The Packers Defense forced 3 Tom Brady interceptions in the second half of the NFC Championship Game. Unfortunately for Green Bay, too much damage had already been inflicted. The Buccaneers successfully went after Green Bay’s weaknesses in coverage, with the offensive line giving Brady the time to do so consistently. Combine that with some poor execution and decision-making by the Packers Defense, as well as some missed opportunities, and the results are something we’ve seen many times before: Another NFC Championship Game loss for the Packers and another Super Bowl appearance for that Brady guy.
Green Bay’s cornerbacks mostly align to the same side of the field. Their best cornerback, Jaire Alexander, primarily aligns to the left. When they play man coverage, their matchups are predominantly determined by whoever aligns to their side. This allows the Packers to disguise coverages better. However, it also allows opposing offenses to dictate the matchups that they want. This is exactly what the Buccaneers did for most of the afternoon, with Tom Brady targeting Green Bay’s weaker cornerbacks, Chandon Sullivan and Kevin King.
It started on the first 3rd down of the game. You can see the initial alignment below, with the matchups defined pre-snap.
Chris Godwin motioned across the formation. Alexander followed, and this created a man coverage indicator for Brady. Then he went after his best matchup, Mike Evans running a slot-fade against Chandon Sullivan.
That was a perfect throw by Brady.
On their next 3rd down, Brady again went after Sullivan. This time, he was matched up on Chris Godwin in the slot to the right.
That’s another great throw by Brady. At this point, it was already pretty clear that the Packers weren’t going to match up well with the Bucs.
On their next 3rd down, Brady was able to again find Mike Evans. Pre-snap, it wasn’t clear whether Sullivan or cornerback Kevin King would be taking Evans, aligned in the slot to the left. It didn’t matter. With Jaire Alexander on the other side of the field, Brady targeted Evans for the touchdown.
King mistimed his jump pretty severely there, which has to be frustrating because this was an under thrown ball that Evans had to slow down for. Had King not left his feet so early, he easily could have broken up that pass or maybe even picked it off.
There would be more misplays and missed opportunities in the first half by Green Bay’s defense. On this 3rd-and-9 in the second quarter, Brady threw up a pass that was basically a 50/50 ball. Chris Godwin came down with it over safety Darnell Savage.
One play later, the Buccaneers were back in the end zone.
The sequence at the end of the first half has to make Packers players and coaches absolutely sick. A somewhat forgotten play was this 3rd-down throw just two snaps earlier that should have been picked off.
You can’t give Brady second chances. After converting on 4th down, Tampa lined up with 8 seconds left and no timeouts. Then the unthinkable happened.
You’ll notice that the Packers were playing a soft man-free coverage here. It goes without saying that you can’t let any receivers get behind you in that situation. Kevin King at the top of the screen took too long to turn and run with his man, Scott Miller. King had a rough day all the way around (he also had trouble staying with receiver Tyler Johnson late in the 4th quarter, prompting the game-sealing pass interference call). Based on the way he was moving all day and the plays he gave up, it’s hard to imagine that his injured back wasn’t somewhat of a factor.
This play was on King, but you can certainly question the decision of Packers Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine not to play with more defenders aligned deep. It seemed like the Packers were caught in between defending a Hail Mary and wanting to keep the Bucs from picking up a few easy yards to kick a field goal. Either way, that just can’t happen.
One thing that enabled Brady to take advantage of the holes in Green Bay’s secondary was the protection. By and large, the Packers could not get to Brady. The Bucs created time for him to throw in multiple ways. First, they stuck with the ground game. While they didn’t run it with much success (76 yards on 24 carries), running the ball can help slow down the pass rush. It seemed to on Sunday. It also opened up the play-action passing game for Tampa, which created multiple plays like the one below.
Squeaky-clean pockets and wide-open receivers are no way to go through a game against Tom Brady.
From a protection standpoint, Tampa was ready for Green Bay’s blitzes and stunts up front. On that first 3rd-down completion to Mike Evans, focus on right guard Aaron Stinnie (#64) handling this inside stunt. Also notice running back Leonard Fournette (#28) going out to meet blitzing safety Adrian Amos (#31) instead of allowing for a collision near the quarterback.
Even on Brady’s interceptions (or at least on 2 of them), he had tons of time and space to throw. Watch Stinnie (#64) and right tackle Tristan Wirfs (#78) trade off this stunt on his second INT.
I’m showing the below play to highlight the Packers’ defensive approach. Green Bay’s blitzes and stunts had trouble getting home on Sunday. One reason was that some of their stunts were too slow to develop by design, like this one.
You’re not getting to Tom Brady with a stunt like that unless your coverage can force him to hold the ball. And Green Bay’s coverage was not forcing Brady to hold the ball. This was something we saw throughout most of the day. With the exception of one blitz that led to Brady’s 3rd interception, their pressure schemes were either ineffective and clunky in their execution or too slow to develop.
When it was all said and done, the Packers Defense had yet another disappointing playoff performance. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, are getting closer and closer to having their dream-team offense perform at absolute peak level. They’ll be a handful for the Chiefs Defense come Super Bowl Sunday.