Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen (66) calls a play against the Green Bay Packers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. JASON BEHNKEN, AP

Bucs Offensive Line vs Packers Defensive Line: In the Trenches Preview

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense has a simple task this week as they prepare for their most meaningful game since Super Bowl XXXVII: keep pace with the high flyin’ Green Bay offense, or get embarrassed on national television.

One of the game’s deciding matchups will be between the Bucs’ offensive line and the Packers’ defensive front. The Bucs’ offense has been at their best this season when they’ve controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed Tom Brady to prove that he’s still an elite quarterback while throwing from a clean pocket. 

The Packers have a talented defensive line headlined by Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark. Their unit will need to show up big in order to prevent this game from turning into the shootout that the Bucs are hoping for.

These are the most important players and trends to watch out for in the trenches on Sunday.

Bucs’ Big Boys

Tampa bay’s offensive line is physical, athletic, and well-coached. They’re one of the most talented offensive lines in the league and their strong communication keeps them from missing many assignments.

The vast majority of the Bucs’ running plays are based on zone blocking schemes which require offensive lineman to use combo blocks to get movement on the defense’s down linemen before working to the second level to seal off scraping linebackers. 

A great example of a successfully zone blocked play came in the first half of Tampa Bay’s divisional round game against New Orleans.

Haeg (73) and Wirfs (78) work a combo block from #94 to #56, Stinnie (64) seals off #99, Jensen (66) works to the second level to block #47. Marpet (74) and Smith (76) seal off the other defensive lineman.

The Bucs’ scheme does a good job of taking advantage of their offensive line’s agility, strength and ability to finish blocks downfield.

Tampa Bay’s offensive line features one of the best rookie tackles we’ve ever seen in Tristian Wirfs. One year removed from doing folk hero level feats of strength in the Iowa weight room, Wirfs has become the best right tackle in the NFL.

Wirfs is an absolute mauler in the run game and he continued to look dominant in pass protection against the Saints when matched up one-on-one with star edge rusher Cam Jordan. 

Buccaneer center Ryan Jensen is the platonic ideal of the “nasty offensive linemen”. Jensen spent most of the Buc’s divisional round game getting into brief altercations with Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone and earning the admiration of Florida hip-hop legend and offensive line savant Rick Ross.

Not only is Jensen a brutal finisher in the run game but he’s been sound in pass protection this season as well. He held up well against the Saints this past weekend in one-on-one matchups and the way he punished Saints defensive tackle Shy Tuttle when he attempted an inside spin move on right guard Aaron Stinnie was particularly impressive. 

Left tackle Donovan Smith has looked good so far in the playoffs, especially in the wildcard round where he kept Washington’s Chase Young quiet. Left guard Ali Marpet has been among the best at his position all season.

The Bucs’ love bringing tackle Joe Haeg off the sidelines to serve as a sixth offensive lineman. The Bucs will run to both the strong side and the weak side of their formation while operating with Haeg in the game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s contributions as a blocker are also important to note as the Bucs often trust him to block defensive ends one-on-one in the run game and he’s occasionally asked help out in pass protection. 

However there is still one unknown quantity along the Bucs’ offensive line: right guard Aaron Stinnie.

The Ballad of Aaron Stinnie

Stinnie went from being a healthy scratch earlier this season to making his first career NFL start against the Saints in the divisional round. While the media had little faith in the former James Madison standout, Stinnie looked like an NFL starter against New Orleans.

Stinnie had plenty of reps where he got good movement on the Saints’ interior defensive line, both while executing combination blocks and when working against them one-on-one.

This wasn’t his best rep in terms of getting off the ball but the way he drives massive defensive tackle Malcom Brown into the turf several yards downfield is still impressive. 

The Bucs’ appeared comfortable enough with Stinnie in pass protection to leave him one-on-one against defensive tackles about as often as they did with Alex Cappa, who Stinnie replaced after the Bucs placed him on injured reserve. Stinnie fared well in most of those matchups and he also moved well downfield on screen passes.

While there was a lot to like about Stinnie’s debut, a few of his reps raised concerns for the Bucs going into the NFC Championship. He wasn’t a perfect run blocker, he had some questionable moments while handling the Saints’ aggressive stunts and struggled at times against the Saint’s uber-athletic defensive tackle David Onyemata.

On this rep near the goal line Stinnie can’t anchor against Onyemata’s bull rush and he’s driven straight back into Brady.

While Bucs fans should feel optimistic about Stinnie’s ability to build off of his first start, Onyemata will not be the last athletic defensive tackle the Bucs face this year and he’ll need to win those matchups in order for his team to be successful.

Za’Darius’ World

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) celebrates a sack against the Carolina Panthers during their football game Saturday, December 19, 2020, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wis

Za’Darius Smith is a rare physical talent. The second team All-Pro selection is the most dynamic player on the Green Bay front. Smith’s been one of the most successful pass rushers in the NFL this season tallying 12.5 sacks in the regular season before adding one more last week against the Rams. 

Smith lines up all over the line of scrimmage for the Packers, switching between two-point, three-point and four-point stances in the process. Smith had at least one one-on-one pass rush opportunity against all five of the Bucs’ starting offensive linemen during the Packers and Bucs’ week six matchup in Tampa Bay.

On pass plays while Tom Brady was in the game, not including quick screens, Smith lined up over Jensen five times, over Wirfs five times, over Donovan Smith four times, over Cappa three times and had one matchup with Marpet when Marpet pulled to his right to block Smith on a play action pass. Smith was also double teamed three times.

In those reps, Smith stunted five times, twice while lined up as a defensive end over Donovan Smith and three times while lined head-up over Jensen. The Saints had some success stunting against the Bucs last week so don’t be surprised if Smith stunts more often this weekend.

The Bucs held up pretty well against Smith in week six as he only managed to record one QB hit. Expect Smith to continue his life as a pass rushing nomad against the Bucs this weekend but don’t be surprised if he lines up across from Stinnie in passing situations.

The Packers would be smart to use their most explosive pass rushers to challenge the Bucs’ least battle-tested lineman.

Kenny Clark is another standout along the Packer’s defensive line. His ability to rush the passer at over 300 lbs makes him another rare talent.

Edge rusher Rashan Gary is another playmaker on the Green Bay front. He’s made the most of his sophomore season and has begun to live up to the potential that made him a top-15 draft pick coming out of Michigan. Gary had a brilliant bull rush against Donovan Smith in week 6 which he nullified with a face mask penalty on Brady. Look for him to make his opportunities count this time.

The Packers’ task at hand will be to stop the Bucs’ zone running game one week after surrendering over 5 yards per carry to the Ram’s zone based attack in the Wildcard round and allowing the Bucs’ running backs to run for 4.575 yards per carry during week 6.

The Bucs have a much stronger offense than the Rams so if the Packers want to keep the Bucs from pulling within striking distance they will need to limit chunk plays on the ground like this eight yard gain on outside zone that they gave up to the Rams.