NFL Preview - Green Bay (4-3) at Tampa Bay (0-7)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If Aaron Rodgers wasn't scrambling for his life every other snap, the Green Bay Packers would probably be in a better situation. Poor play from the offensive line has been burying the Packers, who can take a fresh breath of air now that Brett Favre is in the rear-view mirror.
Green Bay can exhale this week with a road test against the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium, and is trying to erase the memories of last week's tough 38-26 loss to the NFC North-rival Minnesota Vikings in Favre's return to Lambeau Field. Rodgers was sacked six times on Sunday and has been brought down a league-high 31 times in 2009. He is also dealing with foot and toe injuries that have hampered him during this week's practice.
The ailment for Rodgers isn't considered serious, and he will surely be under center for a Packers team that had its two-game winning streak stopped last week and fell to 4-3 on the year. Green Bay is now tied with Chicago for second place in the division standings.
Perhaps Rodgers tweaked his foot while scrambling for 52 yards on five carries trying to avoid the Minnesota rush which was highlighted by three sacks from end Jared Allen. Rodgers, who passed for 287 yards with three touchdown strikes and no interceptions, has been sacked 14 times in the two games against the Vikings this season. Head coach Mike McCarthy tried to adjust by putting young tackles T.J. Lang and Allen Barbre in the lineup, even though veterans Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher were available. McCarthy said he will see how Clifton and Tauscher progress through the week before he makes any significant changes to the offensive line.
Clifton has been sidelined four full games and parts of two others this season due to an ankle injury, while Tauscher hasn't played yet since signing with the team almost a month ago. The Packers' offensive line should have a favorable matchup this week, however, with Tampa Bay's lowly pass rush on the docket.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's decision to roll out the retro uniforms from the John McKay era against its former NFC Central mates may not have come at the best time. The Buccaneers are expected to don the classic Orange and White digs with a winking "Buccaneer Bruce" embossed on the side of the helmet, reminiscent of when the team lost its first 26 games in franchise history between 1976 and 1977. The team, though, did eventually start winning games and even made it to the 1979 NFC Championship Game.
Bucs first-year head coach Raheem Morris is 0-7 in his initial season, while Tampa Bay has dropped 11 in a row dating back to last year. The Buccaneers are also 0-7 to start a season for the first time since losing the first nine tests of the 1985 campaign.
Morris hopes another switch at quarterback will get him in the win column for the first time, as rookie Josh Freeman is slated to make his first NFL start in favor of an ineffective Josh Johnson. Freeman got a taste of the NFL world in Tampa Bay's 35-7 loss to the New England Patriots at London's Wembley Stadium on October 25, throwing for 16 yards on just 2-of-4 passing.
Freeman, who was selected 17th overall in April's NFL Draft out of Kansas State, mentioned this week that he is excited for the opportunity to get his first NFL start, and knows the decision carries a lot of weight. Freeman, like all confident rookies, said he is ready for the challenge, especially after the Bucs picked him to be the future face of the franchise. The 6-6, 248- pounder has great size and tremendous arm strength, and noted that he has a firm grasp of the Morris' offense.
Only time will tell if that holds true for Freeman in his debut for the only remaining winless team in the NFL in 2009.
Green Bay has a 29-20-1 lead in the all-time series with Tampa Bay, but has lost each of its last two meetings against the Bucs. Tampa was a 30-21 home winner when the teams met in Week 4 of last season, and took a 17-16 road decision in the previous matchup, in 2005. Green Bay's most recent win over the Buccaneers came in 2003 at Raymond James Stadium.
The Packers' 21-7 win in a 1997 NFC Divisional Playoff at Lambeau Field marks the only postseason meeting between the two former NFC Central rivals.
McCarthy is 0-1 against the Bucs as a head coach. Morris will be meeting both McCarthy and Green Bay for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers (1,989 passing yards, 14 TD, 2 INT) tried his best to rally the Packers against Minnesota by throwing three touchdown passes in the second half to no avail. Rodgers avoided the rush a lot better during the last 30 minutes of play, but the end result was poor protection and lack of punch. It's a shame Rodgers doesn't have the opportunity to play behind a cohesive front line, because his numbers could be even better. Not that statistics result in victories, but the former Cal star is first in the NFL with a 110.4 rating, sixth with 14 touchdown passes, seventh in both passing yards and yards per game (284.1), and is one of only five quarterbacks with two interceptions or less. Rodgers has recorded a passer rating of 100 or better in five straight weeks, and owns eight TD passes to one pick over the past three weeks. The NFC's Offensive Player of the Month for October, Rodgers hopes to be at full strength after battling toe and foot problems. The Packers are ninth overall in passing this season and have a trio of talented receivers on the roster, starting with Donald Driver (33 receptions, 542 yards, 3 TD). Driver is the franchise's all-time leader in receptions and has caught a pass in 118 straight games, another club record. His 10 catches of 20-plus yards this season is tied for the NFL lead. Greg Jennings (29 receptions, 2 TDs) is second on the team in receptions and yards and is starting to heat up after a few weeks of anonymity. Tight ends Jermichael Finley (17 receptions, 1 TD) and Spencer Havner (6 receptions, 3 TD) serve as other options for Green Bay. Finley missed the Minnesota game with a knee sprain, but is expected to return Sunday.
The Bucs will try to penetrate Green Bay's dysfunctional front line to pressure Rodgers before he lights up the secondary. Tampa Bay is the middle of the pack in pass defense, allowing 214.0 yards per game, but was scorched by Tom Brady and the Patriots in London, as the All-Pro quarterback passed for 308 yards with three touchdown strikes and a pair of interceptions. Cornerback Aqib Talib (25 tackles, 4 INT) suffered an ankle injury during a recent practice, but it shouldn't be significant enough to keep him out of this game. Talib leads the squad with four picks over his last four games. Tampa Bay hopes Talib will be in the lineup to shut down Driver, Jennings and whomever is going to play tight end for Green Bay. Talib and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber (29 tackles, 1 sack) are a talented duo in this league, while safeties Sabby Piscitelli (42 tackles, 1 INT) and Tanard Jackson (17 tackles, 2 INT) can make plays as well. Jackson has played the past three weeks after missing the first four games of the season. He owns an interception in each of the last two games.
Packers running back Ryan Grant (525 rushing yards, 3 TD) has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark just once this season, and was held to only 30 yards on 10 carries in the Minnesota game. It's difficult to imagine why Grant has been slowed this season, with defenses coming in ready for an aerial assault by Rodgers. Grant has one touchdown run in the last five weeks for a Green Bay ground attack rated 16th in the league with an average of 114 yards per game. The 6-1, 226-pound Grant should have a better showing this week against a less-than-stellar Tampa Bay stop unit. McCarthy knows that the bread and butter of his offense is in the hands of Rodgers, but if Grant can establish an early attack, Green Bay will be in the driver's seat. Grant, though, must make better reads and cuts in order to avoid running into his own blockers. Former Packer great and current backup to Grant, Ahman Green, made his second debut with the team last week by running for only a yard on two carries. He was added to the roster a few weeks back. Rodgers is second on the team in rushing with 188 yards and a touchdown on 29 scrambles.
Bucs sack master and defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson (31 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and fellow lineman Stylez White (21 tackles, 1.5 sacks) combined for 12 tackles and a sack against the Patriots and hope to force Rodgers in handing the ball off due to immense pressure. The Bucs are only 30th against the rush this season, so they should expect McCarthy to try and expose that weakness. The defense did a good job against New England, holding the Pats to 107 rushing yards. Linebackers Barrett Ruud (64 tackles, 1 INT), Geno Hayes (40 tackles) and Quincy Black (34 tackles, 1 sack) have started every game and will assist the front line in case of any breakdowns. The corps shouldn't have too much trouble with the struggling Grant in the Green Bay backfield.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman is lucky not to be playing this matchup at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, because the environment would be a hostile one. But he said this week that he is excited and ready for the upcoming challenge, regardless of the fact he has only experienced mop-up duty. Freeman has had enough time to prepare with the bye week having just passed, and Morris is ready to unleash the possible future of the franchise. Freeman may cause problems right away, with teams having a lack of film on him besides the preseason, where many teams roll out the playbook in exhibition games. That's what training camp and practices are all about. Freeman, who threw for 238 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions in the preseason, will have his ups and downs on Sunday, despite being an unknown factor in this matchup. Usually rookie quarterbacks fail in their debuts, and this could be the same story. Tampa Bay is 23rd in passing yards per game (174.3) and struggled using two different quarterbacks in Byron Leftwich and Johnson. Tight end Kellen Winslow (31 receptions, 4 TDs) has been one of the Bucs' lone bright spots and ranks third among players at his position with 245 catches since 2006. Wide receivers Antonio Bryant (16 receptions, 2 TD) and rookie Sammy Stroughter (16 receptions) are the Bucs' best deep threats and speedsters.
The Packers surely had to break out some preseason film on Freeman in their preparation for this week's matchup against the rookie. Freeman will have the home crowd on his side and will face a Green Bay defense that surrendered 244 yards and four touchdowns to Favre last week. Green Bay is ninth overall in pass defense, but has allowed 30 or more points three times this season. Winslow, Bryant and Clayton are big-play threats and could do some serious damage with their rookie quarterback. Packers safety Derrick Martin (14 tackles) has been limited in practice because of a concussion, while Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson (29 tackles, 4 INT) was held out of Wednesday's session due to a hip problem. Cornerback Al Harris (26 tackles, 2 INT) and the rest of the secondary need to come up with some interceptions after Favre was spot-free on Sunday. New defensive coordinator Dom Capers's unit is allowing an average of 283.4 yards per contest, ranking behind only Denver (266.7), the New York Jets (273.4) and the New York Giants (278.1). The Pack's 17 takeaways is tied for the fourth-highest total in the league, while 11 have come by interception.
While the Tampa offensive line will be busy worrying about protecting Freeman, running back Cadillac Williams (305 rushing yards, 2 TD) hopes to see a lot of holes on Sunday. Williams has toted the ball 10 or more times in four straight weeks and is coming off a 12-carry, 34-yard performance versus the Patriots. In a rare note for Williams, the Bucs are 10-0 when he touches the ball 22 times or more. That will most likely not happen, with Derrick Ward (183 rushing yards, 1 TD) eating a percentage of the workload. Green Bay's front line is a tough group, so it's important the Buccaneers try to establish the ground attack early to take some of the pressure off Freeman. Bucs guard Jeremy Zuttah is battling a shoulder injury, but should be ready to go on Sunday. Backup running back Clifton Smith suffered a concussion on an illegal hit by Carolina's Dante Wesley during an attempt to field a punt in Week 6, but returned to practice this week.
Green Bay has been playing well against the run this season and held Vikings All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson to under 100 yards last week. Capers' run defense has received a huge lift from linemen Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Johnny Jolly (24 tackles, 1 INT), as the two will be ready to give Freeman a rude awakening in his first NFL start. Jenkins has been loving his new spot in the new 3-4 scheme and leads the revamped defense in sacks. The athletic Jolly is on pace to set a career-high in tackles. Linebacker Brandon Chillar (36 tackles, 1 sack) has taken some time away from A.J. Hawk (35 tackles) this season, but is expected to miss Sunday's game with a hand injury. Hawk is slated to take the majority of the reps in both the base and nickel defense. Leading tackler Nick Barnett (46 tackles, 1 sack) had nine stops in the loss versus Minnesota. Linebacker Clay Matthews (20 tackles, 3 sacks) is enjoying a strong rookie campaign and will have a chance to make an impact in Sunday's game.
If Rodgers can shake his foot problems, he should have another fine fantasy output for owners. Driver and Jennings are always solid choices every week even though the latter hasn't been his dominant self. Havner has scored in back-to-back games, so give him a shot this week to see if his streak continues. The Packers defense will be without Chillar, but that shouldn't turn owners away from using the improved squad. Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby is one of the best in the business and should collect at least six-to-nine points on Sunday.
Tampa Bay doesn't have much except Winslow, Bryant and Williams. Freeman isn't a wise choice Sunday, because Morris will most likely limit the rookie in his first NFL start. Give Ward a shot, since he will spell Williams at times.
Green Bay's biggest concern this week is the offensive line and whether it has made the proper adjustments for the protection of Rodgers. The quarterback is getting used to the pressure by now, but his numbers have been strong despite the turmoil in the pocket. The Packers will be out for a measure of revenge, since the Bucs have won the last two matchups between these two old NFC Central foes. Tampa Bay must be prepared for Capers' defense, which will surely have its ears pinned back with hopes of making Freeman's first NFL start a memorable one for all of the wrong reasons.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Buccaneers 13
11/05 18:30:00 ET