The Green Bay Packers’ rushing defense, once the weak link on the team, got tougher during the second half of the season. That group will be tested by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ high-quality tandem of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette. In Part 4 of a series that focuses on when Tampa Bay is running the football, SI.com beat writers Bill Huber in Green Bay and Zach Goodall in Tampa break down the NFC Championship Game matchups.
Tampa Bay’s Offense
Everyone wants to talk about Tom Brady and the Buccaneers’ electric passing offense, but respect is due for the duo of Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette.
While the Buccaneers ranked only 28th in rushing yards per game (94.9) and 25th in yards per carry (4.12), it’s provided enough balance so that Brady hasn’t had to carry the offense by himself. In the final seven regular-season games, it topped 4.0 yards per carry five times compared to four times in the first nine games. In two playoff games, the production is up to 134.5 yards per game and 4.20 yards per carry.
Jones, “our guy,” emerged as one of coach Bruce Arians’ favorite members of the Bucs’ offense in training camp. Into the season, Jones had flashes of brilliance, including a 98-yard touchdown run against the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, but was not consistently utilized when Tampa had to rely on the passing game during a stretch of losses. To make matters worse, Jones missed two games later in the year as he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Jones’ absence allowed Fournette to step into a bigger role, making his September signing a wise move in hindsight. That role extended into the playoffs, as Fournette posted 230 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns over the first two postseason games. Jones would miss the first game of the playoffs, as well, but added 62 rushing yards in the divisional round. Jones and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones tied for third in the league with 3.63 yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus.
Similar to pass protection, the Buccaneers’ interior offensive line is strong in its run blocking. Rookie right tackle Tristian Wirfs has also been sound as a run blocker; a brute on the edge that has little trouble pushing rushers outside.
Although the respect Brady and Co. have garnered is certainly warranted, the Buccaneers, offense can be considered balanced and two-dimensional. “A good one-two punch,” as Arians describes them, Jones and Fournette have been productive and relied upon at times. Although the Bucs’ offense hasn’t been substantially creative, the rushing attack makes Tampa Bay a bit unpredictable.
Green Bay’s Defense
For the season, Green Bay was No. 21 with 4.55 yards allowed per carry and No. 13 with 112.8 rushing yards allowed per game. However, those numbers should be split to tell a more accurate story.
In the first seven games, going through Jones’ big day in Week 6 and the four-touchdown debacle against Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook in Week 8, the Packers were No. 23 with 4.65 yards allowed per carry and No. 14 with 119.0 rushing yards allowed per game. In the final five games, which included matchups against Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders (fifth in yards per carry), Chicago’s David Montgomery (fifth in rushing) and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (first in rushing), the Packers were 11th with 4.38 yards allowed per carry and 109.4 rushing yards allowed per game. Take a 45-yard touchdown run by Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and that goes down to 4.0 yards per carry and 100.4 yards per game.
It’s been a team effort. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has made a more concerted effort to stop the run, relying less on dime packages and using more traditional defenses. The front has played better, keyed by outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith doing a better job of setting the edges. Preston Smith led the team in stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line vs. the run). Undrafted rookie Krys Barnes has settled in as the every-down inside linebacker. The tackling has improved. The defensive line is led by Kenny Clark, though he wasn’t nearly as impactful as last season, and it recently added veteran run-stopper Damon Harrison. He’s barely played in his first two games but presumably would be in line for more action if the Bucs get rolling.
The Packers will have to do a better job against the run than they did last week, when Rams rookie Cam Akers ran for 90 yards on 18 tries. He gained yards on every run and was only limited to 1 yard on one of his carries – though that was a key third-down stop early in the game. If Tom Brady has a bunch of second- and third-and-shorts, it’s going to be an impossible challenge given Brady’s accuracy and play-action prowess.
Of note, Barnes suffered a broken thumb last week against the Rams. He played most of that game with a club-cast to protect his left hand. To state the obvious, it’s not easy having only one fully functional hand to tackle, so that will be worth watching as he has to take on blockers and contend with Jones and Fournette.
Coming Sunday: Special teams