GREEN BAY – It's only been two games, but the numbers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has put up jump off the page.
Just 13 points allowed, best in the league. Ten sacks, also tops. Six takeaways, tied for third, one returned for a score.
"You could argue they could be the best defense in the National Football League," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday.
San Francisco and Buffalo are others off to hot starts, and the full season will sort out the final rankings, but Tampa Bay is the immediate challenge awaiting the Packers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Led by Lavonte David and Devin White at inside linebacker, the massive Vita Vea in the middle of the defensive front, and a ball-hawking back end, the Buccaneers possess a long list of traits that make life difficult for opponents.
LaFleur's description included the following words: speed, aggressiveness, complete, sound, disguising, complex, effort … and more would've emerged had he kept talking.
Of Green Bay's many priorities to succeed in this matchup, one word carries the most weight – protect, as in both Aaron Rodgers and the football.
Last week, the Saints were involved in a defensive struggle with the Bucs until a slew of turnovers tilted the game Tampa Bay's way. Both LaFleur and Rodgers referenced how the Buccaneers punch at the football, and a secondary that features a top cornerback tandem in Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, plus Antoine Winfield Jr. and Sean Murphy-Bunting, has the ball skills to take advantage of any mistakes.
Rodgers noted the biggest difference between the Bucs' defense now and when the Packers last faced them (twice) in the 2020 season is Winfield, who was a rookie safety then but playing more slot corner now and reminding Rodgers of his namesake father, a longtime and highly respected opponent with the Vikings.
"He can play anywhere," Rodgers said of the younger Winfield. "He's talented at multiple positions, can play in the slot, can catch the ball, can cover, can tackle, just like his dad. Can hit. He's a special player."
Winfield also plays a key role in head coach Todd Bowles' disguises, which could cause difficulties for the Packers' young receivers, who will have to identify coverages post-snap and make the appropriate route decisions on the fly.
Rodgers noted the offense's main issue in Week 1 was mental mistakes, while physical miscues (fumbled handoff, early shotgun snap) interrupted a productive stretch in Week 2. Sharpening up both areas will be paramount against this unit.
"This is a stout defense, but we have the right concepts and the right schemes to move the ball against anybody," Rodgers said. "A lot of times we just get in our own way, and that's what we've done too many times in the first two weeks."
As for protecting the four-time MVP quarterback, it falls not just on the offensive line, but everyone, Rodgers included. He's taken seven sacks in two games, at times due to missed blocks and at others when timing of the routes and delivery has been off.
"Would not like that to be the standard, so we've got to get open on time and the ball's got to come out on time," Rodgers said. "I'm assuming I might take some shots this week. They're a blitzing defense, there'll be some opportunities for some hot adjustments, some sight adjustments, could be some free runners. I've got to deal the ball on time this week and make sure I'm not letting them get momentum with some sacks."
It'll help that right tackle Elgton Jenkins got his first game back from injury under his belt last week. Left tackle David Bakhtiari's status for this week remains uncertain (he didn't practice Wednesday), but the game will be one day shy of a full calendar year since Yosh Nijman's first start on the blind side. Rodgers referred to Nijman as a "steady" presence up front.
The Packers found a rhythm through their running game against the Bears last week, but Aaron Jones' eye-popping 8.8 yards per carry will be virtually impossible to repeat against the Buccaneers. Even moving in smaller increments, though, the ground game will remain crucial, as the biggest plays by last week's leading receiver, Sammy Watkins, both came off play-action.
Add it all up and the Packers know both what they're facing and what they must do.
"I think it will really give us a much better indication of where we are at this point of the season," LaFleur said.