I don’t want to go back and say “they should have done this” and call the coaches stupid, but I do like to analyze what happened and think of ways they could have improved.
So I will.
Devin White and Lavonte David are super fast. I think they are the soul of Tampa’s defense.
In the first meeting, they shut down the Packers outside zone runs and their speed limited Aaron Rodgers’s ability to scramble for yards, including rocking him at the goalline (with a vicious, totally legal, hit that I think hurt Rodgers and knocked him off his game).
The Bucs have a young secondary, so it can be tempted to go after them, but they also have a strong 4-man pass rush featuring Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul flanking Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. With fast linebackers bolstering underneath coverage behind that fierce rush, it’s a tough puzzle to crack
But in the middle of it all, two fast linebackers are what makes it work. Without them, the Packers could have run outside zone runs, more crossing routes, and even designed scrambles.
So how do you beat them?
Well, they’re both right around 6’0 230. Not small by normal human standards, but a bit undersized for the NFL. Their speed is due in part to that slight size deficiency.
This is where the flip side of a strength can be come a weakness
When I think of defenses built around fast, undersized linebackers, I think of the fast Falcons defense that knocked the Packers out of the playoffs in 2016 built around Deion Jones.
That defense started off dominating the Super Bowl, but sputtered out in what might be the biggest collapse in sports history.
How did the Patriots overcome a 28-3 deficit against such a talented defense, a group that no one could run past?
Well, it wasn’t just one guy (even though James White seemed to carry the team), it was a brilliant gameplan.
Bill Belichick devised what I still think is one of the greatest Super Bowl game plans I’ve ever seen (of course it was passed by what he did to the Rams a couple years later, but that’s another story).
The Patriots went uptempo and ran 93 plays.
It’s the most plays any team has ever run in a Super Bowl. For reference, that’s just 6 fewer plays than the Packers and Buccaneers ran combined in the 2020 NFC Championship game.
The Patriots went up tempo with screen passes and run plays, making the Falcons speedy defenders run all over the field and wear themselves out.
It didn’t pay immediate dividends as the Patriots fell way behind (in large part due to Tom Brady’s pick 6), but by the 4th quarter, the Falcons defense was absolutely winded and totally helpless to keep up, setting the stage for the most improbable comeback ever.
So… could the Packers have done something similar?
I think they could have.
Think about the run game. Sure, the outside zone wasn’t an option against Tampa’s quick linebackers, but what about up the middle?
Corey Linsley and Elgton Jenkins might be the most dominant interior combo in the league. Why not ram AJ Dillon behind them right into an ailing Vita Vea and an agin Ndamukong Suh, wearing down the middle, rendering the Shaq Barrett and JPP’s pass rush null, and making those fast linebackers keep crashing into a wrecking ball that outweighs them?
Follow it up with quick screens to Jamaal Williams, who is money out of the backfield, and mix in quick hits to Aaron Jones, a natural slasher and the fastest of the group.
With an attack like this, the Packers can run basic plays and move quicker. Their complex passing attack depends on running down the play clock to read the coverage, but a basic run-heavy approach like this could have allowed them to snap the ball with 30 seconds on the play clock, flustering the defense and making them run in cold conditions that don’t bother the locals, but could freeze delicate tropical lungs.
Then, take those quick flare passes to Davante Adams when the defense is expecting all the action to run through the middle of the field, forcing those linebackers to chase even more.
The Packers were missing their All Pro Left Tackle and getting murdered with the edge rush. An uptempo run game, complemented by some quick screens, would have covered their deficiency at offensive tackle and leaned on their strength in the middle of the line.
This goes against the personality of the team, it’s not the identity they built, and it’s definitely not sticking with what got them there.
But it could have worked.
Maybe it wouldn’t – I don’t want to have some revisionist view of what I think would have happened, and I definitely don’t think Matt LaFleur is stupid, but I wonder how it would have played out.
The Packers went up against a better team, tried to do what they always do, and came up a little short.
Matt LaFleur can learn a lot from this game, and I hope he does, because changing up the script when necessary is the hallmark of a truly great coach.
Let’s not forget LaFleur is only in his 2nd year as a head coach and his 3rd year as a play-caller. He’s still learning a lot. Sometimes, young coaches need some experiences like this to learn from.
Next year, we’ll see what he’s learned.
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