To get that fifth win, the Buccaneers will need to stand up against the Rams' fierce pass rush off the edge and try to slow down a St. Louis rushing attack that has really hit its stride in the last month behind rookie Zac Stacy.
HEAD COACH: Jeff Fisher is finishing up just his second year at the helm in St. Louis, but he's been an NFL head coach for 19 seasons and has racked up 155 regular-season wins. That total ranks fourth among all active coaches, behind only Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan and Tom Coughlin. In 2012, Fisher took over a Rams team that had gone 2-14 the previous fall and had averaged three victories per season from 2007-11 and led them to a 5.5-game improvement (7-8-1). The 2013 squad could further improve on that, albeit by just a half game, with wins in the final two weeks of the season. One of seven current NFL head coaches who also played in the league, Fisher spent five seasons with the Chicago Bears and has always been known for his ability to relate with his players.
During his 16 and a half seasons as the head coach in Houston/Tennessee, Fisher led his team to the playoffs six teams and compiled a 5-6 postseason record, including a trip to Super Bowl XXXIV (where the Titans coincidentally lost to the Rams). Fisher started coaching in Chicago immediately after his playing days ended and the former defensive back stayed on that side of the ball throughout his 10 seasons as an assistant coach. He served as a defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Rams (when the team was still based in Los Angeles) and helmed one of the league's most aggressive and successful units in Philly from 1988-90. After he stepped down from the head job in Tennessee, Fisher sat out the 2011 season before returning to the league with St. Louis in 2012. The Rams were seeking a coach who could instill a sense of stability on the franchise and honed in quickly on Fisher, who reportedly had several very interested suitors at the time. While injuries have hit the Rams' offense hard this year – particularly with the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford – Fisher has developed the team's defense into a unit that is among the best in the league at rushing the passer.
OFFENSE: The Rams' season on offense has been split down the middle, with Bradford – the former first-overall pick in the 2010 draft – starting the first seven games before suffering a torn ACL against the Carolina Panthers, and veteran reserve Kellen Clemens starting the last seven. Bradford was off to a fairly good start in his fourth NFL season, compiling a passer rating of 90.9 and a TD-INT ratio of 14-4. The passing attack has been more sporadic with Clemens (78.4 rating, 7-5 TD-INT ratio) at the helm, and it has particularly struggled in the last four weeks, averaging 165.3 net yards per game over that span, fourth-lowest in the league.
However, while the aerial attack has dipped, a youthful running game has stepped up to fill the void. Led by breakout rookie Zac Stacy, the Rams have averaged 154 rushing yards per game over the last four weeks, including 144 last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The compact Stacy (5-8, 224) was a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in April, but he emerged from a crowded field of candidates including Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead to become the primary starter. Stacy has three 100-yard games and 854 yards overall and he's averaging 4.2 yards per carry with six touchdowns. The recent surge has pushed St. Louis up to 16th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, while the passing game has slipped to 26th.
Two newcomers lead the Rams' receiving corps, as former Titans TE Jared Cook has a team-high 44 catches for 614 yards and four scores and first-round pick WR Tavon Austin has added a 40-418-4 line. Cook's 14.0 yards per catch is an indication of the big-play potential the Rams though he won't end up with totals far removed from his last two years in Tennessee (49-759-3 in 2011; 44-523-4 in 2012). Austin, the first skill-position offensive player selected in the 2013 draft, took more time than expected to show off his own home run potential (the Rams certainly expected more than a 10.5 yards-per-catch mark) but has recently begun to turn in more big plays…including runs of 65 and 56 yards in the last month. In fact, Austin has scored on a 95-yard punt return, an 80-yard reception and a 65-yard run, the first player ever to do that in a single season. It should be noted that Austin, who missed last week's game with an ankle injury, did not participate when the Rams opened practice on Wednesday.
In addition to helping produce the 10th-best yards per carry mark in the NFL (4.4), the Rams' veteran offensive line has also been relatively good at keeping their quarterbacks' upright, ranking 15th in sacks per pass play on offense. After 2009 second-overall pick Jason Smith failed to develop into a top-notch blocker, the Rams brought in former Miami Dolphin Jake Long – the first overall pick in 2008 – through free agency to solidify the left side of the line. Overall, despite the injury to Bradford, the Rams have seen some improvement on offense in 2013; their current average of 22.6 points per game, while a modest 20th in the NFL rankings, would stand as the team's best since 2006, and in three of their last five games (all wins), the Rams have scored at least 27 points. It helps that St. Louis has only turned the ball over 17 times all season and, with a +10 turnover ratio, is ranked sixth in the NFL in that category.
DEFENSE: The Buccaneers have already played the three best defenses in the NFL in producing sacks per pass play (Buffalo, New Orleans, Carolina) and they're about to encounter the fourth-best squad. In terms of bringing pressure off the edge, in fact, there might not be a bigger challenge in the NFL than St. Louis' front, which is led by ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Quinn leads the NFC and ranks second in the NFL with 15 sacks while Long has added 6.5 and brings a relentless style of play off the left end. Quinn's tally also includes eight forced fumbles, as he has become a master of the sudden strip-sack that produces so many game-changing moments.
With defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford combining for 9.5 sacks of their own, the Rams have a solid front that is a pick-your-poison dilemma when choosing who to double-team. Still, Quinn, who has 25.5 QB takedowns since the start of 2012, his second season, is the primary concern for most opposing offenses. "He’s [so] good at tomahawk chopping the backside of the quarterback," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano. You haven’t seen a guy do it with that effectiveness since L.T. [Lawrence Taylor]. L.T. used to knock that ball out with a vicious tomahawk chop and [Quinn] is bringing it that way.”
All the attention that must be paid to the Rams' front has freed up linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree to rack up the tackles in bunches. Ogletree has a slight lead on Laurinaitis in that category, 134 to 127, by the Rams' own count, but they've both added big plays in different ways. Ogletree has forced five fumbles and intercepted a pass while Laurinaitis has contributed two sacks and two interceptions. Laurinaitis starts at middle linebacker in the Rams' 4-3 and virtually never misses a defensive snap because he is equally strong against the run and the pass. He has nine interceptions since 2009, fourth in the NFL among linebackers, and he's surpassed 100 tackles in all five of his NFL seasons.
Statistically, the Rams are much better against the run than the pass, allowing the 12th fewest rushing yards per game (105.4) and eighth lowest yards per attempt (3.9). The pass defense ranks 27th but does have a young star in cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who had a remarkable rookie season in 2012 with four interceptions, three of them returned for touchdowns. This year, Jenkins has just one pick so far but has broken up a team-high 17 passes, including four last week against Drew Brees and the Saints. The Rams had imported a former Fisher cohort in Tennessee, Cortland Finnegan, to play opposite Jenkins last year, but Finnegan landed on injured reserve this year in November. Trumaine Johnson, a third-round pick out of Montana a year ago, has stepped in and has a team-leading three interceptions.
The Rams' defense has not been particularly stingy on third downs, allowing a conversion rate of 40.8% that ranks 23rd in the NFL. However, it has been pretty strong when backed up, ranking 11th in the NFL in defensive red zone touchdown percentage (53.3%), and very good at taking the ball away. The Rams' 27 takeaways are just two behind the Buccaneers, and both teams rank in the top five in that category. The Buccaneers, who have struggled on third downs in recent weeks, hope to create manageable conversion opportunities by doing better on first down, and the Rams rank 23rd in the NFL with an average of 5.64 yards allowed per first-down play.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rams' kicking game has been something of a mixed bag. Thanks largely to the dominant Johnny Hekker, the Rams have been outstanding at punting and covering punt returns, but they haven't had much spark in the return game.
Hekker leads the NFL with a net punting average of 43.8, which if maintained would be the third-highest mark in NFL history. When opponents do try to return a punt, Hekker's hang-time and the strong coverage of players like Ray Ray Armstrong and Stedman Bailey have held them to just 2.9 per attempt, second-lowest in the NFL. Kickoff returners haven't fared much better, getting only 21.8 yards per pop.
Rams opponents are cancelling Hekker's advantage out, however, by putting up equally good collective numbers. St. Louis can't do much about their foes' 48.3-yard gross average (worst in the NFL), but they could cut into the net with good returns. Instead, St. Louis is averaging just 8.2 per runback despite Austin's 98-yard touchdown, and their opponents have a 42.3-yard net punting mark.
Second-year kicker Greg Zuerlein made a name for himself in 2012 with his long-range bombing, trying an astounding 13 field goals of 50 or more yards and making seven of them. From inside 50, he was almost perfect, making 16 of 18. This year, Zuerlein has only tried one field goal of more than 50 yards (and missed it), but he's 22 of 23 on all other tries.