NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (4-5) at Green Bay (9-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Lost in all of the MVP hype surrounding Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the defense, or lack there of.
The Packers were allowing 33 points over the previous two games before an emotionally-charged 45-7 romp of Minnesota Monday night. Veteran cornerback and former Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson said change had to be made and defensive coordinator Dom Capers obliged by turning it up a notch and getting the unit back to its intimidating manner.
It worked against the lowly Vikings and Capers' unit will shoot for an encore performance Sunday versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field. One aspect Woodson deemed necessary was unleashing Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews on Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. Woodson wanted to get his teammate back to his 2010 Defensive Player of the Year status by rushing the quarterback more often.
It worked to the tune of two sacks and a forced fumble, making Woodson a happy man following the team's first 9-0 start since opening the 1962 championship season with 10 straight victories.
"When the Claymaker is happy, we're all happy," Woodson said. "We were mad. We were mad about the way we've been performing. Not holding up our end of the bargain. The way our offense has been playing and carrying this team, we want to be a part of that too. We don't want it to just be one-sided."
The unselfishness of Woodson has resonated deep within the organization, which rode his spirit to a Super Bowl title last season. Woodson unfortunately broke his collarbone in the historic win over Pittsburgh and now he's full of vim and vigor physically and vocally. Teammate and nose tackle B.J. Raji doesn't mind the criticism and said the Packers are still the defending champions. Raji's right, but it does take two to tango when it comes to both sides gelling for the stretch run.
Speaking of stretches, the Packers extended their winning streak to 15 straight games dating back to last year's postseason surge. They are off to just the fourth 9-0 start in franchise annals (1929, 1931, 1962, 2011) and the much-discussed offense has scored at least 24 points in every game this season. Green Bay is 4-0 at home this season and is riding a nine-game winning streak at Lambeau Field.
The last time Green Bay suffered a setback at Lambeau Field was a 23-20 overtime loss versus Miami on Oct. 17, 2010. It will hit the road for two games against the Lions and Giants after Sunday's bout with the Bucs.
It appeared Tampa Bay was set to make a big push after winning three straight and four of five games, but things have turned ugly for the Buccaneers with three straight losses for a 4-5 record.
One of the lowest scoring teams in the league, Tampa Bay is averaging 14 points per game during its current losing streak and suffered an embarrassing 37-9 home loss versus Houston on Sunday. The Bucs were down, 16-3, at halftime and couldn't find a way to stop the big play. That's not a promising sign for a defense that has to face the NFL's most potent offense in the Packers.
"We need to come back and have a great week of practice and get a win on the road next week," Bucs safety Sean Jones said. "I feel like we didn't come out and compete, and it was embarrassing. This team has a lot of heart and we're going to come back."
Center Jeff Faine agreed with his teammates sentiments and added that the team has a "huge" challenge ahead with the Packers. Focusing on the basics, playing with more discipline and cleaning up mistakes were some of the areas of concern for Faine heading into this week's matchup. Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said Faine was one of a few veterans who entered his office looking for a solution to the team's current slump, and was happy to see his leaders searching for answers instead of complaining.
Practicing with pads this week is one way Morris is trying to get that "physical brand" back into his players. How well a team practices in the week is a measuring stick for what to expect on Sunday's and the Bucs will get a few more hours of heavy hitting in to prepare for the Packers.
"This is the best time for the Green Bay Packers ... for us to go play those guys," Morris said during his day after press conference. "We've got the best team in the National Football League lined up on deck, ready to deal. And I got a chance to go upstairs and get a rebound."
Morris added that he would like to make the media love him again after this week. If the Bucs can knock off the hottest team in the league on the road, there will be more than just the media falling head over heels for Morris.
Green Bay holds a 29-21-1 lead in its overall regular-season series with Tampa Bay but has lost three consecutive times to the Buccaneers since a 20-13 win at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 16, 2003. Tampa Bay hasn't visited Lambeau Field since 2005, when the Bucs halted a string of 11 consecutive defeats at the historic venue by edging the Packers by a 17-16 count, and also topped Green Bay at home in both 2008 (30-21) and 2009 (38-28). That most recent meeting marked the first career NFL start for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. Tampa Bay is just 5-15 all-time at Lambeau Field.
The Packers' 21-7 home win in a 1997 NFC Divisional Playoff marks the only postseason matchup between the teams, who faced one another twice yearly as co-members of the NFC Central from 1978-2001.
Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 0-2 against the Buccaneers as a head coach, while Morris won his only previous clash with both the Packers and McCarthy with the Bucs' 2009 triumph.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Morris said the wide receivers need to compete for balls and help Freeman in the passing game. There needs to be more physical awareness and competition in practice between the wideouts, according to Morris. Taking a page out of Olivia Newton John's book could work in Tampa Bay's favor and help the 15th- rated pass attack get back in gear. Freeman (2,174 yards, 9 TD, 13 INT) has thrown seven interceptions to four touchdown passes during the three-game losing streak and still believes he's having a better year than last regardless of the numbers. Whether it's a case of denial, Freeman must do better with what he has and right now Mike Williams, Preston Parker and Kellen Winslow haven't done much lately to bail their quarterback out. Williams (406 yards, TD) hasn't sniffed the end zone since Week 1 and is going through a tremendous sophomore slump. He has a team-best 39 catches. Winslow (344 yards, 2 TD) is second with 38 receptions for the Bucs, who are 16th in total yards with 331.0 per game. Parker (383 yards) leads the team with three TD catches. LeGarrette Blount (434 yards, 3 TD) heads the 25th rushing attack and hasn't scored since a Week 4 win over Indianapolis.
The Packers can count on the Bucs trying to expose their 31st-rated pass defense and allowed 162 yards through the air to the Vikings. Before Freeman can get comfortable in the pocket, Capers will most likely keep the same gameplan as last week and send more guys up the middle, including Matthews (28 tackles, 5 sacks), who recorded 13.5 sacks a year ago. Linebacker Desmond Bishop (84 tackles, 5 sacks) leads the team in stops and is tied with Matthews for the team lead in sacks. Bishop posted one in the win over Minnesota against a mobile Ponder, and should have an easier time getting to the slow- footed Freeman on Sunday. A.J. Hawk (48 tackles, 2 sacks) is another stud linebacker for Green Bay, which is 28th in the NFL in yards allowed, giving up 384.8 per game. Interceptions have been easy to come by for the Packers and Freeman has thrown a lot of those lately. Woodson (42 tackles) leads the secondary with five, while safety Charlie Peprah (44 tackles) is second with four and free safety Morgan Burnett (57 tackles) has two picks. Cornerbacks Sam Shields (27 tackles) and Tramon Williams (27 tackles) each have two INT.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers is playing out of this world right now and is on pace to threaten Tom Brady's single-season touchdown mark of 50 set back in 2007. Rodgers (2,869 yards, 28 TD, 3 INT) is first in the NFL in quarterback rating (130.7), touchdown passes and completion percentage (72.9), and has thrown four TD passes in each of his last two games. He has tossed no less than two TD strikes in each game and is the first player in league history to record a rating of 110 or better in nine straight games in a single season for the Packers, who are first with 35.6 points per game, third with 306.9 passing yards per game and fourth with 409.7 yards a contest. Rodgers hasn't been picked off in three straight weeks, but hasn't hit the 300-yard passing mark in back-to-back outings. It will be a short week after dismantling Minnesota with the second 45-point performance in as many games. Greg Jennings (755 yards, 7 TD) and Jordy Nelson (633 yards, 7 TD) are Green Bay's deep threats and can spread the field, opening the underneath for tight end Jermichael Finley (445 yards, 5 TD). James Starks (503 yards, TD) could use a boost in the Packers' 21st-ranked ground game and may get one against Tampa's meager run defense. Starks is averaging 68 rushing yards over the past three weeks.
The Buccaneers could be in for a long afternoon if they fail to prepare for this week's showdown between old foes. The Packers have one of the top offenses the league has seen in years, while Tampa Bay's defense hasn't been as sharp as Morris and the rest of the coaching staff would like. Cornerback Ronde Barber (45 tackles, 2 INT) is a vocal leader and was praised by Morris for his passion in trying to figure out what's going wrong. Barber has a busy day ahead of him against Green Bay's playmakers, starting with Jennings, Nelson and Finley. Aqib Talib (28 tackles, INT) plays the opposite side of Barber on the left and is in for a big day as well. Texans QB Matt Schaub was able to pass for 242 yards and two scores last week on an injured foot and Rodgers enters this game with a clean bill of health. Bucs defensive end George Johnson (2 tackles) suffered a knee injury Sunday and did not return, forcing the team to bring back DT John McCargo, who was cut when Albert Haynesworth signed last week. Haynesworth made five stops in his debut for Tampa, which is 28th against the pass, 29th in rush defense and 31st in yards allowed (401.2). Morris enjoyed Haynesworth's energy and said he was a spark to the defensive line. He'll need him to apply pressure again this week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Nothing beats playing in your own backyard. The Packers have averaged a league-best 40.0 points per game at home this season and are off to their first 4-0 start at home since 2002, when they went 8-0 at Lambeau. One of only three teams with an unblemished record as the host, Green Bay has an excellent shot at continuing that trend with a shaky Bucs on the docket.
Will Morris' padded practices pay off against the Packers? Who knows, but it's a great way to get back to basics and work on consistency. Freeman said he had trouble executing against Houston's man coverage and will prepare each week the same regardless of who's next on the schedule. He may not want to overlook a Packers team that can jump out to a double-digit lead in minutes.
The odds of the Buccaneers coming out on top are stacked against them. They won their last visit to Lambeau Field in 2005, snapping a 13-game road losing streak. Tampa Bay's last win prior to that monumental victory was in 1989.
The Packers are due for a clunker and prognosticators could predict that will happen Sunday with a Thanksgiving showdown against Detroit on the horizon. However, McCarthy has prepared his team well for any circumstance and will match the 1962 squad's 10-0 start with a convincing win over a Buccaneers team in shambles. Predicting another strong performance from Rodgers is too easy and it's time for someone else to step up in his place. Starks has yet to have a breakout game since last year's playoff run and getting him started early will be key to Green Bay's success. The Bucs will hang around for some time until one of the Packers' defenders puts a stop to it.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Buccaneers 17
11/17 15:37:51 ET