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Rams will need to lean on Matthew Stafford against Tampa Bay

LA is working through injuries at the running back position, and the Bucs are one of the best teams at stopping the run

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are traveling cross-country to compete in a highly anticipated matchup against the Los Angeles Rams. This will be a clash of the current #1 and #2 teams in the NFL, according to recent power rankings.

The Rams did not necessarily exchange two first round draft selections and Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford in order to win in the regular season - the real measuring stick for the trade will come in the post season. With that said, Sunday afternoon will be the first major test for the Stafford-led Rams and should be a reasonable assessment of their ability to compete in a potential playoff matchup.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Sunday’s contest - LA’s offense will need to lean heavily on Stafford and will likely feature a high volume passing attack.

Tampa Bay’s defense features a duo of interior lineman that is among the most stout the the NFL: former Ram Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. So far this season, opposing offenses seem unwilling to run the football and would rather take their chances through the air.

Homework: Everything you need to know about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How did the Cowboys and Falcons game plan for the Bucs?

In Week 1, Dak Prescott threw 58 passes for the Dallas Cowboys. The following week against the Los Angeles Chargers, this number dropped to 27 attempts.

In the Bucs’ second contest, Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks attempted 48 throws (Matt Ryan 46, Josh Rosen 2) after throwing the ball 35 times in Week 1 versus the Philadelphia Eagles.

Though the sample size is only two games, it does appear that teams are deviating from their standard game plan and attacking the Buccaneers defense through the air significantly more often. The run defense is likely primary reason for this; however, another factor to consider is game script. Opposing offenses may feel pressure to keep up with the high-scoring offense led by Tom Brady and the score of the game may dictate passing situations.

A silver lining for Los Angeles is that they’ve faced two of the relatively tougher interior defensive line units in their first two games: Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols in week 1 and then DeForest Buckner in week 2. The Rams have not yet dominated on the ground this season, but maintaining a balanced attack and committing to the ground game against two of the better run-stopping units should be considered a promising sign for this upcoming matchup.

Could injuries at running back force the Rams’ hand?

Before the regular season even started for LA, the team put 3 different running backs on injured reserve: starter Cam Akers, reserve back Xavier Jones, and return specialist Raymond Calais.

Now, Darrell Henderson is working through a rib injury after exiting early against the Indianapolis Colts. Should Henderson be unavailable Sunday against Tampa Bay, a rotation of Sony Michel and rookie Jake Funk would shoulder the load.

The Rams offense has been fairly balanced in terms of run/pass through two games. Matthew Stafford attempted 26 passes against the Chicago Bears and 30 versus the Colts.

Even if Henderson plays against the Buccaneers, it’s reasonable to not expect him at 100% health. While Michel had a much heavier workload in Week 2 as opposed to a single carry in the first game, his role in the Rams offense is still relatively unknown. Funk worked in on third down with Henderson out but he has yet to touch the ball on offense.

Could the uncertainty at running back force the Rams to put the ball in their signal caller’s hands more often? The injury situation will become clearer as the week progresses and should be something to continue monitoring as the game unfolds.

How has the Bucs defense fared against the pass?

The Tampa Bay defense has given up the 3rd most passing yards in the NFL through two weeks, with opposing quarterbacks averaging 342 yards per game. However, this statistic is mostly the result of volume - the Buccaneers have faced the 6th most pass attempts.

Tampa Bay’s defense ranks 8th in net passing yards per attempt, which is a more accurate measure of the team’s performance to-date.

Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis form a reliable pair at outside corner. Third-year corner Sean Murphy-Bunting is currently on injured reserve but is expected to return this season.

If there is a Tampa Bay corner to pick on, it’s likely Ross Cockrell. The veteran had a rough outing against the Cowboys when Murphy-Bunting left with an injury. The Bucs tried to keep Cockrell on the sidelines in Week 2, moving safety Mike Edwards to the slot instead; however, Davis suffered a hamstring issue which forced Cockrell onto the field.

Sean McVay has been known to force personnel matchups favorable to the Rams, with the most infamous example coming in 2018 when he used the Minnesota Vikings’ coverage rules to isolate Anthony Barr against Todd Gurley and Cooper Kupp. Look for McVay to work his magic when Cockrell is on the field, and Stafford will need to take advantage.

What can we expect from Stafford in Week 3?

The Rams game plan will likely feature a high-volume passing attack in order to minimize running the ball against the formidable Bucs interior defensive line. While Stafford attempted an average of 28 passes in the first two contests, this number could realistically fall within the range of 40-50 versus Tampa Bay.

The Rams will need to take underneath throws and check downs in order to keep the chains moving, and then take downfield shots as they become available. Veteran DeSean Jackson has had a minimal role so far this season, but LA may need his speed to help keep the defense honest and create space underneath for Kupp, Robert Woods, and Van Jefferson.

This game will be the first real test for the Stafford-led Rams, and the new signal caller will need to shoulder most of the load in this competitive matchup. LA acquired Stafford to make a run deep into the playoffs, and Tampa Bay will be the first real assessment of his ability to accomplish this.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports