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Rams-Bucs: How will Tampa Bay scheme to keep Aaron Donald off of Tom Brady?

The key to the game might be how well the Bucs’ offensive line holds up against an elite defensive line

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tom Brady has a longer NFL playoffs resume than most quarterbacks will have for their entire regular season careers. Robert Griffin III has made 43 career starts, regular season and postseason. Brady has made 46 career starts in the playoffs alone.

So it is significant that when the Philadelphia Eagles sacked Brady four times last week in the wild card round, it was one of the most-pressured playoff games of his entire career. Only three times in the postseason has Brady been sacked more than four times (2010 divisional round loss to the Jets; 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Giants; 2016 Super Bowl win over the Falcons) and only two other times has he taken a quartet of playoff sacks.

Tom Brady will always be difficult to beat in the postseason but the LA Rams’ margin of error will get much wider if Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Greg Gaines can disrupt him to an even greater degree than what the Eagles were able to do in the wild card round.

For the Rams, it couldn’t be any more clear how essential it is to pressure the quarterback in the playoffs; Kyler Murray stood little chance of impacting Monday night’s 34-11 LA victory that was highlighted by an obnoxious performance from the defensive line. Murray was sacked twice and threw two interceptions that were the result of devastating domination by Donald and friends. The Rams had 12 games this season with at least three sacks and they went 4-0 when they had four or more.

The LA Rams were one of four teams this season to get at least one sack in all 17 games (the Bucs, Chargers, and 49ers were the others) and they led the league with 12 games in which they had at least three sacks. LA went 9-3 in those contests.

One of those games was Week 3’s 34-24 victory over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. Brady was sacked three times, Matthew Stafford only went down once. In fact, Stafford was only sacked seven times total over the first eight games of the season. He was sacked 23 times over the final nine, and once against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday. Both the Rams and Bucs offensive line will have their hands full from what’s coming at them on the other side, but perhaps Tampa Bay should feel a little more weary about protecting their quarterback this coming Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Jon Ledyard of the Bucs site Pewter Report wrote up a gameplan for how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could scheme to defeat the LA Rams in the divisional round. Step one: Keep Tom Brady safe.

Yes, the Bucs offensive line weathered injuries to Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen, which understandably shook the unit up some. But, outside of Ali Marpet, Tampa Bay’s O-line struggled. Jensen was solid, but there were more miscommunications against blitzes and games than normal. Donovan Smith also gave up too much pressure around the edge. He was even tossed to the ground on multiple plays.

On one reverse pancake near the goal line, Smith was carried back and deposited on Jensen’s ankle. That’s when the center stayed down with an injury in the second quarter. Alex Cappa was knocked back off the snap often, giving up penetration on a couple run plays. He was also beaten soundly on a few pass protection reps, allowing pressure in Tom Brady’s face.

Despite having the fastest time to throw of any quarterback, Brady was sacked four times. On three of the sacks, he had almost no chance to get rid of the ball. Honestly, Josh Wells played better than most of his counterparts in this one. If Tampa Bay’s offensive line plays like it did against the Eagles, the Rams will bury the Bucs.

Brady was sacked four times against the Eagles and Ledyard expresses most of his concern to how the Tampa Bay offensive line was consistently beaten by Philly’s defensive line. The Eagles have some really good front-seven players but are not what they used to be in that area. Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat tied for the team-lead this season with 7.5 sacks, followed by Fletcher Cox at 3.5.

Ledyard credits Brady for “already throwing faster than humanly possible” but how much faster will he need to be against Donald and Miller? Center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Tristan Wirfs are considered gametime decisions.

What’s Ledyard’s gameplan solution if the Bucs offensive line isn’t as good as it needs to be? Ask the seven-time Super Bowl-winner to save you:

And he’s still lightning fast from the pocket. In fact, only Ben Roethlisberger had a faster time to throw than Brady this season. But Roethlisberger played in an RPO heavy offense that was designed that way. In Tampa Bay, Brady just reads out concepts that quickly. On Sunday, Brady released the ball in 2.10 seconds on non-sacks. That’s 0.24 seconds faster than his season average!

“He’s extremely good at that,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “It might not be to the guy, but he knows the combination. As soon as the ball is snapped, that combination, he deciphers right now which one’s getting it. That’s as simple as you can make the game for the quarterback. But a lot of them can’t process that information.”

Brady only threw downfield one time against the Eagles, a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans. What does Ledyard expect from the Rams defense?

On the season, the Rams are one of the least man coverage heavy teams in the NFL. They play predominantly zone, rushing four with a variety of stunts and blitzes. L.A. is predominantly a Cover 3/Cover 4/Cover 6 defense that will pattern match more aggressively than the Eagles. In Week 3, they stuck to this exact script. Limited man coverage and go heavy zone to take away big plays.

It didn’t really work. Despite the loss, Brady shredded the Rams in Week 3. If the Bucs defense hadn’t surrendered a season-high in points allowed, the game might have been different. Also, a critical Rob Gronkowski drop deep in Rams’ territory and seven penalties killed the offense. A Bradley Pinion 15-yard punt also gave the Rams the ball at the Bucs’ 37, handing them three points despite an L.A. three-and-out. Brady was 41-55 for 432 yards without Antonio Brown in the lineup. Gronkowski also was injured, exiting the game for a portion of the contest.

The LA Rams are likely going to be happy if they hold the Buccaneers to 24 points again. But can they repeat that while also allowing 400 passing yards to Brady again? To what degree can Raheem Morris allow his defense to “bend” against the greatest playoff quarterback of all-time? It may not be up to Morris so much as it is up to the greatest defensive player of my generation and to what degree Tampa’s offensive line can contain him, as well as several teammates playing better ball in the last month than they ever have before.

That will be one key for the game, and there are plenty more to discuss.