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Packers' running game will be put to the test by stingy Buccaneers defense


Jim Owczarski   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Rakeem Nunez-Roches didn’t mince words – the Green Bay Packers will be the best team his Tampa Bay Buccaneers have faced through the first six games of their season, and a true measuring stick for a team with its own Super Bowl aspirations.

“Correct. Correct,” the Buccaneers’ nose tackle said. “‘Cause the one thing you can commend to the Packers: They’re flawless. They don’t make many mistakes. Aaron Rodgers, he does his job – no picks. So, it’s a lot of things that we have to hone in and we have to play mistake-free football. It can’t be Bucs beating Bucs.”

Because for Tampa Bay defenders, they feel that in one area they aren’t going to be beaten Sunday: the run game.

“It's just the willpower,” Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said. “With this defense, I don't think anybody can run on us. We take too much pride in letting the team come up here and just try to run on us and try to get it going – as well as the passing, too.”

That isn’t arrogance.

Not when the Packers head to Florida to face the National Football League’s No. 1 rushing defense, a title the Buccaneers have carried over from the 2019 season. Tampa Bay is also No. 1 in fewest rushing yards per attempt, at 2.7 yards per carry. They wore that crown a year ago, also (3.3).

“They have a good scheme, they know how to disrupt the run game, cluster the run game, suffocate it so to speak and then I think they have good personnel,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “They’ve got good guys in good places that know how to stall the run, make it slow on the combinations, disguise certain blitzes and pressures and then have a couple key pieces that can not only disrupt the run but then get after the running back.”

Green Bay heads in with the league’s fifth-ranked rushing offense and is fifth in yards per attempt (5.1), despite seeing its team rush totals drop from a high of 259 yards against Detroit to 98 in New Orleans and 88 against Atlanta. The Packers are good at it, but they are also committed – they rank ninth in rush percentage (45.6%).

It creates a strength-on-strength scenario Packers head coach and play-caller Matt LaFleur will have to navigate.

“Certainly you’re always going to try to look to scheme whatever you can to get an advantage, whether it’s in the run game or the pass game,” LaFleur said. “A lot of it is totally dependent in terms of whether or not we run or throw. In game, it’s just kind of the flow of the game, how are you doing and what the defense is trying to take away because I do think, although the Tampa Bay defense has done an outstanding job, if you’re selling out on the run there should be opportunity in the pass and vice versa. If you’re defending the pass well, there should be opportunity in the run game. It’s just kind of, I guess, more or less a feel thing that you get in game and you just always have to be ready to adjust as well.”

Adjustments will be key, because when it comes to the Packers' rush offense and the Tampa Bay rush defense even the minute elements of the run game prove to be very evenly matched.

On first-and-10, the Packers have run it 60 times and average a healthy 6.82 yards per attempt. They’ve also run for a first down 13 times on that first play of a series.

On first-and-10, the Buccaneers allow only 2.27 yards per attempt on 56 opponent rushes, and have allowed no runs of 10-plus yards.

Running off the left end, the Packers are No. 2 in the NFL at 6.83 yards per rush. They are No. 2 up the middle (7.08), No. 6 off left guard (5.08) and No. 10 off left tackle (5.44).

Defending off the left end, the Buccaneers are No. 1 in the NFL allowing 1.10 yards per rush. They are No. 8 up the middle (3.41), No. 5 off left guard (2.50) and No. 1 off left tackle (0.45).

Even the analytics line up with fascinating head-to-head matchups.

Sports Info Solutions (SIS) notes Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley have not blown a run block, nor have right tackles Billy Turner or Rick Wagner. Lucas Patrick has blown two and Elgton Jenkins has blown three.

For Tampa Bay, inside linebacker Devin White, the No. 5 overall pick in 2019, has had six tackles either missed or broken. All-Pro inside linebacker Lavonte David has four. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shaq Barrett has two, All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has one and All-Pro outside linebacker/defensive end Pierre-Paul and defensive lineman William Gholston have none.

All reach their target within four yards of the line of scrimmage, with Pierre-Paul earning a tackle depth of just 0.3 yards from the line of scrimmage.

“They have a good front seven,” Bakhtiari said. “They’re confident in their scheme because they know their scheme in and out and it shows because they’re all on the same page a lot of time. Again, yeah, this is going to be a good test I think for both ends on Sunday and I’m excited about the opportunity.”

According to Football Outsiders, the Packers come in No. 5 in the NFL with 1.25 average open field yards per rush, which is yards gained after the first 10 yards of a run. Tampa Bay? The Bucs are No. 1 with a stout 0.0 open field yards allowed.

For second-level yards, or the average gained 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, the Packers are No. 3 with a 1.42 average. The Buccaneers are No. 1 with just 0.51 yards allowed.

The one relative unknown, however, is how Nunez-Roches plays in the interior of the Buccaneers’ defensive line. Vita Vea, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 347-pound nose tackle, was lost for the year to injury against Chicago.

"I'm very comfortable with him being there and I know Lavonte (David) is very comfortable playing behind him because he comes in the games to spell Vita a lot,” White said. “We're just going to keep this thing rolling. Hopefully people run the ball against us – well, at least try to run the ball against us – because me and Lavonte need to make some plays."

Individually, Packers running back Aaron Jones comes into the game tied for fifth in the NFL in rushing (374 yards) on just 65 attempts. His 5.8 yards per rush is tied for fifth also and fourth among running backs. Jamaal Williams has rushed 29 times for 108 yards while AJ Dillon (8-34) and Tyler Ervin (4-43) have also carried. It’s a group the Buccaneers are itching to line up against.

“That just lets you know how much they value their running backs,” White said. "I just know my body is ready and my mindset is ready to go make plays. I'm not really worried about how much he does. I'm starting to think about what teams have got to do to do great things on the Tampa Bay defense. That's how I'm starting to take the approach.

“I know it's kind of a cocky approach, but I feel like we deserve it. I feel like we're playing good ball and I feel like we're steadily getting better."

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