Conference Championship Vantage Points


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Conference Championship Vantage Points

For this week’s Vantage Points, I’m going to do something a little different. Since so much of the content about these two games is about the matchup and how the two teams will compete with each other, I’m doing a more streamlined breakdown of what I’ve read — as opposed to just citing “what they’re saying about the Packers,” everything will be at service to the matchup. I’ll continue this with Super Bowl LV.

Tampa Bay at Green Bay (Sun, 3:05 PM)

Can the Bucs run all over the Pack?

Packers fans still have a sour taste from last year’s NFC Championship Game, when the 49ers barely needed to throw the ball at all to crush them — Raheem Mostert ran for over 200 yards, while Jimmy Garoppolo attempted just 8 passes. It’s been a weakness of DC Mike Pettine’s defense, because he prefers to play two deep safeties with a bear front, as The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak writes.

However, the 49ers last year and several teams that have had success running the ball against the Pack this year — like the Vikings and Rams — all use a zone-heavy attack that gets to the perimeter with wide zone. As Solak points out, none of the teams left in the playoffs, including the Bucs, use this as the foundation of their run game. That’s good news for Pettine’s defense.

Pettine invites teams to run against his defense, as he plays more snaps of dime than any defensive coordinator in football. But when the Bucs do run, they don’t run it in the way that’s most dangerous to Pettine.

Keep in mind our Adam Caplan said Ronald Jones (quad) still isn’t 100%, but he has more juice than Leonard Fournette.

Potential Matchup Issues

Again, Pettine likes to play in subpackages, which could open the Packers up to some interesting scheming from Bruce Arians and OC Byron Leftwich. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the Bucs’ most important players of the postseason has been #2 TE Cameron Brate. Brate has 8 catches for 130 yards on 11 targets in two playoff games thus far, the only time all season he’s had 100 or more yards in a two-game stretch. His individual games of 80 and 50 receiving yards are his first and third-highest games of the season, respectively.

With WR Antonio Brown (knee) out, it could be Brate — and not necessarily someone like Tyler Johnson or Scotty Miller — who benefits the most, especially if Pettine prefers to stay in his subpackages.

And indeed, as our Greg Cosell points out on our Matchup Points livestream, Pettine did stay in dime when the Bucs went to 12 personnel when these two teams played in Week 6. Brate caught only 1 pass… but the Bucs’ leading receiver was Rob Gronkowski, who posted 5/78/1 on 8 targets. He absolutely bodied S Adrian Amos for a touchdown when these two teams met before.

As for QB Tom Brady, he’s playing at a very high level right now. And the weather is not something we’d worry about here. He’s played in — and dominated in — the snow multiple times in his career.

The key, as always, is pressure for the Packers. DE Za’Darius Smith could move inside in obvious passing situations to try to create the interior havoc that has most bothered Brady in his illustrious career. However, fill in G Aaron Stinnie did an excellent job in his first career start for the injured Alex Cappa.

What about the Packers run game?

The Buccaneers have the #1 run defense in the NFL by FootballOutsiders DVOA, and back in Week 6, they held Aaron Jones to just 15 yards on 10 carries. The Bucs will also get DT Vita Vea back this week — he’s been out for about three months following a broken leg.

The Packers have a couple of backs dinged too — RB AJ Dillon is certainly a cold-weather back, but he’s dealing with a mild quad injury. Jamaal Williams (ankle) is a little dinged too.

Nonetheless, HC Matt LaFleur wants to run the football. He was impeccably balanced last week against the Rams — 37 called passes to 32 called runs, not counting kneel-downs. LaFleur’s offensive foundation is the run game, and the pass game is built on those concepts. QB Aaron Rodgers went for 20 TD, 0 INT, and a league-best 136 QB rating on play action this year, per our Greg Cosell. That’s really good!

Can the Bucs slow down Rodgers?

They sure did in Week 6, when Rodgers was just destroyed behind his typically very good offensive line — he took 4 sacks and threw 2 of only 5 INT he’s thrown all season in that game. And Rodgers is now down LT David Bakhtiari (ACL). (Billy Turner has done a solid job filling in for Bakhtiari.) Meanwhile, the Bucs anticipate that DE Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) will play.

The Athletic’s Greg Auman anticipates that CB Carlton Davis will be the most important player to slowing down Rodgers and WR Davante Adams in this game. Auman writes that Davis “kept [Adams] in check in Week 6,” holding him to 6 catches for 61 yards, but he also notes it was Adams’ first game in a return from injury. Davis does match up when the Bucs plan man coverage, and has had mixed success — he did a good job on Adams, but as Auman writes, he also gave up over 200 yards in one quarter to Tyreek Hill this year.

Meanwhile, WR Allen Lazard had a big game last week as he finally seems over the core muscle surgery that kept him out for multiple months. He’s listed on the injury report this week with back and wrist ailments, but neither is expected to slow him down the way the core muscle did. Lazard was the recipient of a long TD against Cover 4 last week, on a play Rodgers checked at the line of scrimmage. That’s noteworthy because, as Cosell said, the Bucs play more Cover 4 than any team in the NFL.

Buffalo at Kansas City (Sun, 6:40 PM)

Will either team run the ball?

We know the Bills aren’t going to run the ball. Despite windy conditions in Buffalo last week against the Ravens, the Bills ran the ball on just 29% of their offensive plays. RB Zack Moss (ankle) being on IR obviously has something to do with it, but the Bills have been one of the most pass-heavy teams in the entire NFL all season. They didn’t actually hand the ball off last week, as The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn notes, until there were 3 minutes left in the first half.

Fairburn writes that McDermott and OC Brian Daboll have learned a lot from the aggressive mentality of Chief coach Andy Reid, McDermott’s mentor who brought him into coaching. While McDermott is from a defensive background, he’s become appreciative of analytics and gives Daboll free reign to coach as aggressively as he sees fit. His players love it.

The question is if the Chiefs are going to run it. The Chiefs actually ran the ball on a lower percentage of plays than the Bills did this year — counting playoffs, they’re at 38.1%. Among teams with winning records, only the Steelers and Bucs ran it less than the Chiefs did. But when these clubs met earlier in the season, also in Week 6, just like Green Bay and Tampa Bay, the Chiefs ran for for 245 yards, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire accounting for 161 of them.

Of course, Edwards-Helaire hasn’t played in a month with hip and ankle issues, and Le’Veon Bell (knee) looks like he’s going to miss. So if the Chiefs run the ball a lot — what the probably won’t do, given the Bills were missing key players like LB Matt Milano and DL Trent Murphy in Week 6 — it may be Darrel Williams leading the way.

A problematic formation

One thing the Chiefs do that is nearly impossible to defend, our Greg Cosell says, is an 11 personnel formation with which they put the 3 WRs to the field side (the wide side of the field) and TE Travis Kelce to the boundary side.

The Bills almost always use CB Tre’Davious White as their boundary CB. This would be a fascinating matchup, because Kelce absolutely torched CB Denzel Ward for a TD from this formation last week.

Kelce obviously has a size advantage on CBs, but as he showed with Ward last week, he can win with quickness too. He might be the hardest player to defend in football. White is better equipped than most, but this is a tough matchup.

Elite QBs coming off mediocre games

A bad game doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things — yes, they can happen in the playoffs and the stakes are higher, but just because Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes didn’t play great last week doesn’t mean things are doomed to repeat themselves.

Here’s what our Greg Cosell had to say about Allen’s game against the Ravens based on film study:

“Allen missed some things through the 1st half, both with poor ball placement and leaving some throws on the field … while Allen was not consistently sharp both mentally and physically in this game there was never a sense the Ravens defense dictated the action.”

Meanwhile, Mahomes hasn’t been as sharp as we’re used to for a while. While he cleared concussion protocol and will play, he’s still dealing with a toe/foot issue in his left foot that could make him a little easier to defend. Cosell says:

“Mahomes continued to play a little loose and undisciplined with the tendency to leave the pocket prematurely but he always has the compensatory ability to make outside of structure plays … Overall Mahomes is not playing at a high level right now relative to what he has done in the past, There’s too much Texas Tech in his game with a lot of unnecessary movement.”

Chiefs correct a Ravens mistake?

Color us shocked that the Ravens didn’t blitz Allen much last week — just 10 times on dropbacks, and they sacked him twice. Chief DC Steve Spagnuolo doesn’t blitz a ton, but he’s creative and selective when he does.

Allen has also been much better against man than zone defenses this year — during the regular season, he threw 10 TD and 6 INT vs. zone, against 27 TD to just 4 INT vs. man.

You can be damn sure Spags knows that, and the Chiefs are as good as any team in the NFL at disguising zone concepts to look like man, Cosell said. Allen’s been processing the best of his NFL career thus far, but if the Chiefs win this game with their defense, this is likely to be the place it happens.

Joe Dolan, a professional in the fantasy football industry for over a decade, is the managing editor of Fantasy Points. He specializes in balancing analytics and unique observation with his personality and conversational tone in his writing, podcasting, and radio work.