NFL

NFL Conference Championships: Questions for Packers-Bucs, Chiefs-Bills

1 – Can the Packers’ pass rush show up again, thwart Tom Brady?

One of the biggest surprises of the divisional round was the ferocity with which the Green Bay Packers got after Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff. It shouldn’t be shocking given the money Green Bay doled out to pass rushers over the past few years and the success players like Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith enjoyed in 2019. However, this unit underperformed this season.

The Packers posted a pressure rate of 20.9 percent in 2020, the seventh-worst mark among NFL defenses. Only one team lower than them (the Tennessee Titans) made the postseason. The 2019 Packers had three players with six-plus sacks. The 2020 Packers had just one (Za’Darius Smith).

Despite Andrew Whitworth being in the lineup, Green Bay terrorized the Rams’ line last week. Goff was under pressure on 40.6 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and was dropped for four sacks. He registered a 78.5 passer rating when he got the ball off under duress.

It’s a tried and true NFL trope: The best way to beat Tom Brady is to put pressure on him with your front-four.

The Packers can slam the door shut on any frisky Buccaneers upset with a pristine outing by Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Rashan Gary and all the other guys up front.

The Packers’ pass rush can ruin this game in a hurry for Tom Brady. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Brady managed a meager 54.5 passer rating when under pressure during the regular season. That ranked 21st out of 29 quarterbacks to play at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps (PFF). His 43.8 percent completion rate ranked even lower. Last week, he completed just one of his six attempts under pressure. The problem was New Orleans couldn’t manage anything close to the level of heat the Saints got on Brady when they last met in Week 9.

Brady’s arm is still quite good. At 43 years old, the weakest point of his game is, not surprisingly, how he handles bodies around him messing with his platform.

The Packers have a shutdown corner in Jaire Alexander but plenty of questions marks after him in pass defense. On any given play, two of the three receivers in Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Mike Evans can be schemed into favorable matchups. That’s not even to mention players like Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson, who answered the call last week.

The Packers can’t contain all of those guys. No defense in the NFL can for 60 minutes.

The key for the Packers is the same as it is for anyone who lines up across from Brady’s Bucs. Don’t let it get to that point. Take the receivers out of the equation by disrupting the play before the ball gets out.

The Packers need their pass rush to show up once again.

2 – Will the Buccaneers continue to lean on the run early?

Given that Tampa Bay boasts a corps comprised of three true No. 1 wide receivers (and Tom Brady under center), it’s been odd to see the Bucs roll out such a run-heavy operation.

Through two postseason games, Tampa Bay has called a running play on early downs (first and second) 53 percent of the time. Only the Rams are higher at 54 percent. The league average was 46 percent in the regular season. The Bucs’ success rate is at 57 percent and their 4.4 yards per carry is right around the league average.

It hasn’t kept them from winning. But this might be a smart way to come out of the gates against the Packers. We know Mike Pettine’s defense has basically invited opponents to run through it all season. Even last week, the Rams ran the ball well with rookie Cam Akers, who averaged 5 yards per rush on his 18 carries. It helped Los Angeles keep the game reasonably close, 19-10 going into the half.

The problem, of course, was that Aaron Rodgers and Co. were always going to break open the dam at some point. And when that happened, the Rams had no juice in the passing game to trade blows with the Packers.

Tampa Bay doesn’t have that issue. When its passing offense clicks, it can hang 30-plus points in an afternoon.

So don’t be surprised when the Bucs come out with a heavy dose of Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones early in this game. It doesn’t matter how you feel about a team’s run/pass ratio on early downs. Given the weather in Green Bay and the weakness in Pettine’s ground stop unit, look for Tampa to pound the rock right out of the gate. The run game can slice through this defense and keep Rodgers off the field.

The key for Tampa Bay won’t be how its starts — it’ll be how the Buccaneers finish.

The stubbornly old school Bruce Arians must know when to abandon this running game. While Fournette and Jones can help keep the game in the Bucs’ favor early, they won’t be the reason they win this contest. If they’re going to pull off the upset, it’ll be because Arians pulled the plug on his running backs at the right moment and let Brady go to work outdueling one of the most efficient offenses in recent memory.

3 – Do the Bucs have any hope of stopping Davante Adams?

Tampa Bay completed an impressive shutout of New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas. The Saints star was held without a catch and rarely found open space against the Bucs’ physical coverage.

I don’t think that should factor in one bit when deciding whether the Bucs can do what almost no one has this NFL season: Contain Davante Adams.

For starters, Thomas isn’t healthy. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Thomas hasn’t been close to right all season but stuck it out because it appeared to be Drew Brees’ final run.

Secondly, Adams is a better player than Thomas. That seems easy to say now but I would have provided the same analysis if you had asked me to rank them 365 days ago, when Thomas was coming off his record-breaking 2019 campaign.

More relevant to this game is that the Bucs can’t possibly hope to employ the same plan to stopping Adams as they did with a sub-100 percent Thomas. The same brand of on-the-line, physical coverage deployed last week is precisely the type of plan Adams routinely shreds. He’s perhaps the best wide receiver at releasing off the line in the NFL today. We just watched him win against Jalen Ramsey last week.

There’s almost no one who can individually shut out a receiver that separates at the level Adams does. He’s going to get his against any corner, even if the ball doesn’t come his way.

The only hope the Bucs have in preventing a big game from Adams is to beat his quarterback. Tampa Bay did that in its last meeting, when it forced Aaron Rodgers to throw two interceptions against its blitz packages. Rodgers normally shreds the blitz but he didn’t that afternoon.

It’ll be hard for Tampa Bay to repeat that performance against Rodgers. The MVP-elect is hard to topple twice in one season. Also, sending extra resources to put heat on Rodgers would leave less coverage on the back end.

That’s problematic because not only have more players like Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan emerged as near-weekly contributors, Adams is 100 percent healthy for this game. The Packers’ Week 6 loss to the Bucs was Adams’ first game back following a two-week injury absence.

The Bucs can win this game, but if they do, it’ll be because they win a high-scoring back-and-forth game with Rodgers, not pitch a defensive shutout.

4 – Can Buffalo win without their offense playing at an A+ level?

Buffalo has accomplished what only truly great and fortunate NFL teams do: Win two playoff games while not playing their best football … yet.

The defense had its moments, especially late in the season, with its demolishing of the Ravens being a shining example. But it hasn’t been the type of stop unit we’re used to under head coach Sean McDermott. Buffalo’s offense has long since given up on feigning to care about establishing a rushing attack. The Bills’ strength all season is their passing game.

Josh Allen certainly wasn’t on fire against the Ravens last week, either. There’s no shame in that, as Baltimore features a strong defense when healthy. Allen did just enough to get the ball to Stefon Diggs for over 100 yards and move the offense on a few key drives. But the defense won that day.

The week prior saw Allen closer to peak form. He posted a 10.4 adjusted yards per attempt and tacked on 54 yards and a score as a rusher. His only real sin was a fumble late in the game on a huge sack that he was lucky the Bills recovered. That was an avoided disaster and the only reason you’d give him an A- for that game. The defense, on the other hand, was shredded for long drives by the Colts and was especially poor at slowing Indy’s tight ends.

If Patrick Mahomes, even a sub-100 percent version of the former MVP, takes the field Sunday, the Bills will need the peak version of Allen.

Make no mistake, that type of outing from the 2020 iteration of Allen is enough to go toe-to-toe with the Chiefs. If Aaron Rodgers didn’t exist, we’d probably be handing the MVP award to the third-year passer.

If the peak version of Allen shows up Sunday, the margin for error increases on the defensive side for Buffalo. At that point, you won’t have to ask this unit to deliver the A+ game it pitched against Baltimore. Frankly, it’s unfair to ask any group for that level of domination against Kansas City.

An A+ game from Allen means Buffalo needs its defense to deliver a C+ to B- outing. Perhaps this grading scale is confusing so let’s put it into football terms.

No one expects the Bills to shut down Kansas City. You can’t expect a group that was just shredded by the likes of Jack Doyle two weeks ago to hang with Travis Kelce for 60 minutes. You can’t ask a defense to contend with Tyreek Hill lined up as a slot receiver all day and not allow a handful of big plays.

No one escapes a date with Mahomes and comes away without ceding a few “Wow!” moments.

What we can ask out of Buffalo’s stop unit is to screw up Kansas City’s script on two to three drives. Force a mistake. Cause a turnover. End a drive before the Chiefs cross into Bills territory. If the Bills’ defense can come up with a B- game against Mahomes, the A+ level of Allen we’ve seen is absolutely good enough to punch Buffalo’s ticket to the Super Bowl.

5 – Will the Chiefs get another big week out of their ancillary threats?

For the most part, the 2020 Chiefs offense has been about the Big Three. When the team is hot it’s because Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are doing special things. As good as this scoring unit is, rarely have the Chiefs gotten crucial contributions from their ancillary players.

That was not the case last week. The guys on the fringes were critical for Kansas City surviving Cleveland.

The backfield has been a place of mystery for the Chiefs all season. It has been a long time — coincidentally, since Week 6 against this Bills team — that the Chiefs have had one feature back run the show. That was back before Clyde Edwards-Helaire got thrown into a committee with the declining Le’Veon Bell.

In the divisional round, neither of those players shined for the Chiefs. Darrel Williams stole the show with Edwards-Helaire still on the shelf and Bell recording just two touches. Williams played on almost 80 percent of the snaps, ran 27 routes and recorded 94 yards from scrimmage. He got the run game going with his own individual efforts, averaging 3.8 yards after contact per rush.

When you look at the stat sheet, four catches for 58 yards out of Mecole Hardman probably doesn’t jump out as a huge impact. Hardman ran the same amount of routes as Hill last week but played a different role.

While Hill was a priority as the downfield guy, Hardman actually averaged -2.3 air yards per target. He gained 16.8 yards after the catch per reception. He was critical in taking the layups for big yardage. Even more than that, Hardman’s usage as a piece of pre-snap motion was huge in getting the Browns to declare their coverages, allowing the Chiefs to strike some extra fear.

On Sunday, the Chiefs are likely to welcome back Edwards-Helaire and Sammy Watkins, additional options on the fringes in addition to a pair of guys who proved themselves last game.

If Mahomes is compromised, these players will only matter that much more to Kansas City.

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