Will the Green Bay Packers be able to do what so few have done over the years and stop Tom Brady in a playoff game? In Part 2 of a series that focuses on when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are throwing the football, SI.com beat writers Bill Huber in Green Bay and Zach Goodall in Tampa break down the NFC Championship Game matchups.
I think, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that Tom Brady isn’t just a system quarterback.
As that old system faltered in New England, Brady ignited a Tampa Bay offense that was full of weapons but lacked consistency behind center over the years. It took some time to transition and adjust to Bruce Arians’ offense without a normal offseason amid the pandemic.
But, ater the Bucs’ late bye week in Week 13, Tampa Bay transformed into one of the NFL’s passing offense juggernauts. The Bucs averaged 37 points per contest over the final four, with Brady throwing for 1,333 yards and 12 touchdowns during that stretch. He threw one interception, as well, which came off of a dropped pass by a receiver.
Receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown rarely have been at full health at the same time, but each has looked like a legitimate No. 1 at some point. Evans set an NFL record with a seventh consecutive season since his rookie year with 1,000-plus receiving yards while breaking his franchise record for single-season touchdown receptions with 13. Godwin dealt with numerous injuries throughout the season but has generally proven himself as a dependable go-to. And although it took some time to get comfortable, Brown made his presence known with four touchdowns in the final three games of the season.
Rob Gronkowski, like Brown, had some rust to shake off after a year-long retirement. It took until the first time Tampa Bay and Green Bay met for Gronk to find the end zone for the first time in a Bucs uniform, and he's done it another six times since.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line has quietly been a strength of the team, as well, overshadowed by the firepower between Brady and the wide receiver room. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs has played at an All-Pro level, allowing just one sack while appearing on every snap. Left guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen have been nearly as good at keeping Brady clean, which enhanced the play of left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Alex Cappa throughout the year. Cappa is out of the playoffs with a fractured ankle, but Arians was encouraged by the performance of Aaron Stinnie in his place against New Orleans.
No doubt, the reason Tampa Bay is winning as many football games as it is right now – six in a row entering the NFC Championship – is because the passing offense has gelled together.
General manager Brian Gutekunst has poured his resources into stopping quarterbacks. In 2018, he used his first-round pick on cornerback Jaire Alexander. In 2019, he opened the checkbook for outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos, and used first-round picks on outside linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage.
Green Bay finished the season ranked 13th in opponent passer rating and eighth in sack percentage. The group generally played better as the season progressed. Nine of the 11 interceptions came over the final nine games. Of the 41 sacks, 24 came over the final eight games. It allowed less than 6.0 yards per passing attempt in six of the final eight games.
There isn’t much finesse in the games of the “The Smith Bros.” and Gary on the edge. They are power-first players. Za’Darius Smith tied for fourth in the league with 12.5 sacks and added another last week vs. the Rams. He lines up here, there and everywhere. As he goes, so goes the rest of the defense. When he’s got it rolling, the defense is ferocious. When he’s getting stopped, his energy can wane. Gary had five sacks but, on a play-to-play basis, might have been the most impactful rusher. Two key players had disappointing seasons. Preston Smith went from 12 sacks last season to four. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who received a monster contract extension, had merely two sacks during the regular season but notched 1.5 vs. the Rams.
Alexander and Kevin King are the corners, Chandon Sullivan mans the slot, and Savage and Amos are the safeties for a secondary that plays a lot of zone. Alexander is an elite player and one of the few true stoppers in the league. The Rams threw at him once and were rewarded with a loss of 3 yards. He’s got fantastic short-area quickness and a nose for the ball, plus a relentless personality. King was excellent in 2019 but not so much this season. An early-season injury that sidelined him for the first matchup seems to have robbed him of his long speed. At 6-foot-3, he still wins with length. Sullivan’s a bulldog in the slot who’s had a lot more good moments than bad. Much like Tampa Bay’s safeties, the duo of Savage and Amos is highly underrated. They’ve been phenomenal over the second half of the season.
There’s nothing defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can throw at Brady that Brady hasn’t seen. It will be up to the players to decide this battle.