The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:05 ET kickoff at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shaquil Barrett. The whole league is watching Barrett after he has exploded onto the scene with an NFL-best eight sacks through three weeks. That's not just the best a Buccaneer has ever done to start a season, it's tied for the most sacks for any player in league history through the first three games of a season. As such, Barrett is poised on the cusp of setting even more records; for instance, if he could get two more sacks against the Rams he would be the first player ever to hit double digits in just four games. Barrett is worth watching on Sunday because it will be fascinating to see if the Rams choose to send more blockers his way than the Bucs' previous opponent, thereby possibly opening more opportunities for, say, former Ram Ndamukong Suh.
Ronald Jones II. The second-year running back is returning to the scene of many of his college exploits, as he made his mark as a big-play back for USC at the Coliseum. Jones had two particularly big plays in the Bucs' Week Three game against the Giants, a 41-yard jaunt on a screen pass and a 25-yard run on a draw play, which was part of a 121-yard day overall. Jones continues to split the workload in Tampa Bay's backfield with Peyton Barber, who has also looked sharp in the early-going, but it's open question whether his share of that arrangement will gradually increase if he continues to break off big gains. Bruce Arians wants to ride the hot hand, and at one point in the fourth quarter in Week Three Jones was given the ball on six consecutive plays, a stretch produced 37 yards and got the Bucs within sniffing distance of the goal line.
M.J. Stewart. As the Buccaneers' primary nickel back, Stewart has already seen a lot of action, as he's been on the field for 69% of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps so far. That percentage should go up in Week Four, because the Rams run most of their offense through a three-receiver set that has Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods on the field all the time. Kupp is the primary slot receiver in that trio, which means that he'll be Stewart's responsibility for much of the day. Kupp is also the Rams most targeted player in the passing game by a pretty wide margin, which means Stewart will be at the center of the action on Sunday in the Coliseum. His ability to shut down or at least limit Kupp could determine how effectively the Buccaneers defend Jared Goff and the Rams' passing attack.
Matt Gay. Buccaneers players and coaches have expressed nothing but complete confidence in the team's rookie kicker since his potential game-winner from 34 yards out in Week Three sailed just outside the right upright. Gay also missed one extra point early in that game and had his second one blocked, but he bounced back to hit four other field goals, including long-distance shots from 52 and 47 yards. Obviously, with only three games under his belt, Gay is still working to establish himself as a reliable NFL kicker, which would be the case even if he was perfect at this point. The Bucs are convinced that the former Utah standout is going to be their long-term answer at a position that has been troubling for the better part of a decade, and a strong bounce-back against the Rams would support that belief.
Ali Marpet. The Bucs' left guard won't be the only blocker to deal with Rams superstar lineman Aaron Donald, but he's sure to get him as a primary assignment quite a bit on Sunday. Marpet has been a big factor in the team's significantly improved and refreshingly consistent rushing attack through the first three games of the season, but he'll have to limit Donald's all-too-often darts into the backfield that can blow up a run before it gets started. Marpet and the Bucs will want to establish a balanced attack, not only to give bite to the play-action game but also to control the ball as much as possible and keep a potent Rams offense off the field.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 96.7%/93.8%/92.9%. Those are snap count percentages, respectively, of Rams receivers Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks, all of which rank in the top 13 among NFL receivers so far this season. Basically, the Rams always have that trio of pass-catchers on the field, and they all have very distinct strengths. The Buccaneers will need their communication in the secondary to be on point in order to keep all three covered as much as possible.
· 61%. That's Ronald Jones' "success rate" on rushing plays so far this season, according to Football Outsiders. FO describes tags a run as a success if the back gains at least 40% of the needed yards on first down, 60% of the needed yards on second down and 100% of the needed yards on third or fourth down. Jones is succeeding at a higher rate than every other back in the league except Baltimore's Mark Ingram (63%) and Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott (62%).
· 50.0%/27.3%. These are red zone touchdown efficiency rates, with the first number representing what the Rams have given up so far and the second representing what the Bucs' offense has achieved. Tampa Bay's one-for-five performance in the red zone in Week Three was one of the key factors in their eventual one-point loss to the Giants. The Bucs rank second-to-last in that category in 2019 and the Rams' defense is tied for ninth-best. That is an unattractive pairing of numbers for the Bucs if they can't break those trends in Week Four.
· 30.0%. Tampa Bay's run defense has faced 70 handoffs through three games and only 21 of those have resulted in runs of at least four yards. That's a 30.0% success rate for opponents that is the best of any defense in the NFL. That rate has been compiled despite the Buccaneers already facing some of the most prolific running backs in the league. That suggests the Bucs are capable of being one of the few opponents to keep Rams running back Todd Gurley relatively bottled up.
View pictures of the Buccaneers leaving for their matchup against the Rams.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers' second-leading receiver was held out of the team's first two practices this week due to a hip injury, and that has made him questionable to suit up on Sunday in Los Angeles. Godwin did practice on Friday, which is encouraging, but if he does miss a game for the first time in his three-year career, the Buccaneers would likely lean more heavily on veteran Breshad Perriman as the top complement to Mike Evans, with a trio of young receivers available to fill in as the third receiver in Justin Watson, Bobo Wilson and Scotty Miller.
· Starting center Ryan Jensen was also held out of action until Friday, as well. Again, there is optimism that he'll be able to go on Sunday, but if he's not cleared the Buccaneers could turn to versatile backup Earl Watford, who is considered capable of playing all five positions on the line. The team could also choose to slide starting left guard Ali Marpet into the pivot, a position he played for all of 2017, and then play Watford at guard.
· Rookie linebacker Devin White will miss a second consecutive game due to a knee injury he sustained in the Bucs' Week Two Thursday night win at Carolina. White was injured early in that contest, and veteran Kevin Minter has played nearly every defensive snap in his place since, teaming up with Lavonte David as the pair of starting inside linebackers.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE RAMS
Los Angeles advanced all the way to the Super Bowl last year and didn't make too many changes to the depth chart, apart from the switch at safety from Lamarcus Joyner to Eric Weddle and the elevation of two new starters on the offensive line. The Rams didn't have to mix things up too much after spending the previous few seasons loading up on talent on both sides of the ball. Even before the additions of players like Marcus Peters and Dante Fowler, Los Angeles already had one of the very best players in the league on both sides of the ball.
On defense, that's obviously the aforementioned Donald, who has won each of the last two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. He earned his second trophy last year thanks to a career-best 20.5 sacks, which led the league, as did his 25 tackles for loss and 41 quarterback hits. He's also forced nine fumbles over the last two seasons. For obvious reasons, Donald commands a double-team on more than 60% of his snaps, and yet he still continues to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. If the Bucs can't limit Donald's time in their own backfield on Sunday, it will be very difficult for Jameis Winston and the offense to move the ball with regularity.
The Rams' best player on offense, meanwhile, is running back Todd Gurley, who completes the three-week gauntlet of backfield terrors the Bucs will face following Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and New York's Saquon Barkley. Tampa Bay's vastly improved run defense did remarkably well against McCaffrey and Barkley, but that won't make this week's challenge any easier. Like Barkley, Gurley is a complete back, with size, speed, elusiveness, vision and very good pass-catching ability. Also like Barkley, Gurley is the Bucs' first priority on Sunday, as Tampa Bay coaches feel it is imperative to make the Rams' offense as one-dimensional as possible so that they can put more pressure on Jared Goff.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the challenge of containing Rams RB Todd Gurley on the heels of similarly tough matchups against Carolina's Christian McCaffrey and New York's Saquon Barkley:
"Yeah, it starts with stopping Todd Gurley or the game's over for us defensively. [If] we don't stop him, it's going to be a long day. Just like the other two, we've got to plan for it, rally to the ball, make more than one guy make the tackle and force the quarterback to beat us."