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Aaron Donald Demands Double Teams…And Beats Them

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to knock the Los Angeles Rams from the ranks of the unbeaten on Sunday when they visit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time in 26 years. The cross-country trip begins an unusual stretch in the Buccaneers schedule that won't see them return to Raymond James Stadium until November 10.

To get back to .500 and get the long road swing started on the right foot, the Buccaneers will have to beat the defending NFC Champions, who have already beaten fellow NFC South teams Carolina and New Orleans this year. The Rams, who moved back to Los Angeles in 2016 after two decades in St. Louis, have only lost one of their last nine games at the Coliseum, which the Bucs last visited in 1993 to play the then-Los Angeles Raiders.

The Rams rode a prolific offense to the Super Bowl last year and have almost all of their key pieces from that attack back in 2019. However, the Los Angeles defense has led the way in the early going, ranking third in yards allowed per game (285.7) and seventh in points allowed per game (16.3). Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has won the last two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and is often impossible to keep out of the offensive backfield. The Rams added outside linebacker Clay Matthews in the offseason to team with Dante Fowler and bring pressure off the edge.

The Rams' offense has by no means been bad, of course. Los Angeles has scored 25.3 points per game to rank eighth in that category and the Rams have run the ball well with Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown. A 4-3 TD/INT ratio has kept quarterback Jared Goff's passer rating down at 84.5 but he's a talented young passer who is surrounded by a trio of equally-dangerous receivers in Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.

Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will encounter when they take on the Rams Sunday:

RAMS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

The Rams have two new starters on the offensive line in left guard Joseph Noteboom and center Brian Allen, but everyone else is back on an offense that scored 32.9 points per game last year and rang up 421.1 yards in the average outing. The Rams' defense produced the fourth-most takeaways a year ago and has five through three games so far this year. Here are four Rams in particular who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. DT Aaron Donald. The awards on Donald's mantle are probably more than enough of an explanation as to why he heads this list, but it's hard to overstate how much impact he can have on a game. He had 20.5 sacks last year, the most ever by a defensive tackle, not to mention an incredible 41 quarterback hits, or about 2.5 per game. Offensive coordinators fear pressure up the middle more than anything else, and nobody provides that as consistently as Donald. And he put up those mind-boggling numbers in 2018 while being double-teamed on 60.5% of his snaps, the third-highest rate in the league according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In other words, the Buccaneers are almost surely going to double-team Donald a lot, creating opportunities for other pass-rushers, and it still might not work.

2. RB Todd Gurley. Gurley's workload has been an openly-discussed issue since he saw his snaps dwindle late last year and in the playoffs, apparently due to an arthritic condition in his left knee. But both the Rams and Gurley himself declared the fifth-year back good to go to start the 2019 season, and when he's on the field he's L.A.'s best offensive player. Gurley scored 40 touchdowns over the past two seasons; he has just one so far this year but is averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He has also played 146 offensive snaps through three weeks, which is tied for the fifth-most among running backs in the NFL. Like Saquon Barkley, last week's foe, Gurley has all the running back tools – power, vision, balance, quickness and pass-catching ability

3. OLB Dante Fowler. The Rams got Fowler in a trade at midseason last year and he ended up contributing 2.0 sacks in eight games. That swap, and the one-year deal the Rams gave him to stay put in 2019, is really starting to pay off, as Fowler has already matched last year's sack total in three games and appears to be playing the best football of his four-year career. Fowler and any Ram who lines up on the edge is going to get some one-on-one pass-rush opportunities thanks to the attention that must be paid to Donald, as noted above, and he is taking advantage of them. It was the speed and quick get-off that got Fowler drafted third overall by Jacksonville in 2015, but he can also utilize his good power to push linemen back and then disengage at the right moment to hit the quarterback.

4. WR Brandin Cooks. Pick your poison in the Rams' receiving corps, as different evaluators will rank the trio of Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in different orders. Kupp is big and smart and has been the highest-volume Goff target, though he's averaging just 11.3 yards per catch. Woods is a complete wideout who is used on jet sweeps and blocks well, and also has the numbers that suggest a possession receiver. But Cooks is the burner and therefore the one most likely to change the game with one or two big plays. He's averaging 17.3 yards per grab, the best of his six-year career so far. Cooks also has 33 career touchdowns, including at least five each of the last four years while playing for the Rams, Patriots and Saints.

STRENGTHS

The Rams have run the ball better than they've thrown it so far this season, with Todd Gurley getting help from Malcolm Brown to put up 123.7 yards per game. On defense, Los Angeles is holding opposing teams to 192.7 passing yards per game and 5.30 yards per pass play, both fourth-best in the NFL. Here are some more specific areas in which the Giants are off to a good start in 2019:

·    When the Rams' offense gets a first down inside the opposing 10-yard line, it's very difficult to keep it from continuing on to the end zone. Los Angeles is one of 10 teams that has scored a touchdown on every one of its goal-to-go possessions so far, but the Rams are at the top of that list because they've had more of those opportunities and converted them all. Specifically, the Rams are eight-for-eight in goal-to-go situations, and they haven't been predictable, scoring four teams each on the ground and through the air.

·    Jameis Winston threw the ball down the field on Sunday against the Giants about as well as he ever has, completing seven passes of 20 or more yards, including strikes of 55, 44, 41 and 30 yards. That was an encouraging sign but it will be difficult to duplicate in Los Angeles. No team has allowed fewer completions of 20 or more passes than the Rams. They've only been solved on the deep ball four times; the next lowest team total is six and the NFL average is 11.

·    Todd Gurley is a good pass-catcher, but as noted above, the Rams have a trio of trustworthy receivers who are on the field a lot. The Rams' official depth chart lists all three as starters, and all three – Woods, Kupp and Cooks – have been on the field for at least 92.9% of the team's offensive snaps so far. It's not terribly surprising, then, that Los Angeles runs more of its passing game through its wideouts than any other team in the NFL. Wideouts have accounted for 86.2% of the team's receiving yards this year; the league average per team is 65.1%.

·    The Buccaneers want to see improvement in their red zone offense as soon as possible, and Bruce Arians specifically noted that his team had started off doing well in the passing game in that area but has since taken a dive. Pulling out of that dive in Week Four will be complicated by an L.A. defense that has allowed a collective passer rating of 33.2 in the red zone, third-best in the NFL. The league average is 91.7.

WEAKNESSES

It's a small sample size at this point but the Rams' interception rate on offense is a bit high, a mark of 2.86% that is ninth worst in the NFL. There's not much to criticize on defense, but L.A.'s punt coverage units have given up an average of 12.8 yards per runback. That's second to last in the NFL. In addition:

·    As good as the Rams' defense has been, it's been susceptible to the run on second down. The Los Angeles defense is allowing 4.16 yards per carry overall to rank right in the middle of the NFL pack, but on second down specifically it is giving up 5.57 yards per tote. That includes four runs of over 10 yards allowed.

·    The Rams can strike quickly with Gurley or Cooks, but they haven't exactly been grinding out long drives so far this year. Los Angeles has just two possessions through three games that has lasted at least five minutes, and only one of those actually resulted in a score. That's tied for the third-lowest total in the NFL.

·    As good as the Rams have been at punching it in from first-and-goal opportunities, they have not run the ball particularly well in the red zone. The bar is lower down there – the NFL average is just 3.0 yards per carry – but the Rams have fallen short of it, picking up just 2.1 yards per try inside the 20. That's 24th best in the NFL.

·    Rams QB Jared Goff has yet to recapture the downfield passing form he showed in 2018 on the way to the Super Bowl, though it's likely just a matter of time until that happens. Last year, the Rams ranked fourth in passer rating on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air, at 110.1, and they had the best completion rate on such passes, at 46.4%. So far this year, those numbers are 81.9, which ranks 23rd, and 33.3%, which ranks 22nd.

NEW FACES IN 2019

The Rams had a very talented roster heading into 2019, including a nearly intact returning group of starters, and they traded down three times before finally picking in the draft last spring. As such, there weren't a large number of additions expected to make big impacts this season. However, they did find a new starter for the secondary and their sack leader is in his first year with the team.

1. S Eric Weddle. The Ravens released Weddle on March 7 and the Rams signed him just four days later. Weddle stepped directly into the Rams' starting lineup, replacing Lamarcus Joyner, who was allowed to walk in free agency after a down 2018 campaign. Weddle, who had three Pro Bowl seasons in Baltimore after a long run in San Diego, brings a wealth of experience and a well-deserved reputation as a hitter to the Rams' secondary.

2. OLB Clay Matthews. The Packers didn't try to bring back their one-time sack king in free agency, instead signing Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith. The Rams were happy to give Matthews a two-year deal to see what was left in the tank, and are surely pleased with the team-high 4.0 sacks he has collected already.

3. QB Blake Bortles. Obviously, the Rams would be pleased if, unlike the two additions above, Bortles does not see the field much and Jared Goff remains healthy. Still, the team clearly wanted an upgrade at their backup QB spot in case Goff is ever unavailable, and Bortles likely inspires more confidence than Sean Mannion.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. G Austin Blythe. Blythe missed Sunday night's game against the Browns due to an ankle injury and was replaced at right guard by Jamil Denby. However, he did participate in limited fashion in the Rams' final practice last week and Head Coach Sean McVay said the "anticipation and hope" is that he would be able to return against the Buccaneers.

2. TE Tyler Higbee. Likewise, McVay is hoping for a return in Week Four from his number-one tight end, Higbee, who missed the Browns game with a chest injury. Higbee did not practice last week and Gerald Everett stepped in as the primary tight end in his absence.

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