Los Angeles Rams Gameplan: NFC Crown Up For Grabs Against Buccaneers

by Blaine Grisak
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Over the NFL offseason, no two teams were touted as the NFC’s best more than the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Rams traded for Matthew Stafford with the hope that he could take them to the promised land and get them over the hump. The Buccaneers meanwhile “ran it back”, returning everyone from their Super Bowl winning roster.

For a Week 3 game, a lot is on the line. With Matthew Stafford at the helm, the Los Angeles Rams are looking as good, if not better than they did during their Super Bowl run it 2018. On the other side, the Buccaneers haven’t lost a NFC game since losing to the Rams on Monday Night Football last November.

There’s a very good chance that these are the two best teams in the NFC. Both teams are 2-0 through the first two games of the season. In Football Outsiders overall DVOA, the Rams and Buccaneers rank second and third. Both teams boast the fourth and fifth rated offense. This is a matchup between two juggernauts.

The Rams demolished the Chicago Bears in the opening week and then edged out the Colts on the road last Sunday. The Buccaneers meanwhile got lucky against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL’s first game of the season before outclassing the Falcons last week.

While there will still 14 games remaining after Sunday, a win for either team could mean pivotal when it comes to the number one need and the only first-round bye. That bodes especially true for the Rams. After this week, the Rams host the red hot Arizona Cardinals and then travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football. A losing record during this three game stretch would put them in an early hole in the NFC playoff race and NFC West division race.

Contrarily, the Buccaneers don’t have another “difficult” game on the schedule. Over the next three weeks, they’ll play the New England Patriots who are starting a rookie quarterback, the Miami Dolphins led by Jacoby Brisett, and the Philadelphia Eagles.

A win for the Rams or the Buccaneers could catapult them for greatness this season.

While this will be a battle between two teams, all eyes will be locked on the quarterback matchup between Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford. For the past 20 years, Brady has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Last season, he won his seventh Super Bowl championship, taking over a team that hadn’t been in the playoffs in 13 years. At 44 years old, he’s still playing like he’s 28.

Matthew Stafford hasn’t tasted an ounce of the same success that Brady has. For 12 years in Detroit, Stafford has been seen as a quarterback who can’t win big games. Since entering the NFL in 2009, Stafford is 8-67 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. Additionally, the Lions only made the playoffs three times – they were 0-3 in those games.

After seeing the success that Brady had with a new team late in his career, Stafford followed suit. The former Lions quarterback requested a trade out of Detroit and after an infamous weekend in Cabo, he ended up as a member of the Los Angeles Rams.

The move has seen its early payout as Stafford had a historical debut and won the NFC’s Player of the Week in Week 1. Last week, Stafford led the Rams back from a late 21-17 deficit and again on a game-winning field goal drive.

The Buccaneers have won 10 straight games and the last NFC team that they lost to were the Los Angeles Rams. This will be Tom Brady’s first NFL game in Los Angeles and he played his worst game of the season last year against the Rams.

All eyes will be on the quarterbacks and the offensive minds behind them. However, for a Week 3 matchup, everything seems to be on the line. The Rams will host the Buccaneers at SoFi Stadium on Sunday with control of the NFC up for grabs. Let’s get to our five lists of five in the weekly gameplan!

Five Los Angeles Rams Players to Watch

1. QB Matthew Stafford

As mentioned above, all eyes will be on Matthew Stafford. It’s games like this that the Rams made the trade. The Buccaneers have a suspect secondary. With that said, Sean McVay is going to put this game in his new quarterback’s hands and let him go win it. Jared Goff threw 51 passes last year against the Buccaneers and it would be mildly surprising to see that number once again above 40.

Stafford has been seen as a quarterback who can’t win the big game. This is his chance to do and so and quiet the critics. It’s a team game, but is on the line for Matthew Stafford.

2. RB Sony Michel

Running back Darrell Henderson left the game last week with a rib cartilage injury. It’s likely that even if he does play, Sony Michel will see a majority of the carries. Michel won the Super Bowl in 2018 with Brady and joined the Rams a little over three weeks ago. In the fourth quarter last week, Michel had 10 carries for 46 yards. The Buccaneers have a stingy run defense, but the Rams will rely on Michel to get the job done.

3. C Brian Allen

Through the first two weeks of the season, there is arguably no bigger surprise on the Rams than the play of Brian Allen. He is currently Pro Football Focus’ number two overall center and has played very well.

While Allen has played well, Sunday might be his biggest test up to this point. The Chicago Bears defensive line is no joke as well as the Colts’. However, on Sunday Allen will be going up against Vita Vea. Outside of Aaron Donald, there might not be a better pass rushing interior defensive lineman than Vea. Allen will have his hands full.

4. CB Jalen Ramsey

Jalen Ramsey always seems to show up for the big games. In Week 1, the Rams completed shut down the Bears wide receivers. Last week, it was Ramsey who came up with the game-clinching interception. Ramsey is going to show up for this one as he goes up against Tom Brady. The Buccaneers will be without Antonio Brown, but Ramsey will have his hands full with Mike Evans.

5. S Jordan Fuller

It’s time for Jordan Fuller to once again prove that he’s the best 199th overall pick in NFL history. Both Fuller and Brady were drafted 199th overall. Last season, Fuller intercepted Brady not once, but twice on Monday Night Football. Fuller has been extremely shaky in coverage this season as he’s allowed eight receptions on eight targets and has yet to record a pass breakup.

Five Keys to Victory for the Los Angeles Rams

1. Don’t Run the Ball for the Sake of Running the Ball

Too many times this week, I’ve seen from fans and analysts how important it’s going to be for the Rams to run the ball. However, by doing so, the Rams would be playing directly into the Buccaneers strengths. The Buccaneers have the number five run defense in the NFL right now. Last season, the Rams rushed for 37 yards, currently have the 17th rated running offense, and will be without their starting running back at 100%.

2. Attack the Buccaneers Secondary

This is going to be a Matthew Stafford game. The Buccaneers have lost five games with Tom Brady under center. In three out of those five games, teams have thrown the ball 40 or more times. Teams have thrown at least 30 passes in all of them and have averaged 40.8 pass attempts.

So far this season, Dak Prescott threw for 403 yards and Matt Ryan threw for 300. Sean Murphy-Bunting will be out and Cooper Kupp is having himself a year. The Buccaneers secondary can be exploited and that should be the game plan on Sunday.

3. Disrupt Tom Brady

This goes without saying, but it’s going to be crucial for the Rams to knock Brady off his spot and get him uncomfortable. Brady played his worst game against the Rams last season as he had just a 62.5 passer rating and averaged just 4.5 yards per attempt. If the Rams can frustrate Brady, they’ll be in good shape.

4. Take Away the Big Play

Everybody knows Bruce Arians’ ‘No risk it, no biscuit” philosophy. The Buccaneers headed into Week 2, number one in the NFL in pass plays that went 20 yards or more. The Rams have played a bend but don’t break philosophy on defense through two weeks.  It’s going to be important once again to keep everything in front of them. The loss of Antonio Brown will be a big hit for Tampa Bay in this aspect.

5. Get Production Outside of Cooper Kupp

Cooper Kupp has been one of the best wide receivers in the NFL to start the 2021 NFL season. However, last week was a red flag for the offense. It seemed as if nobody outside of Kupp was capable of making a play. Van Jefferson had a drop on third down. Robert Woods also had multiple drops.

There’s a good chance that teams, especially good teams that have the personnel, try to take away Kupp. Woods only has two catches for 81 yards through two weeks. The Rams are going to need a lot more out of the veteran wide receiver on Sunday.

Five Matchups To Watch

1. Matthew Stafford vs. Tom Brady

They won’t be going head to head, but all eyes will be on Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady. There’s a good chance that this game is a shootout and these two quarterbacks have to go stride for stride with each other. Stafford has a lot to prove in this game and if he’s able to match Brady or outplay Brady, it’ll say a lot about his move from Detroit to Los Angeles.

2. Brian Allen vs. Vita Vea

One of the knocks on Brian Allen in 2019 was that he would tend to get overpowered. This week, he’ll be going up against Vita Vea who is 346-lbs and one of the best interior power rushers in the NFL. Allen has played very well through two weeks, but he’ll have his hands full on Sunday. He’ll need to keep the pocket clean for Stafford.

3. Aaron Donald vs. Ali Marpet

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the trio of Ryan Jensen, Ali Marpet, and Alex Cappa leads one of the best interior offensive lines in the NFL. All eyes were on Donald last week against Quenton Nelson. Donald will have his hands full once again when it comes to Marpet and Cappa at guard. The Rams need to disrupt Brady and that starts with Aaron Donald.

4. Kenny Young vs. Rob Gronkowski

Kenny Young has been one of the better Rams linebackers in coverage this season. Young has allowed six receptions on just eight targets for 34 yards and has a pass breakup. Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski has seen a career resurgence at 32 with 12 catches for 129 yards and four touchdowns. Brady will rely heavily on Gronkowski and Young is going to need to bounce back after getting ejected last week.

5. Jalen Ramsey vs. Mike Evans

Last season, Ramsey held Mike Evans to four receptions for 40 yards. With Antonio Brown out due to COVID, it’s going to be that much more important for Ramsey to shut down Evans and limit the Buccaneers’ options on offense. These are two of the best players at their position and it can be certain that Ramsey is going to show up at his best.

Five Bold Predictions for the Los Angeles Rams

1. Matthew Stafford has 400 yards and 4 Touchdowns

Dak Prescott had 403 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1. Prescott is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and has a trio of weapons like the Stafford and the Rams. Without Henderson at 100%, it’s likely that the Rams will be relying on Stafford a lot. The short passing game will be used as the run game. The Rams will look to exploit the Buccaneers secondary and therefore rely heavily on Stafford.

2. The Rams Hold Brady to a Passer Rating Under 80.

Tom Brady has been held to a passer rating under 80 just three times in the regular season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. One of those times came against the Rams last season. The Buccaneers will be without Antonio Brown and Jalen Ramsey will lock on to Mike Evans. If Donald and co. can knock Brady off his spot, the Rams will have a chance to disrupt Brady’s rhythm.

3. Jordan Fuller Intercepts Brady for a Third Time

Jordan Fuller intercepted Tom Brady twice in last season’s matchup. Additionally, Brady has complained about defensive backs wearing single digits. Jordan Fuller wears number four. Brady has thrown two interceptions this year – one of which went to Trevon Diggs who wears number seven. Fuller hasn’t recorded an interception through three weeks, but he’ll get one on Sunday.

4. Aaron Donald Records Two Sacks

Aaron Donald is off to a relative slow start to begin the 2021 season as he has just one sack through two weeks. Last week he go close multiple times with Carson Wentz. Brady won’t be nearly as mobile. The Buccaneers offensive line might be the best in the NFL, but Donald will sack Brady twice on Sunday.

5. DeSean Jackson Scores a Touchdown Against His Old Team

Through three weeks, I feel like I’m committed to this one at this point. We’re going to hope to just speak it into existence. When it comes to playing his old teams, Jackson always shows up. After being traded from the Eagles, Jackson recorded over 100 yards in four out of the six meetings and hit 100 again against the Eagles with the Buccaneers.

Jackson had five receptions for 67 yards against Washington two years after signing with Tampa Bay and then had over 100 yards against Washington in his first game back with the Eagles. This will be Jackson’s first game against Tampa Bay.

Five Storylines to Follow

1. Top Teams in the NFC Go Head to Head

The Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are two of the best teams in the NFC heading into Week 3. For a Week 3 matchup, a lot seems to be on the line. A win will give either team an early advantage in the NFC playoff race and the race for the NFC’s top seed.

2. Matthew Stafford Can’t Win the Big One

Since entering the NFL in 2009, Stafford is 8-67 against teams that finished the season with a winning record. Stafford is 1-2 against Brady in his career, with the lone win coming in 2018 as the Lions won 26-10. Stafford and the Lions lost in 2014, 34-9 and then Stafford left trailing 13-0 in the first quarter in 2020 in a 47-7 loss. This will be Stafford’s chance to prove that his career has turned a corner in Los Angeles.

3. Tom Brady’s First Game in Los Angeles

The Rams and Chargers relocated in 2016, yet Tom Brady has never played a football game in Los Angeles. The Patriots hosted both the Rams and Chargers in 2016 and 2017 and then the Buccaneers hosted the Chargers last season. It doesn’t get much more exciting than Brady at SoFi Stadium for the first time.

4. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey vs. Tom Brady

These are two of the all-time great defensive players going up against the best quarterback of all-time. Donald and Ramsey have been answering questions about Brady this week and Brady has answered questions about Donald and Ramsey. There will be a lot of discussion surrounding these players and their side of the ball.

5. Matthew Stafford vs. Tom Brady

Two of the best quarterbacks in the game are going to head to head. They won’t directly go up against each other, but there will be a lot of discussion surrounding it, especially when Stafford followed a similar path as Brady this offseason. There’s a good chance this is a high scoring game and the two quarterback trade shots throughout the game.

Downtown Rams Mailbag

Question 1

This is a great question from Derek!

McVay definitely hasn’t revealed a majority of his playbook that has opened up since trading for Matthew Stafford. We’re going to see that for the big games and this just so happens to be a pretty big game. The running back situation could effect some things, but I doubt it will effect a lot.

Michel isn’t much of a pass catcher and therefore you likely won’t see the screens you would with Henderson. We might see some tight end screen and back-side screens to Kupp in place of those targets to Henderson. This could effect things from a pass-protection standpoint as well. Henderson was performing very well in that area and last week we saw Jake Funk in those situations after Henderson left the game.

The Buccaneers can be exploited in the secondary. Through two weeks, the Rams haven’t relied on their running backs in the run game until the fourth quarter. No Henderson could mean more screens to Kupp and Woods, but it’s likely with the Buccaneers secondary, those would have been utilized anyway.

Not having Henderson certainly isn’t ideal, but I don’t believe that it will effect a lot.

Question 2

In Week 1 we saw Van Jefferson have his coming out party finally. However, last week was concerning. Kupp was the only wide receiver that seemed capable of making a play. However, I’m sensing a come back game from Robert Woods. Kupp will likely remain the focus. His connection with Stafford can’t be denied at this point. However, I expect Woods to come back with a big performance against a strong opponents.

The Rams are going to throw the ball a lot. Last season, Woods had 12 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown against the Buccaneers. Another performance like that wouldn’t be surprising.

Question 3

The answer is most definitely Gronk. Gronkowski has had a sort of career resurgence this season after a down 2020 in which he had only 623 yards despite playing all 16 games . While those might not seem like bad numbers, the last time Gronkowski played all 16 games, he had 1300 yards. Gronkowski’s 8.1 yards per target was a career low.

The Buccaneers will be without Antonio Brown which could make Gronkowski even more of a threat in the middle of the field. With four touchdowns already in 2021, he also poses a huge threat in the red zone. The Rams have gone with a bend but don’t break style defense. With that, it’s important for teams to settle for field goals, or like last week, come away with no points in the red zone. Kenny Young and the Rams linebackers will have their hands full on Sunday.

Question 4

Yes, these two teams are VERY evenly matched. Let’s just look at the DVOA rankings once again. In overall DVOA, the Rams and Buccaneers rank second and third respectively. On offense, they rank fifth and sixth. The pass offenses rank second and sixth. Very close to say the least!

However, I think you are spot on Brittany! Where the Rams have the advantage is in coverage and on defense. The Rams rank fourth in DVOA on defense and the Buccaneers are right in the middle of the pack at 12th. Narrowing that down to just pass defense, the Rams rank fourth and the Buccaneers rank 14th.

Add in the fact that the Buccaneers will be without Antonio Brown and the Rams will have their best two cornerbacks against Tampa Bay’s best two wide receivers. Tampa Bay will also be without defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting.

The Rams have the edge on defense. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the defense will shut down the Buccaneers offense. However, when the Rams need a stop in the forth quarter, I’m going to guess that they get it.

Kylo on Twitter: How important do you think special teams are in this game?

As Kylo mentioned the Buccaneers are missing Kevin Minter their ST captain and Jaydon Mickens who is averaging 29 yards per return. Teams typically overlook special teams until they bite you where it hurts on the scoreboard. This happened last week when the Rams had a fiasco on a punt snap that turned into a Colts touchdown. After leading 17-6, the Rams trailed 21-17 in a matter of minutes.

Thankfully, the Rams were able to come back last week from the error, but that can’t happen this week. Those are the type of mistakes you can’t afford against good teams like the Buccaneers. The Rams also can’t afford to give Brady the ball on the 40 yard line like they have to open the game the past two weeks.

Long story short, special teams will be important in this game. This game is going to be close. A missed field goal could be the difference in winning or losing. A big return or other special teams error could cost the Rams the game. Tampa Bay will be without two crucial pieces, but the Rams errors are most about focusing on what they can do rather than what other teams are doing.

Game Prediction

The Rams opened as 2.5 point favorites, but have moved to one point underdogs by Vegas. This game is very hard to predict and I’ve gone back and forth several times. The Buccaneers have picked up right where they left off at the end of last season. Meanwhile, the Rams have looked really good with Stafford under center.

My head is telling me to go with the Buccaneers, but my heart is telling me that the Rams find a way to get it done at home. The Rams just matchup really well with the Buccaneers and with no Jason Pierre-Paul, Sean Murphy-Bunting, or Antonio Brown, Tampa Bay is missing some key pieces.

I may regret it, but in this case, I have to follow my heart on this one. The Rams played a close game on the road last week and it might have been because they were looking ahead to this matchup with the Buccaneers. Sean McVay is going to open the playbook and leave no stone unturned. This is going to be a high scoring game, but the Rams defense will get a stop when they need it.

Prediction: Rams 38, Buccaneers 31

 

 

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