The Rams are leaving the West Coast for the first time this season. Though they opened the season on the road, they had the luxury of staying in California as they faced the San Francisco 49ers. Now the Rams are crossing the country to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Vegas does not seem to be in on the Rams this week, but last week’s defensive performance versus the Seattle Seahawks gives a glimmer of hope that the Rams could pull out another upset.
~ Special thanks to Trevor Sikkema for giving a Buccaneers perspective in preparation for this preview. ~
Rams Offense vs Buccaneers Defense
The Buccaneers base their defense out of a basic 4-3 setup. Schematically, their defense is fairly simple other than how they handle their front, and that will be detailed later on. There is at least one play maker at every level of the Bucs defense with Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle, Lavonte David at linebacker and star rookie Vernon Hargreaves at cornerback. The defense certainly has holes, but having a bona fide stud at each position group is threatening to any opposing offense, especially a Rams offense who lacks play makers to counter the ones that the Bucs have.
- Tampa Bay’s front is wicked. McCoy and David are the stars, but linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive end Vernon Gholston, and the weak side defensive end duo of Robert Ayers (if healthy this week) and rookie Noah Spence are all forces in their own ways. It’s going to be a tough day up front for LA.
- Tampa Bay’s coverage scheme is mostly Cover 2 and Cover 4. They sprinkle in single-high safety looks, but that’s more of their change up than their fastball. Their defense also pattern-matches a lot of the time.
- The Bucs defense is talented at every position except safety. Their safeties are bad and that is something the Rams could attack.
- Cornerback Brent Grimes has been rough in the red zone to open the season, mainly against bigger bodies (has faced guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Mohammed Sanu). Put a big body like Kenny Britt to go against Grimes and see what happens.
Getting Something Out of the Run Game
That guy who is seemingly two seconds ahead of every other player on the field is Gerald McCoy. While everyone else on the field is barely getting out of their stance or have not moved at all, McCoy is past the line of scrimmage and in the face of Atlanta’s offensive line. Quarterback Matt Ryan has not even fully taken the ball out from under center, yet McCoy has already ruined the play. Both as a run defender and a pass rusher, McCoy’s explosive ability off of the snap is a problem. There are a handful of plays where the offensive lineman, no matter who he is, stands no chance against McCoy’s suddenness.
McCoy’s burst off of the snap can ruin plays before they start. Teams have done their best to mitigate him by playing tighter gaps and double teaming him, but of course, an offense can not double team one player for an entire game or else they run the risk of being easily exposed by the rest of the defense. The Bucs make it tough to double team him, too.
The Bucs ask McCoy to stunt his gap responsibilities off the snap quite often. Stunting is switching from one gap to an adjacent gap at the snap of the ball. The idea is to confuse the offensive line and get them to botch their blocking assignments. McCoy’s athleticism empowers him to step over to the next gap and fire into an offensive lineman before the rest of the defensive line has engaged an offensive lineman from their stationary position.
McCoy single-handedly commands how and where a team runs the ball. With McCoy ushering the Rams running game around, Tampa Bay’s aggressive linebacker duo of Lavonte David, who may be slightly underwhelming due to shoulder concerns, and Kwon Alexander will spill into the open gaps and ruin Todd Gurley’s day. McCoy’s dominance and facilitation is going to be detrimental to a Rams rushing attack that does not have much flexibility or blocking talent.
Force the Bucs to Match in Coverage
Tampa Bay’s coverage largely consists of Cover 2 and Cover 4 shells with sprinklings of Cover 3 looks. In these zone shells, their defensive backs are asked to pattern-match in coverage, which, depending on the route combination, asks defenders to abandon their zone and play man-to-man with a receiver who enters their zone. Bill Belichick and Nick Saban were (and are still) large proponents of this style of coverage, but it can be a double edged sword. Players can lose track of who and when they are supposed to match, leaving receivers wide open.
Cornerback Brent Grimes is playing the outside cornerback position to the trips side on this play. His responsibility is to carry the No.1 receiver on any vertical route, which is generally considered anything past about ten yards. Grimes gets caught cheating to the No.2 receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, on the out-breaking route. Grimes tries to stay put outside and hope to cut off a throw to Fitzgerald, but the product of Grimes’s decision is not a pass break up. Instead, Grimes leaves the No.1 receiver open in the middle of the field.
With the safety to Grimes’s side occupied by the threat of the No.3 receiver blowing the top off of the defense, there is no way that safety could have played downhill to cover the No.1 receiver. It was on Grimes to match him and he did not. The Rams have operated out of a lot of trips and trey looks already this season, so it would not be surprising to see the Rams roll out with three eligible receivers to the wide side of the field and try to force Tampa’s defensive backs to match.
In addition to some bumps along the road in terms of matching in the back end, the Bucs linebackers, primarily Alexander, can struggle in coverage. David tends to be on his game and had a great game in coverage last week against the Arizona Cardinals, but Alexander loses sight of the entire route concept too often. It takes Alexander an extra split second to process passing plays, which is enough for Case Keenum to fit in quick throws to the tight ends and even drag routes to Tavon Austin.
Rams Defense vs Buccaneers Offense
Luckily for the Rams, the Buccaneers will be without Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin on Sunday. Martin will be out with a hamstring injury. In place of Martin will be Charles Sims, who is not quite the runner Martin is, but has dangerous ability as a pass catcher. While Sims is a solid running back, the absence of Martin will almost inevitably put the game more on quarterback Jameis Winston’s shoulders.
- Tampa Bay uses a lot of tight formations, and do a good job of mixing up run, pass and play action plays within those formations. Rams defenders will have to be on their toes or Winston will shred them.
- Offensive line operates mostly through man/gap blocking schemes. The Rams have faced two zone blocking teams to open the season. It will be a new test for the Rams front.
- The passing offense revolves around intermediate-deep passing, and Winston blindly trusts Mike Evans. Rams need to be aware of big plays, especially to Evans.
- Tight end Luke Stocker struggles as a blocker in the run game. Anyone who attacks him with authority will win. Rams should key on that.
Combating Tampa Bay’s Tight Running Formations
The Bucs use this formation and similar formations for a fair amount of their rushing attack. They’ve ran power through the strong side and through the weak side, ran iso to both the strong and the weak side, and have used pre-snap shifts either into or out of this formation to disguise what they are doing. It’s brilliant, really, and it is tough to stop when the offensive line is in sync. The Rams defensive line has to come in clutch again this week.
Formations like this are going to put stress on strong side linebacker Josh Forrest and strong side defensive end William Hayes. Even the cornerbacks to that side of the field are going to be in trouble. Those two, along with the defensive tackles, did an excellent job of defending tight formations versus the Seahawks. Granted, the Seahawks offensive line is considerably worse than Tampa Bay’s and Tampa Bay’s running scheme is more diverse.
With as much as the Bucs switch up their rushing plays, the defensive line is bound to get lost at some point. Linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron will have to be active and energetic in the run game. Both have the ability to be gap shooters, especially Barron, but the duo will have to play smart football. If they do not - and we have seen both, namely Ogletree, struggle with playing sound football before - Charles Sims could pop off for a few gashing runs.
Slowing Down Jameis Winston
No matter the receiver, Winston likes to throw this deep out route. Winston has the arm, touch and decisiveness to fit this throw in more times than not. It’s a risky throw, yes, especially when Winston is throwing before the route break and trusting that the defender won’t win on the play, but Winston makes it work and his aggression is what makes him dangerous.
The Bucs gets slot receiver Adam Humphries matched up by rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell on this play, and Winston knew where he wanted to go with the ball as soon as he read that. Winston pulled the trigger well before the receiver was out of his break, knowing that Humprhies was going to get the separation he needed to against a linebacker. Luckily the Rams run a defense that is almost a 4-1-6 with Mark Barron acting as a linebacker/safety hybrid and Lamarcus Joyner often being on the field as a fifth ‘true’ defensive back. Nonetheless, the Rams need to be aware of their match ups because Winston will expose the weakest ones time and time again (looking at you, Coty Sensabaugh and Troy Hill).
The Rams also need to get pressure on Winston. Now, that is a bit of a given, but the Bucs offensive line will not make that easy. Through two weeks, they have played well as a unit, only allowing Winston to be sacked three times. That is not to say they are without weaknesses, though.
In the first two weeks of the season, especially in their Week 2 game versus the Arizona Cardinals, the Bucs offensive line struggled to pick up stunts and blitz twists, particularly the the left guard and center. The group holds up well versus more straight forward pass rushes, though the Rams base four of Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald and William Hayes will be the toughest group that the Bucs have faced so far, not to mention sub-rusher Dominique Easley. The Rams will still need to get creative to get to Winston.
Last week, the Rams showed a bit more creativity and ambiguity in terms of pass rush. It would still benefit them to put more pass rushing bodies down to pass rush if they are going to bring the house on third down, but they made a step in the right direction. Gregg Williams should cook up a few stunts and twists that target the left side of the line with Donald and/or Easley. Assuming those two are on their game again, that could create some easy pressure.
The Rams best shot at winning this game is to force Jameis Winston into a few bad decisions like the Arizona Cardinals did. Unfortunately, the Rams are not going to be able to put up 40-plus points like the Cardinals did against the Bucs. This has the potential to be a low scoring battle, but Winston and his offense will ultimately be too much to handle. Their big play ability is going to be tough to stop.