- The Bucs are looking to improve on third downs and keep DE Robert Quinn at bay on Sunday
- How Rams tackle Jake Long handles Bucs DE Adrian Clayborn is one of the keys to this week's outcome
- Three Buccaneers have been ruled out for the game, while Rams WR Tavon Austin is considered questionable
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. The Buccaneers bring a 4-10 record into the game while the Rams are 6-8.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bucs have been focusing all week on improving their third-down performance. Currently ranked last in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage, and stuck in the midst of a particularly rough stretch, the Bucs know this crucial statistic is something that must be improved upon before the offense can become more consistent.
Fortunately, the Bucs may have the perfect chance to get back on track this Sunday, as they will be squaring off against a St. Louis defense that ranks just 23rd in the league in defensive third-down conversion percentage, allowing opponents to move the chains over 40 percent of the time.
"Yeah, third down has been an issue for sure," Head Coach Greg Schiano said. "I think we're six-for-35 in the last 35 third downs. We need to be better, obviously. A lot of different things, again, if it's one guy or one thing, you fix it. It's been various break downs, various things, some good defense, but we're going to see good defenses. That's a factor to be included, but it is what it is. We have to do better [and] protection is part of it."
Defensively, the Bucs will be preparing for the Rams' backup quarterback, Kellen Clemens, as usual starter Sam Bradford is out for the season with a knee injury.
Clemens has some experience as a starter in the NFL, with 19 total starts to his name, but the Bucs are putting together a defensive game plan aimed at shutting down the St. Louis offense regardless of who lines up under center.
"We approach it like [Clemens] is the starter," said safety Dashon Goldson. "He is the starter for them right now. He's doing some good things. They've got a pretty talented football team. They do a good job in the run game. They've got some explosive players in the passing game. The tight ends [are] pretty good. It's no slack. We've just got to go there and still prepare like we would against anybody. He's a crafty guy. He's been in the league for a few years and there's a reason why. He's still good at what he does."
As for the rest of the St. Louis offense, one of those explosive players the Rams have relied on in the team's aerial attack will be one of the biggest question marks heading into Sunday's contest – wideout Tavon Austin. Austin, the Rams' No. 1 pick in this year's draft, has been battling an ankle injury and has missed practice time this week after sitting out last week's game against New Orleans.
If he's able to suit up on Sunday, the Bucs will be well-prepared to defend the Rams' top big-play threat, who just last month rang up 138 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a game against the Colts – all on just two catches,
"He's a special player, man," said cornerback Darrelle Revis. "When the ball's in his hands, he does special things. He does miraculous things on the field. Coach [Schiano] has just been stressing all week, even on special teams and on defense, it's know where he's at at all times. Screens on offense, reverses, gadget plays, any trick plays, anything; just know where he's at at all times and, especially in the kicking game, he's dangerous as well. If he plays, we've got to know where he's at."
Defensively, the Rams' biggest strength is the pass rush along the front four, headlined by defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
As such, the Bucs have been paying especially close attention to their protection schemes this week, particularly in an attempt to contain Quinn, who is currently second in the NFL with 15 sacks on the year and has also forced an incredible seven fumbles.
"Well he's got 15 sacks and seven forced fumbles, so that tells you something," Schiano said of Quinn. "He's as good at tomahawk chopping the backside of the quarterback – you haven't seen a guy do it with that effectiveness since L.T. [Lawrence Taylor]. L.T., I mean, used to knock that ball out with a vicious tomahawk chop and [Quinn] is bringing it that way. I mean seven forced fumbles, think about that, that's a lot of forced fumbles and what did he play 14 games? That's pretty substantial for a defensive end."
Click here for more on what the Rams will bring to the table on Sunday afternoon.
**SERIES HISTORY The Buccaneers could get their all-time series with the Rams almost back to even on Sunday with a win in St. Louis, a place they last visited in 2004. St. Louis leads the head-to-head battle, 10-8, but Tampa Bay has won five of the last seven matchups.
The Bucs' last trip to St. Louis led to a 28-21 loss in 2004, but Tampa Bay responded with home wins over the Rams in 2007 and 2010. St. Louis took the most recent matchup, 28-13, almost exactly a year ago (12/23) at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs-Rams series includes two NFC Championship games, in 1979 and 1999, and in both cases the game was a rugged defensive struggle eventually won by the Rams. The Los Angeles club made it to Super Bowl XIV after a 9-0 January win in Tampa; two decades later, after a move to St. Louis, the Rams advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV on the strength of a comeback 11-6 win in Missouri.
The Buccaneers exacted revenge in a series of games after that 1999 NFC Championship tilt, beginning with a 38-35 shootout win at Raymond James Stadium that included nearly 850 yards of total offense and seven combined touchdowns between electric running backs Marshall Faulk and Warrick Dunn. That was a Monday night affair, as were the Bucs' 24-17 win in St. Louis in 2001 and their 26-14 decision in Tampa in 2002.
Click here for more details on the all-time Buccaneers-49ers series.
S Mark Barron
DE Da'Quan Bowers
LB Lavonte David
WR Vincent Jackson
G Davin Joseph
G Carl Nicks
DT Akeem Spence
WR Tavon Austin
CB Janoris Jenkins
T Mike Person
RB Daryl Richardson
LB Will Witherspoon
BUCCANEER PLAYER TO WATCH: T DONALD PENN
Coming off a disappointing result in last week's matchup against the 49ers, Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn is looking for a bounce-back performance – especially in his own individual play – as the team prepares to take on the Rams on Sunday.
While the Bucs have been up and down offensively this year – and Penn admits his own play has been somewhat inconsistent as well – he says one of the key things the team has been focusing on this week is its third-down performance.
The glaringly obvious statistic to look at when analyzing the Bucs' struggles on third down is the team's conversion percentage, but Penn says the root of the matter actually lies earlier in drives.
"It definitely needs to get better, but what would help us is we've got to do better on first and second down so we won't be in such a long third down," Penn said. "We're not doing a good job of chipping away and making it a manageable third down, so it puts us in a bad position. When you're in a third-and-long, everybody in the world knows you're passing the ball, especially the guys you're trying to block. "But at the end of the day, we've got to do a better job of blocking. If it's third-and-whatever, we've got to block it up and we've got to find a way to get it done no matter what it is. The bottom line is we haven't and we've got to do a better job of that, and we've addressed that. We're going to do some different things to try to get that fixed, but one of the biggest things, I think, that could fix that is being more productive on first and second down."
Of course, avoiding obvious passing situations on third-and-long will be of even more importance this week, due to the Rams' potent pass rush headlined by defensive end Robert Quinn.
Quinn is second in the league with 15 sacks and has also forced eight fumbles this year, so Penn and the Bucs offensive line will certainly have their work cut out for them on Sunday.
"He's playing great football this year," Penn said. "Compared to last year, he's really come into his own, putting himself in that elite category. He's playing good football. It's good to go against this matchup after playing probably one of my worst games of the season last week against the 49ers. It's good to kind of bounce back and try to redeem myself against a great pass rusher.
Penn said that after studying Quinn's performances this season, he can tell that a great deal of his improvement has come down to preparation.
"I think he's becoming a much smarter player," Penn said. "Last year, I think he was just going in and playing. This year, you can tell, I think he's putting in some film work, a lot of film work and studying the guys he's going against and using what they do wrong to his advantage. He's playing consistently. He's playing great football. He's really playing his butt off this year."
So with two games left in the 2013 NFL season and a matchup against one of the league's elite pass rushers on deck, Penn said his focus is on bouncing back from last week's game, shutting down a tough customer in Robert Quinn and building momentum as the Bucs head into the final weeks that will hopefully carry over into the offseason and beyond.
"We've got to pick it up, and we've got two games to really prove it," Penn said. "I've got a good defensive end coming in this week. He's looking to get more sacks and I'm looking to stop him from getting them, so it's going to be a good matchup."
KEY MATCHUP: BUCCANEERS DE ADRIAN CLAYBORN vs. RAMS T JAKE LONG
Adrian Clayborn, the Buccaneers' first-round pick in 2011 and starting right defensive end, will be making his first NFL trip to his hometown of St. Louis on Sunday. He hopes to put on a good show for the dozens of friends and family members who will be in attendance at the Edward Jones Dome.
It won't be a simple task. Opposing Clayborn will be Rams left tackle Jake Long, the first-overall pick in the 2008 draft who came to the Gateway City as a free agent this past spring. Long has solidified the Rams' previously-troublesome front line, helping St. Louis rank 15th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass player and 10th in yards gained per rush. By some measures, Long may be the best pass-blocker in the NFL this season. He was an elite-level performer early in his career in Miami before injuries slowed him down, and he's now back to making good use of his size, agility and football smarts. Long is the kind of blocker who often seems to know what his opponent is going to do before he does it.
This won't be an easy matchup for Long, either. Clayborn is the type of high-motor pass-rusher who never gives his opponent a chance to rest. The Buccaneers had seven sacks against Buffalo in Week 14 en route to a 27-6 win but only got to San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick twice last week. One of those two went to Clayborn; if the Bucs' hard-working end can invade the backfield again on Sunday, Rams QB Kellen Clemens may find it difficult to establish an offensive rhythm.
Click here to read about other head-to-head matchups that will help determine Sunday's outcome.
Both the Rams and the Buccaneers have been good at creating interceptions on defense and avoiding them on offense. St. Louis has run the ball effectively, especially in recent weeks, but has had trouble on third downs on both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay's return game has been sneakily good this year, and its defensive numbers continue to rise, but the offense has dropped to last in the league in terms of yards gained per game.
Points Per Game
Yards Per Game
Rushing Yards Per Game
Average Per Rush
Passing Yards Per Game
Punt Return Average
Kickoff Return Average
Points Per Game
Yards Per Game
Rushing Yards Per Game
Average Per Rush
Passing Yards Per Game
Punt Return Average
Kickoff Return Average
Gross Punting Average
Net Punting Average
Field Goal Percentage
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- LB Lavonte David has five interceptions this season and with one more can become the first linebacker in Buccaneers history to record six interceptions in a single season.
- LB Mason Foster has two interceptions returned for a touchdown this season and with one more can tie LB Derrick Brooks (3 in 2002) and CB Wayne Haddix (3 in 1990) for the most interceptions returned for a touchdown in a single season in franchise history.
- WR Vincent Jackson needs 84 receiving yards to pass Keenan McCardell (1,174 yards in 2003) for eighth-most, 86 receiving yards to pass Kevin House (1,176 yards in 1981) for the seventh-most and 103 receiving yards to pass Michael Clayton (1,193 yards in 2004) for sixth-most receiving yards in a single season in franchise history.
- Jackson has 69 catches this season, and with four more can pass his career high of 72 receptions, set last season.
- WR Eric Page has two punt returns of 40 or more yards this season. With one more punt return of 40 or more yards, Page will tie Jacquez Green (three in 1998) for the most returns of 40 or more yards in a single season.
- The Buccaneers have 33 sacks this season, their most since 2007 (33) and, with one more, can have their highest total since recording 36 in 2005.
- The Buccaneers have 21 interceptions this season and with two more can have their highest total since recording 31 in 2002.