Buccaneers aside, before the Packers dropped their season opener this year to a division rival, they dropped their season opener last year in a lopsided loss to the New Orleans Saints that was played in Raymond James Stadium due to inclement weather in New Orleans. The score was 38-3.
Then there’s Rodgers’ record against Tampa Bay since the arrival of one Todd Robert Bowles. As defensive coordinator of the Bucs, Bowles put on a clinic against Rodgers and the Packers. Both games were in the 2020 season — one in the regular season, one in the postseason, with the latter stinging infinitely more. Rodgers was intercepted in the game. He was sacked five times. And he suffered defeat in yet another NFC Championship game.
He, predictably, holds Bowles in high regard.
“I think Todd Bowles has done a good job of [disguising things] over the years,” Rodgers told Barstool Sports. “I think he’s a really good coach. You can always tell, schematically, what coaches are the best based on how the league adjusts.”
He went on to explain what we all know: This is a copycat league. Teams saw Atlanta reach the Super Bowl under the tutelage of then-offensive-coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2017. He took his offense to San Francisco and in Rodgers’ words, now about nine teams are running that style of offense — including the Packers. The same goes for defense, but Bowles deviates from the norm and instead deploys something mostly his own. It follows the same concepts Mike Zimmer’s defenses did in Minnesota. Those groups always gave Rodgers trouble, and the significance of the teams’ rivalry amplified things.
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Bowles has been more successful against Rodgers than any other coach can claim to be. In the two meetings between Rodgers and a Bowles-led defense in Tampa, Rodgers has spent a lot of time on the ground. He’s been sacked nine times in two games, including the aforementioned five times in the 2020 NFC Championship that earned the Bucs a trip to the Super Bowl.
In Week 6 of the 2020 season, with the Packers playing in Tampa, Rodgers not only was sacked four times but he was picked off twice, including just the third pick-six of his career thanks to Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean. Rodgers posted the third-lowest passer rating of his career at just 35.4.
Dean kept that ball, of course. He’s still waiting for Rodgers to sign it.
But what is it that makes Bowles’ defenses so effective against Rodgers? What does he know that seemingly the rest of the league doesn’t?
Honestly, even he doesn’t seem to have an answer.
“I wish I actually knew that and I could use it every time, but I do not know,” he said. “We covered long enough for the guys to get some pressure, but you never, ever stop him. He may have an off day or the line may let something through but it’s never him. He’s probably one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve ever played against. I have a respect for him because with him, they’re always in every ball game and you can’t say that about everybody in the league.”
The real answer likely lies somewhere in the fact that there’s an element of surprise with Bowles’ defenses every time you see them. They don’t look or behave the same each time. It’s hard to pick up on any sort of tendencies or patterns.
“They always kind of look similar as far as the front is going to change, the pressure is going to change,” Rodgers said Wednesday, dryly. “The looks are going to be — there’s a lot of different things they throw at you. But they’re always adapting their personnel.”
They’ll also use their personnel in different ways.
Why yes, that is safety Jordan Whitehead lined up in the 0-technique as a nose tackle. What on God’s green earth do you expect as an offensive lineman if you see that? Bowles’ defenses create confusion — nay, chaos — and if it can’t throw Rodgers off, it’ll at least throw off the players around him.
But make no mistake, the Packers offense, led by Rodgers, can give that confusion right back.
“The way they feature and set up their offense is just a lot of moving parts,” defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said. “It really messes with your eye discipline. They get receivers going in motion, then a tight end flashing back. Then the play action and the linebackers get sucked up and somebody’s wide open. If they stay back then they hit them with a run. Their offense is ideally suited to [Rodgers’] skill set.”
In an interview with Tony Dungy on Sunday Night Football in the season opener, Bowles went so far as to say seeing Rodgers on the schedule is “scary.” He didn’t elaborate on exactly what he meant then, but he did now that he’s about to face him.
“When you have guys that can see the entire field and throw the ball from a bunch of angles and be just as accurate as if nobody was around them, that makes them very scary,” Bowles said. “Your entire team is on notice for four quarters. You can’t cheat one way or the other. You can’t fall asleep. They don’t give you a chance to take a break. And you don’t have a breather. You gotta just constantly be on it until the game is over because they always have the threat of coming back.”
If that wasn’t enough, Rodgers is also armed with a playcaller who knows him inside and out and is proactive in his own right.
“LaFleur does a good job of giving him the answers to the test,” Bowles said. “And by that I mean if it’s not the play that you see, and then you see this, check to that check. It’s like he always knows where his get out of jail free card is and a lot of quarterbacks don’t know that. They know that first option in their offense and that’s it. He knows his first, second, third and fourth option and can get rid of it that quickly. So that makes him very special.”
As prepared as Bowles will be for Aaron Rodgers come Sunday, it’s going to be up to the players to execute it. What do you tell them about a guy you just openly called “scary”?
“We expect him to make his plays,” Kacy Rodgers said. “If he makes a play, you just have to go to the next one and keep playing. Sixty minutes is a long time. Have a short memory.”
Rodgers comes to town with an offense that looks a bit different than what the Bucs have seen from the Packers in the past. Wide receiver Davante Adams is gone, and with him, a quarter of the team’s touchdowns last year. Green Bay had another slow start to the season, dropping their season opener to the Minnesota Vikings, but then bounced back emphatically last week against another division opponent in the Chicago Bears. They leaned heavily not on Rodgers’ arm, as they have in the past, but on the legs of both running backs A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones. The latter went off for 132 yards rushing and scored as both a runner and receiver. Dillon had 18 carries himself. The Packers may be figuring things out by getting the ground game more involved for now, but Rodgers’ arm won’t stay passive for long.
Facing one of the league’s notoriously stout rushing defenses this weekend in Tampa could force Rodgers to figure things out through the air sooner than he wanted. But the Bucs are still betting he’ll be okay no matter who is throwing the ball. And another chess match between Bowles and Rodgers will ensue.
“I think he is highly intelligent,” Bowles said. “He throws one of the prettiest fade balls. He has one of the quickest releases where it doesn’t even look like he’s tossing it. He can toss it. His knowledge of the game is one of the tops in the league, and if we weren’t playing him, I love watching him. That’s the truth.”
“Hats off to the guy. I’m tired of facing him, actually,” Bowles laughs, with a hint of exasperation. “You lose a lot more sleep facing him on the face than you do a lot of other quarterbacks.”
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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