Defense has ups, downs
The Bucs defense had some lowlights: Allowing touchdown passes of 74 and 32 yards and tackling that often left a lot to be desired.
But the job done against QB Aaron Rodgers was worth mentioning. Rodgers entered the game with an NFL-best 110.4 QB rating with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He left licking wounds from being sacked six times (most for the Bucs since Dec. 19, 2004) while tying a career high with three interceptions.
But it wasn't easy. Rodgers eluded the pass rush for most of the first half, going without a sack in the first two quarters. He frustrated the defense, scrambling long enough to find downfield targets when the coverage could no longer hang on. And there was his 12-yard touchdown run (on third and goal) in the fourth quarter that left DE Jimmy Wilkerson flat on his face in the open field.
Defense makes adjustments
The Bucs made some savvy halftime adjustments, and the results were obvious. Suddenly, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers had nowhere to run.
"You have to give it to him," said rookie DT Roy Miller, who recorded a sack. "He's a great quarterback, and he makes a lot of plays. But we were working hard, and we knew he was going to roll out a lot. We focused on getting a guy to cover that up. Once we took the run away from him, the sacks just started coming. In the first half, we kept getting sealed off. But you have to give it up to the coaches and the guys who executed. It was something we focused on and something we took advantage of in the second half."
Other than Miller, DE Stylez White (11/2), DE Tim Crowder, DL Michael Bennett, DT Ryan Sims (one each) and DT Chris Hovan (half) recorded sacks.
Wideouts play big
QB Josh Freeman benefited from solid play from his wide receivers, something the Bucs cannot always count on. Drops have plagued the wideouts all year, and with starter Antonio Bryant, above, out with a knee injury, the game figured to have the potential for another lackluster one for the receiving corps. It was anything but, with Michael Clayton's body-contorting 29-yard reception to set up Sammie Stroughter's winning 7-yard touchdown reception. With the game on the line, the embattled receivers loomed large. Clayton even hauled in a two-point conversion to give the Bucs a three-point lead after Stroughter's score.
"That ball," Freeman said, "Sammie made a tremendous catch on it." Of Clayton, Freeman said, "Michael made a great adjustment and caught it. It was great."
For the day, TE Kellen Winslow had four receptions for 57 yards and a circus catch in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, WR Maurice Stovall (subbing for Bryant) had three catches for 46 yards, Stroughter had three catches for 19 yards and the winning touchdown, and Clayton had the drive-saving 29-yard catch and two-point conversion.
Mack makes a comeback
The game probably couldn't have started any worse for CB Elbert Mack, left. Just like Oct. 5 at Philadelphia, when WR Jeremy Maclin beat him for a 51-yard touchdown on the Eagles' first series, Mack gave up a deep ball on Green Bay's second play: A 74-yard touchdown from QB Aaron Rodgers to WR James Jones. Mack said he looked back to locate the ball only to realize it had long been delivered. After that breakdown, Mack nearly went into the tank emotionally.
"Ronde (Barber) and everyone just told me to keep my head up on the sideline," he said. "But I'm not going to lie. I was frustrated. I was down on myself. Guys kept coming over to console me. But all I kept thinking about was Philly — here we go again. It just so happened, I got an opportunity to go back out and make a play."
With the Bucs playing a matchup zone on the Packers' next possession, Mack was lurking in the secondary, covering no one in particular, when Rodgers zipped a pass to WR Donald Driver. Mack picked it off and raced 36 yards to the Packers 8. That set up the Bucs' first touchdown, a 6-yard pass from QB Josh Freeman to RB Derrick Ward.
"It's what I'm supposed to do," Mack said. "I'm supposed to take away the deep ball. They got one on me, but I got one back."
Mack played little in the second half because of a sprained ankle suffered during practice Thursday. The joint was badly swollen afterward. Mack said he thought even before kickoff that he might not make it through the game.
Barber's block party
Providing compelling evidence that there are numerous ways for a struggling team to score, the Bucs got a gift-wrapped touchdown when LB Geno Hayes smothered a Packers punt in the second quarter, setting up CB Ronde Barber for a 31-yard touchdown return.
Barber said he was the recipient of a fortuitous bounce, but his track record suggests otherwise. He now has 14 touchdowns, a franchise record for a defensive player. His 13 regular-season return touchdowns rank third in NFL history (Deion Sanders, 19; Rod Woodson, 17).
"(Teammates) will give me crap about it, but you can't hate me for being lucky," Barber said, joking. "I've been in the right place a lot of times. It was a game-changer. Unfortunately, (the Packers) went right back down and scored, but scoring points on defense and creating field position on special teams is a big part of football. It came together today."
The Bucs have emphasized rushing punters because they think they have players capable of getting blocks, including WRs Maurice Stovall and Brian Clark.
Another big return
The mood in the stadium and the looks on the Bucs' faces after a touchdown put the Packers ahead by two scores seemed so familiar. Several good early efforts this season have gone for naught after second-half collapses. But when KR Clifton Smith lined up to receive the Packers' kickoff after QB Aaron Rodgers' 12-yard touchdown run, Smith somehow shook off those emotions to respond with exactly the sort of play the Bucs needed.
Smith raced 83 yards down the left sideline, splitting two would-be tacklers near midfield before being chased down by S Tramon Williams at the Packers 17. Smith's last appearance came when he was knocked unconscious on an illegal hit from the Panthers' Dante Wesley while fielding a punt. But he didn't look like a guy who had been flattened and knocked silly three weeks ago. "You can't play scared, man," Smith said. "That was the kind of day we were looking for all year long. Unfortunately, it happened toward the middle of the season. But now we know we can get it done and it's possible to get all phases of the game in order." As for the decision to dart inside, which resulted in about 30 more yards, Smith said, "I kind of saw (Williams) and the other guy separate a little bit, and I said, 'Okay, I'm not going to outrun them to the outside, so I might as well try and split it back inside.' That call helped set up the touchdown that put the Bucs within striking distance, a 7-yard Josh Freeman-to-Kellen Winslow scoring strike.
• The Bucs continue to search for consistent kicking, with PK Connor Barth missing his first attempt (from 45 yards) wide right. He made his second attempt, a 38-yarder.
• The Bucs are now 7-1 against the Packers in Raymond James Stadium.
DB Will Allen, left, broke his right thumb, with X-rays revealing a crack. He wore a cast after the game. Corey Lynch became the third safety with Allen out. … WR Antonio Bryant said coaches and trainers overruled him in his bid to play Sunday because of his recurring right knee injury.