By Carmen Vitali
FOX Sports NFC North Writer
Tampa hasn’t been kind to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the past two years.
Buccaneers aside, before the Packers gave up their season opener this year to a division rival, they gave up their season opener last year in a lopsided loss to the New Orleans Saints that was played at Raymond James Stadium due to bad weather in New Orleans. The score was 38-3.
Then there’s Rodgers’ record against Tampa Bay since the arrival of a certain Todd Robert Bowles. As the Bucs’ defensive coordinator, Bowles hosted a clinic against Rodgers and the Packers. Both games were from the 2020 season – one in the regular season, one in the playoffs, the latter spicing up infinitely more. Rodgers was intercepted in the game. He was fired five times. And he suffered a loss in another NFC Championship game.
Predictably, he holds Bowles in high regard.
“I think Todd Bowles did a good job [disguising things] over the years,” Rodgers told Barstool Sports. “I think he’s a really good coach. You can always tell, schematically, which coaches are the best based on how the league adapts.”
He went on to explain what we all know: this is a copycat league. Teams saw Atlanta reach the Super Bowl under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2017. He took on San Francisco and, in Rodgers’ words, about nine teams execute that style of attack, including the Packers. The same goes for defense, but Bowles deviates from the norm and instead deploys something of his own. It follows the same concepts that Mike Zimmer’s defenses did in Minnesota. These groups have always caused problems for Rodgers, and the importance of team rivalry has amplified matters.
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Bowles has had more success against Rodgers than any other coach can claim. In both meetings between Rodgers and a Bowles-led defense in Tampa, Rodgers spent a lot of time on the court. 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, while the Packers were playing Tampa, Rodgers was not only sacked four times, he was picked twice, including only the third pick six of his career thanks to cornerback of the Bucs 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 him.
But what makes Bowles’ defenses so effective against Rodgers? What does he know that the rest of the league apparently doesn’t?
Honestly, even he doesn’t seem to have an answer.
“I wish I had known and I could use it every time, but I don’t know,” he said. “We covered long enough for the guys to have pressure, but you never stop him. He may have the day off or the line may let something slip by, but it’s never him. It’s probably one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve ever seen I have respect for him because with him they’re always there every game and you can’t say that about everyone in the league .
The real answer probably lies somewhere in the fact that there’s an element of surprise with Bowles’ defenses every time you see them. They don’t look the same or behave the same way every time. It is difficult to grasp all kinds of trends or patterns.
“They’re always alike in terms of which front is going to change, the pressure is going to change,” Rodgers said dryly on Wednesday. “The looks are going to be – there’s a lot of different things they throw at you. But they always adapt their staff.”
They will also use their staff in different ways.
Why yes, it’s the safety that Jordan Whitehead lined up in technique 0 as a nose tackle. What the hell do you expect as an offensive lineman if you see this? Bowles’ defenses create confusion – no, chaos – and if that can’t dismiss Rodgers, it will at least dismiss the players around him.
But make no mistake, the Packers offense, led by Rodgers, can bring that confusion back.
“The way they present themselves and organize their offense is just a bunch of moving parts,” defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said. “It really upsets your eye discipline. They move the receivers around and then a tight end comes back. Then the play action and the linebackers get sucked in and somebody’s wide open. If they stay back they hit them with a run, and their attack is perfectly suited to [Rodgers’] skill set.”
In an interview with Tony Dungy on Sunday Night Football during the season opener, Bowles went so far as to say seeing Rodgers on the program is “scary”. He didn’t specify exactly what he meant then, but he did now that he’s about to face her.
“When you have guys who can see the whole field and throw the ball from multiple angles and be as accurate as if there’s nobody around them, that makes them very scary,” Bowles said. “Your whole team is warned for four quarters. You can’t cheat one way or another. You can’t fall asleep. They don’t give you a chance to take a break. And you don’t have respite. . You have to be constantly on it until the end of the game 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 out and is proactive in his own right.
“LaFleur does a good job giving him the test answers,” Bowles said. “And by that, I mean if that’s not the game you see, and then you see this, check that check. It’s like he always knows where his get out of jail card is and a lot A lot of quarterbacks didn’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 just as quickly. So that makes him very special.”
As prepared as Bowles will be for Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, it will be up to the players to execute him. 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 game, just go to the next one and keep playing. Sixty minutes is a long time. Having a short memory.”
Rodgers comes to town with an offense that looks a little 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 its season opener to the Minnesota Vikings, but then bounced back strongly last week against another division opponent the Chicago Bears. They leaned heavily not on Rodgers’ arm, as they have in the past, but on the legs of running backs AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones. The latter went for 132 yards rushing and scored as both a rusher and receiver. Dillon himself had 18 litters. The Packers may be figuring things out by involving the ground game more at the moment, but Rodgers’ arm won’t stay passive for long.
Facing one of the league’s notoriously strong defenses this weekend in Tampa could force Rodgers to figure things out in the air sooner than he wants. But the Bucs are still betting he’ll be fine no matter who throws the ball. And another chess match between Bowles and Rodgers will ensue.
“I think he’s very smart,” Bowles said. “He throws one of the nicest fade balls. He has one of the fastest releases where it doesn’t even look like he’s throwing it. He can throw it. His knowledge of the game is one of the best of the league, and if we didn’t play it, I love watching it. That’s the truth.”
“Hats off to the guy. I’m sick of facing him, actually,” laughed Bowles, with a hint of exasperation. “You lose a lot more sleep to him than a lot of other quarterbacks.”
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen has previously made stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the Super Bowl title (and Boat Parade participant) to her resume. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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