3 things to watch Sunday vs. Tampa Bay
Aaron Rodgers hasn't had too many down performances during his seven years as the Green Bay Packers' starting quarterback. When he has, the Packers quarterback has responded the following week.
He's had nine games in his career where he's finished with less than a 75 passer rating. He's historically fared well in the next game with Rodgers completing 217-of-317 passes for 2,552 yards, 22 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 111.9 passer rating. He also hasn't lost in that scenario since his first year as a starter in 2008.
Rodgers was uncharacteristically erratic in last Sunday's 21-13 loss to Buffalo. He finished with the lowest passer rating (34.3) and completion percentage (40.5) of his NFL career. Rodgers owned it on his ESPN Wisconsin radio show earlier this week, calling his performance a "stinker."
He and the offense have an opportunity to get back on track against Tampa Bay's 24th-ranked pass defense that's allowing 250.4 yards per game. One other factor working in the Packers' favor is the turnover margin. Green Bay leads the NFL with plus-15 compared to Tampa Bay's minus-10, which ranks third-to-last.
Rodgers got two interceptions out of his system against the Bills. He hasn't thrown interceptions in back-to-back games since midway through the 2012 season. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week he's expecting a big game from Rodgers and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt agrees.
"You're going to have days like that," Van Pelt said. "If you play 100-plus games, you're going to have one or two – if you're great. Other guys might have 50 that aren't that good and 50 that are. You're talking about a guy that's playing at a high level. We expect him to come back out and play to his standards."
For all of their faults, the Buccaneers possess a pair of dynamic receiving targets in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, who have combined for 125 catches, 1,879 yards and 25 touchdowns. That production is even more impressive when you consider they've had Josh McCown and Mike Glennon throwing them the football.
The Packers are used to facing "stud" receivers. They'll again turn to Tramon Williams and Sam Shields to neutralize those weapons, especially with Davon House out for the second consecutive week with a shoulder injury.
Coming off a concussion, Shields was shaky two weeks ago against Atlanta, but the fifth-year cornerback responded to a full week of preparation in keeping Sammy Watkins quiet in Buffalo. Jackson and Evans are big targets for McCown, who's recaptured the starting job after a midseason injury.
Almost identical at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, they're the most dangerous part of the Buccaneers' offense and the Packers witnessed how efficient McCown could be last season in Chicago with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
On the heels of a two-year, $10 million deal, it seems midnight has struck on McCown's Cinderella story. He's thrown 12 interceptions after surrendering just one in relief of Jay Cutler in 2013. Running back Doug Martin has started reemerge as a weapon out of the backfield, but an inconsistent line has given up 42 sacks and hijacked the offense at times this season.
It's likely the Packers' offense will be operating at full capacity with right tackle Bryan Bulaga being upgraded to probable, a sign he's passed the concussion protocol. That will give running back Eddie Lacy his starting offensive line to run behind against a Buccaneers' front that's without defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who landed on injured reserve last week.
Lacy was limited in practice this week due to irritation from over-used contact lenses, but the hip no longer appears to be an issue. For all the offense's issues against Buffalo, Lacy and the rushing offense was a bright spot against a Bills' front that came into last week eighth in the NFL against the run.
Lacy needs 60 more rushing yards to surpass 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year. There's no reason to think he couldn't get it against Tampa Bay, whose defense is off to a slow start under first-year coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
"You're expecting to win and win right away," Smith said this week. "So I knew what our record was when I came here, but believe me, we didn't expect to have two wins at this time. Our expectations were a lot higher than that."
The loss of McCoy could be troublesome. Along with likely eliminating the Buccaneers' chances of generating a consistent four-man rush against Rodgers, it softens the interior where Lacy has feasted this season behind Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and Corey Linsley.
Tampa Bay has one definitive standout remaining in linebacker Lavonte David, but its defense could be stressed to contain all of the offensive options. Historically, that scenario has parted the sea for Lacy.