Rodgers vs. Brady matchup fizzled, but Packers found other ways to win

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nobody sounded like big fans of the way Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur worked All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari back into the lineup. But it worked.

No one said the way their offense operated was good enough. Yet rookie receiver Romeo Doubs found a way to break out.

And while it looked problematic the way Tom Brady and his depleted Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense marched 89 yards for a touchdown in the final minute, a superbly defended 2-point play left everyone on the defensive side of the visitor’s locker room at Raymond James Stadium with chests puffed out.

The Packers grinded out a 14-12 win over the Buccaneers that may go down as the final meeting between quarterbacks Brady and Aaron Rodgers, but few will remember it for anything either of them did.

Rather, the Packers (2-1) avoided their first 1-2 start since 2014 with what coach Matt LaFleur called a “gritty team win” in large part because of the three aforementioned developments.

It started with Bakhtiari, who played 34 of the Packers’ 60 offensive plays, though those plays weren't consecutive in his long-awaited return. Instead, he alternated series with Yosh Nijman (who played the other 26 left tackle snaps). While Bakhtiari admitted none of the linemen were thrilled about the rotation LaFleur insisted upon, it allowed Bakhtiari to ease himself back and not get overwhelmed by the 88-degree heat in what was his most extensive action since he tore the ACL in his left knee 20 months ago.

“It was something that -- full disclosure -- we weren’t the biggest fans of, the linemen weren’t,” Bakhtiari said. “But give credit to coach. He stuck to his guns. He called it. We looked at each other and said, 'We’re going to make the most of it.'”

LaFleur did not want a repeat of Bakhtiari’s first comeback attempt in the 2021 regular-season finale at Detroit, when his left tackle played the first 27 snaps of the game and then couldn’t go again in the playoffs.

While Bakhtiari admitted he was running on adrenaline after the game, he said he walked off the field in Tampa with a much different feeling about his future than he did after that stint last season.

“Physically, completely different,” Bakhtiari said of how he felt after Sunday’s game. “Night and day difference between this opportunity and that opportunity.”

Given how much Rodgers loves Bakhtiari, that has to bode well for an offense that clearly hasn’t clicked yet. The Packers have scored a total of three second-half points in their two victories.

The emergence of Doubs, a fourth-round draft pick who excelled in the absence of injured receivers Sammy Watkins and Christian Watson, also could bode well. Doubs caught eight passes for 73 yards and his first NFL touchdown. His eight catches are tied for the second most by a Packers rookie in a single game in franchise history.

This after Rodgers said he was giving Doubs a hard time in practice on Friday for body-catching a ball when he should have used his hands.

“He just has such great hands,” Rodgers said. “Couple balls were off the frame today that he caught very nicely. He’s learning. I feel like his route-running seemed like, was pretty solid today, but we’ll go back and look at the tape and see if there’s some more opportunities I could’ve given him.”

At some point, Rodgers will need more deep threats, and perhaps Doubs can even do that. But on Sunday, 22 of his 27 completions were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, tied for the third most in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Rodgers averaged just 3.0 air yards on his completions (the league average is 5.9), and 68% of his passing yards (173 of 255) came after the catch. He’s on track to set career lows in average air yardage and career highs in YAC.

Or perhaps the Packers can keep living -- and winning -- this way if their defense can keep coming up big. As soft as it looked on Brady’s final drive, their effort on the 2-point conversion attempt looked perfect. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell dropped to the flat, and as soon as he saw Brady look toward receiver Russell Gage, he broke on the ball and broke it up.

And if that hadn’t worked, safety Darnell Savage said, “If he didn’t make the play, I was.”

Two critical things happened even before that: First, the Bucs took a delay-of-game penalty that moved the ball from the 2- to the 7-yard line. Second, Rodgers appeared to approach LaFleur shortly before that play and tell him something. While LaFleur smiled about it, indicating Rodgers gave him some meaningful information, he wouldn’t divulge it.

Whatever it was, it may be a sign of how this team needs things like Bakhtiari’s return, Doubs’ emergence, and big plays on defense and special teams to win.

“Sometimes it's tilted a little bit more to one side,” Rodgers said. “But offensively, we're young and we're struggling at times to finish things off … So just got to tighten things up a little bit. But our defense is holding them to 12 points, we're going to win probably all those games.”