Jamel Dean is fast. Ndamukong Suh is powerful. Lavonte David is rangy. Jordan Whitehead is a rugged hitter. The Buccaneers feature a wide variety of skills among their various defenders, all of whom have come together to form the NFL's third-ranked unit. To have their usual level of success this Monday night, though, those defenders are all going to need the same thing: Eye discipline.
Tampa Bay's opponent on Monday night is the Los Angeles Rams, who are rolling up nearly 400 yards of offense per game behind quarterback Jared Goff and a depth and breadth of skill-positions that rivals the Bucs' own group. What makes the Rams' offense a different sort of challenge than most they have faced this year is the amount of added movement they graft onto many of their plays, all designed to get defenders looking and leaning in the wrong direction.
"[They use] a lot of motion, a lot of stuff to get your eyes messed up, a lot of play-action and bootlegs," said rookie safety Antoine Winfield, whose position is particularly susceptible to being moved out of the right spot by this sort of movement. "We just have to make sure we're disciplined in our reads and with what our jobs are."
Obviously, every offense in the league uses pre-snap motion and misdirection on occasion, but the Rams make it a central part of their approach. For instance, wide receiver Robert Woods has shifted or gone in motion before the snap on 631 plays since the start of 2018, over 100 more times than any other player in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. So while avoiding being fooled before the snap is always an important part of a defender's job, it has to be a specific point of emphasis for the Bucs this week against Sean McVay's schemes.
"We just have to do our jobs," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "It's about eye discipline every week from that standpoint, but we have to be fundamentally sound. They do a good job of making sure all 11 guys have to be fundamentally sound because if you're not, they will find the weakness.
"I think they do a great job changing up the tempo of the football game. They can hit you in the mouth, they can run outside, they can play-action you deep [and] they can play-action you short. [McVay] does a great job of mixing his plays up and I think all his guys play fast."
According to Kacy Rodgers, the Buccaneers' defensive line coach, the Rams actual offensive plays aren't notably different than what they see from week to week. He calls them 'NFL 101' plays but says the Rams make them look different with their movement and their tempo.
"That's why when you watch them and [think], 'How are these people getting wide open?' [it's] because they really harp on everything looking the same speed and tempo," said Rodgers. "And another thing people don't realize is the way they utilize their wide receivers in blocking. They get the support player [blocked]. 'Just put the safety down in the box.' Don't worry about it – they've got the safety blocked. Then they mess with the linebackers with this motion here. This guy ran a reverse, but then they handed it off inside. The misdirection and the timing is just unbelievable.
"They just pose a heck of a problem. This is probably one of the toughest offenses to face in the league."
This might seem like something that applies more to the passing game, but the motion also helps create lanes for the Rams' rushing attack, which is averaging 134.2 yards per game. Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and Cam Akers share carries and having a trio of backs involved allows the Rams to mix up their approach to the ground game a bit.
"They do a great job with a lot of motion," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "They've got three backs, really, that are just fresh all the time. They're different, but they're also very similar. The style of what they do with each one is pretty much the same [and] they've added some more power game [and] some more gap scheme stuff this year that makes them a little bit harder to defend.
"Jared is playing very, very well [and] protecting the football, they're running the ball well [and] their play-action game is outstanding."
Play-action fakes are the most obvious way NFL offenses try to mess with a defender's eyes to get him moving in the wrong direction, and the Rams use play-action very well. But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to misdirection in the Los Angeles attack. The Bucs can have all the speed, power and range they want on defense but they won't slow the Rams down on Monday night if they don't stay disciplined with their eyes.