Stafford. Brady. Donald. Gronkowski. Kupp. Evans. Ramsey. Godwin. Those names are just eight of many reasons why Rams-Bucs is looked at as one of the most interesting matchups of the 2021 season and a marquee highlight for the NFL to showcase its product to the world. In one corner, the defending champions and the most successful player in league history. In the other corner, SoFi Stadium. And that corner. And that corner. And that corner.
Every corner you see during the game on Sunday will actually belong to SoFi Stadium.
But tucked between the nooks and crannies of all the big names will be a number of unheralded starters on either side who will be tasked with helping or discouraging the performance of those stars. These may not be the first names you hear mentioned on the broadcast in Week 3, but they are no less important to LA’s chance of beating the Bucs.
David Edwards, G
Austin Corbett, G
There has been such a focus on center Brian Allen that we never stop to talk about the jobs being done by the Rams’ two starting guards. Edwards is now in his third season as a starter and his second at left guard. The 2019 fifth round pick out of Wisconsin has so far played well enough to expect LA to be considering an extension for him in 2022, one year before he becomes a free agent.
Edwards was penalized just one time in 2020, getting called for holding against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6.
Corbett’s path to an extension may have already passed, but that doesn’t mean the Rams are going to let him get away easy as he approaches his own free agency in 2022. Corbett also hasn’t been penalized this season, after getting flagged five times in 2021, four times for a false start.
What we do know about LA’s job of pass protecting in 2021 is that Sunday’s game will feature two of the three least-pressured QBs in the NFL over the first two games: Tom Brady is getting pressured 10% of the time, as compared to 11.9% of the time for Matthew Stafford.
Lowest QB Pressure Rating:— Crant Gohn (@CrantGohn) September 23, 2021
1. Tom Brady - 10.0%
2. Jimmy Garoppolo - 11.7%
3. Matthew Stafford - 11.9%
4. Dak Prescott - 13.2%
3 out of 4 on this list are putting up incredible numbers. The other belongs in the CFL.
But Tampa Bay’s interior offensive line is going to have the most difficult matchup of their season with Aaron Donald on the other side, and the same might be true of Allen, Corbett, and Edwards’ assignment this weekend.
Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea, the 12th overall pick in the 2018 draft, has been a terror on the inside for opposing guards and centers and he’s exceptionally versatile, showing versatility to drop into coverage or to play a down as a fullback on Tampa’s offense.
All 350 pounds of Vita Vea dropping into coverage here really made my day. pic.twitter.com/7WsBuU9IvC— Robert Mays (@robertmays) September 23, 2021
Watch here, as Vea pushes Falcons center Matt Hennessy directly into Matt Ryan, without even needing to slow down his walk:
ridley thinks matty ice is cooked pic.twitter.com/FLVatAbD8H— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) September 22, 2021
Part of what will make Vea especially nightmarish for LA’s offensive line is the presence of former Rams defensive end Ndamukong Suh, one of the best interior/anywhere defensive linemen of his generation.
As odd as it is to say, and this is in no way meant to be a slight to the 39-year-old left tackle, but thus far Andrew Whitworth may be the offensive lineman who has had the most pass protecting issues through two games, allowing two pressures in Week 1 and the only sack given up by the Rams in Week 2. That means that it is even more imperative for the play of LA’s interior offensive line to be on top of its game, both now and for the next 14 games after Sunday.
#Rams’ offensive line pressures allowed in Week 1 (PFF):— Nick Cothrel (@NickCothrel) September 13, 2021
Andrew Whitworth: 2
David Edwards: 2
Austin Corbett: 1
Brian Allen: 1
The offensive line allowed six pressures, four hurries and one sack.
David Long, Jr., CB
Robert Rochell, CB
So I started with a package of two guards, now how about a duo of cornerbacks? As you remember from last season’s playoff, no doubt, the Buccaneers tend to bring guns to a knife fight and even if Antonio Brown does miss the game because he’s on the Covid-19 reserve list, Tampa Bay will be stacked at receiver.
SportRadar has so far tracked Long with being targeted eight times in the first two games, with five of those being completed for 51 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. Perhaps what is most encouraging though is that Long has now played in 39 and 48 snaps, respectively, over the last two weeks.
For a third round pick who had rarely seen the field for more than a handful of defensive snaps over his first two years, all experience is good experience for Long.
Rochell’s experience came sooner than expected, as he played in 27 snaps against the Chicago Bears, then 14 against the Indianapolis Colts. The 6’2, 195 lb track athlete out of Central Arkansas could find himself going from covering receivers who were only ever the biggest stars at their own high schools, to guarding Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, or potentially Brown this Sunday.
As to the receiver depth past those three and how Brady plans to utilize them if Brown is out, that’s unknown. The only other wide receiver on Tampa Bay who has even seen a target this season is Tyler Johnson, and he’s only caught one pass on three throws for five yards. If Brown can’t go, it could be fourth round rookie Jaelon Darden getting into action for the first time.
KR Jaydon Mickens (85), on injury report (abdomen), working with rookie Jaelon Darden during special teams portion of today’s practice. Looks as if we might see Darden make his formal NFL debut Sunday. #Bucs pic.twitter.com/3p1SMcB6yW— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 23, 2021
Darden has been referred to as a “speed demon.” But he’s not as fast as Rochell, the player who was picked just one spot after him in April.
Jake Funk, RB
Sean McVay might not have expected to have to lean on any day three picks this early, but Rochell is not the only rookie who the Rams could call upon to help them against the Bucs. As we’ve been tracking the ongoing saga of “Rams running back injuries,” now Darrell Henderson could wind up as questionable because of a rib cartilage injury suffered last week.
That likely forces Sony Michel into starting snaps against Tampa Bay but will McVay entrust Michel with over 90% of the work, like he has Henderson?
It could be that Henderson is just healthy, pain-free enough to be active and to serve some sort of role on the offense, alleviating the pressure on Funk to complement and spell Michel. (I can almost always spell ‘Michel’ as long as you clarify if its first name or last name.) Funk has barely played football at all since graduating high school over five years ago and he didn’t have much more than 100 career rushing attempts at Maryland.
However, Jake Funk is already providing an important role to the LA Rams this week. Even if it’s just in practice, the Rams need healthy running backs who can help get the team ready for the Buccaneers, and right now Funk is the longest-tenured back on the roster who is actually healthy. Jake Funk is!
Jake Funk: 5’10, 204lbs, adjusted 4.54, 38.0 Vertical— Jack Cavanagh ↗️ (@javanagh87) April 2, 2021
Michael Carter: 5’8, 201lbs, 4.55, 34 Vert
Kylin Hill: 5’10, 215lbs, 4.62, 36.0
Jermar Jefferson: 5’10, 206lbs, 4.60, 35.5
Only satellite backs I care about.
Kenny Gainwell and Elijah Mitchell are more than a satellite https://t.co/vGMcfB9g3n
Funk may get his first career carry on Sunday or he might only play special teams, but what we can say for a fact is that he’s just a paper thin line between being a backup and being the starter right now.
Tampa Bay has had the number one run defense in the NFL since the start of 2020 and so what the Bucs might really need the most out of their running backs on Sunday is a good pass block or 50.
Kenny Young, ILB
There may not be a more dangerous red zone threat in the NFL than Rob Gronkowski, and yes, the year is 2021. The 32-year-old Gronkowski leads the league with four touchdown receptions (two in each game) and his reunion with Brady has led to a total of 11 touchdowns on only 90 attempts spread out over the last 18 games.
And dating back to Tampa’s Super Bowl win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Gronk has caught six touchdowns on the last 20 targets from Brady.
This was actually not an issue for the Rams during their meeting with the Bucs last year. Gronk was targeted six times in the game, catching two passes for 25 yards. In fact, every Tampa receiver struggled.
- Brown had eight catches for 57 yards on 13 targets
- Godwin had seven catches for 53 yards on 10 targets
- Evans had 49 yards on five catches over nine targets
- Brady finished 26/48, 216 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT and one sack.
Young, who was ejected from the last game, was solid in that effort to beat the Bucs 27-24 and to keep Gronk out of the end zone. As was safety Jordan Fuller, who intercepted Brady twice and helped seal the victory.
Keeping Gronk out of the end zone this week will be just as crucial, as nobody has done it in their last three games. Not even twice.