Josh Freeman

A tougher row to hoe, this year.

Monty: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone from a young team on the rise, after finishing 10-6 last year, to just another young team. They’re 4-5 this reason, 1-2 on the road and have lost three in a row.

The main reason? A much tougher schedule. The 2010 Buccaneers had one of the easiest schedules in the league. Although they have some talent, last year’s team was at least partially a product of that soft schedule.

This year, quarterback Josh Freeman has been part of the problem. A season after throwing 25 TDs and only six interceptions, Freeman has come back to earth. He has nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Another problem for the Bucs has been their defense, which is ranked 31st in the league and has been almost equally as bad versus the pass as it has against the run.

While we all know the Packers offense, if they can avoid mistakes, will carve up a Bucs defense missing star defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, who is out for the season. The key to the Packers success largely rides on the defense.

Freeman is likely to make mistakes the Packers can capitalize on. Tampa’s biggest weapon in this game should be running back LeGarrette Blount, though. Blount is a bruiser in the mold of Adrian Peterson and can control a game. If the Bucs can use Blount effectively and mix in play action to keep the Packers offense off the field, they have a shot. They also have to play mistake-free.

Those are big ifs. The only way the Packers should lose this home game is if they overlook Tampa or play sloppily.

Packers 35, Buccaneers 17

Shawn: I’m shocked not a single local media hack has bothered to bring up the recent history between the Packers and Bucs, or perhaps more apropos, the history between Aaron Rodgers and the Buccaneers.

Everyone knows about the 49ers not taking Rodgers No. 1 in the 2005 draft, but that wasn’t totally unexpected. The team that really shocked Rodgers was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay brought Rodgers in for a private workout, and two days before the draft coach Jon Gruden called Rodgers and let him know, if he were to fall to No. 5, the Bucs would take him as their future QB.

Of course Rodgers was there when the Bucs picked at No. 5 and they selected Carnell Williams, now a back up running back for St. Louis. The plummet for Rodgers was on, and the rest is history.

In 2008, his fourth game as a starter, Rodgers got a chance for revenge against Tampa Bay. He threw for only 165 yards, was intercepted three times, and the Packers lost 30-21. In 2009, the teams met again with the Bucs winless at 0-7, and rookie Josh Freeman getting his first start. It didn’t matter. Rodgers threw three interceptions again, including the only pick returned for a TD in his career, and the Bucs won again, 38-28.

So, regardless of the records and stats, Tampa coach Raheem Morris and Josh Freeman have to have positive memories going into this rematch. For the leading MVP candidate, quite the opposite has to be the case.

Tampa strikes me as a team that isn’t as bad as their stats. They rank 31st in yards allowed. Only Minnesota and Indy have given up more points. On the other hand, Tampa has beaten both New Orleans and Atlanta. Their terrible mark in points allowed is mostly thanks to getting steamrolled by both San Francisco and Houston — two teams with great rushing attacks, which the Packers lack.

Tampa has also been hit hard by injuries for much of this season, but they’re coming into this game relatively healthy. LeGarrette Blount is healthy, and the Packers have struggled with strong running backs who break tackles. However, safety Tanard Jackson, the only man in the NFL to have returned a Rodgers’ pick for a TD has a bad hamstring and might not play.

Rodgers, as he has shown countless times, is a man who seems completely unfazed by pressure, expectations, past performance, and other ballyhoo. As such, I expect business as usual for him and the Packers on Sunday.

The Packers may not have a dominant running attack, but they do have James Starks and an O-line that is ready to push some people around.

I expect the Bucs to play the same defense that we’ve seen for weeks now: the deep Cover-2 with tight man-to-man underneath, meant to break the Packers’ rhythm. They might blitz more than the Vikings, but I would expect them to pick their spots. The weakness of this defense will continue to be the same — run the football, dump the ball to the running backs, and look for Jerimichael Finley on 3rd down.

The Packers defense should be looking to build on their performance from last week. They need to stay physical and attack the line of scrimmage, especially against a team that rarely goes for the big play. Josh Freeman has only been sacked 15 times this season, so the Packers shouldn’t bang their head against a wall by blitzing too much. Containing Freeman, tackling, and staying solid in coverage will be the key.

Ironically, in those last two losses, the Packers scored quickly on their first possession. A steady performance by the offense is more of what I will be looking for. Once again, the defense will be a big key. If they stifle the Bucs early and the Bucs get into a hole, they don’t have the kind of offense to come from behind.

Weather is not supposed to be a factor.

By getting to 10-0, the Packers will virtually assure themselves of a 13-3 record at worst and that will be good enough for a first-round bye. I expect them to buckle down at home and take care of business.

Packers 38, Buccaneers 17

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