In Week Four, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will bring Tom Brady back to the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium for what is surely the most hotly anticipated games on the entire 2021 NFL schedule. However, football players live by the 'one-game-at-a-time' mantra, and by that measure Week Four might as well be a month away. The Buccaneers are still working their way through Week Three, and it is definitely not the time to have divided attention because the week concludes with what may be the stiffest test they will face in a long time.
There are only two 2020 playoff teams who have started off the 2021 season with a 2-0 record, and they are meeting Sunday in SoFi stadium when the Buccaneers visit the Los Angeles Rams. Tampa Bay's defense will have to contend with a red-hot Matthew Stafford and his prolific group of pass-catchers but for Brady the challenge is Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and a Los Angeles defense that allowed the fewest points and yards in 2020. And what a challenge that is.
"This week is really challenging because they've got good players in the secondary, they have a good front and we lost to them last year," said Brady. "They're one of the top-rated defenses in the league. They have one of the greatest defensive players of all-time. Everything about this week is challenging – really good defense, really good offense, we've got a long way to travel. It's a big game for both of us."
As Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich noted on Thursday, the Rams' defense features top-notch performers at every level beyond just Donald and Ramsey, but it really is those two who define the overall problem Los Angeles presents to opposing quarterbacks. NFL coaches and defensive players like to stress how rush and coverage have to work in tandem, with the front-line players reducing the amount of time quarterbacks have to throw and the secondary taking away their targets long enough for the pass-rushers to get home.
Donald is freakishly fast off the snap and the extra attention he draws creates quick one-on-one opportunities for his linemates. Ramsey is an elite cover man who is even harder to neutralize this year as the Rams are deploying him all over the formation. Obviously, Brady is a grand master at reading defenses and processing information quickly, but the Rams significantly raise the level of difficulty even for a quarterback of his caliber and experience.
"It's just a very challenging team because they do a good job disguising coverages, but they've got a great pass rush," Brady explained. "You can't really pick up on anything pre-snap because they're holding disguises and, at the same time, they have a pass rush that gets home really quick. The corners do a great job of locking onto receivers and I think they do a good job of all having their eyes on the quarterback and reacting to where the quarterback is looking.
"So there are not a lot of chances to go to second reads and so forth because if you look one way, chances are the ball has got to come out just because of how fast that pass rush gets home."
Through two games the Rams are giving up just 216.5 passing yards per game and 5.70 yards per pass play. Those figures currently rank 11th and fifth in the NFL, respectively, but are not far off L.A.'s number-one ranked averages of 190.7 yards per game and 5.57 yards per play in 2020. Donald has one sack so far and Ramsey has one interception but their impact goes beyond the often gaudy stats they put up. In last year's Bucs-Rams meeting in Tampa, Ramsey didn't have an interception or a pass defensed and Donald didn't show up on the stat sheet at all but visitors still held Brady and company to 251 yards and won the game, 27-24. Donald actually doesn't have a sack in either of the last two Bucs-Rams games, including Tampa Bay's 55-40 win in Los Angeles in 2019.
"None of that matters for Sunday," said Leftwich. "It looks like [Donald] is getting better [after] coaching against him in that division. Now seeing him, there's no slowing down, he's only getting better. It's amazing to see that type of player. They're doing a good job of moving him around and putting him in different spots but his talent and his ability on what he can do – I don't know if we've seen that.
"When you have those types of players, they don't want to keep them stationary. They're moving them around and I understand it. Raheem [Morris] is doing a great job of moving those guys around."
There's also the matter of the Rams' sparkling new 75,000-seat home, which will likely get pretty loud on Sunday when the Buccaneers have the ball. The Buccaneers didn't have to deal with much of that in their run to the Super Bowl LV title, other than a louder-than-seemed-possible crowd in a partially-filled Lambeau Field in January.
"We did some in Green Bay last year with the 9,000 fans they had at the game – the loudest 9,000 fans I've ever heard in my life," said Brady, who strangely has never played a football game in Los Angeles. "That was kind of like we had a little introduction. B.A. (Bruce Arians) kind of predicted that and we worked on it the Thursday and Friday before that game, and we've worked on it now last week and this week just to have some preparation for it. It's been good, but it's definitely an adjustment. We've all got to be on the same page and communication is a real premium. You've got to be able to communicate between all 11 players and a lot of it is non-verbal communication. There is a lot to everyone kind of being on the same page, but communication is key."
The Buccaneers got their 2-0 start, and extended their active winning streak to 10 games, with a pair of games in front of the home crowd. Now they get their first road test of their title-defense season, and with the cross-country travel, a hostile crowd and, most importantly, a Rams defense that might be the best in the NFL, it will be a tough one. Fortunately, Brady loves challenges.