The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday afternoon in the Divisional Round of the 2021 NFC playoffs. Who has the upper hand when the Buccaneers' offense is on the field? Let's take a closer look.
Sunday's contest will fall exactly 22 years after the last playoff meeting between the Buccaneers and Rams. That was the 1999 NFC Championship Game and it's one of the most memorable contests in franchise history, though it didn't end well in St. Louis for the visiting team. The game matched the Rams' explosive 'Greatest Show on Turf' offense against an extremely stingy Tampa Bay defense, and while defense surprisingly had the upper hand, St. Louis won, 11-6, on the game's only touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
This Sunday's game is different. It's not the elemental clash of two opposing forces but more of a track race between two very prolific offenses. That said, the Rams' defense did finish sixth against the run, fifth in sack percentage and seventh in interception rate so there will be plenty of firepower on both sides when the Buccaneers line up on offense.
In fact, we have a blueprint for what might happen on Sunday because these two teams met back in Week Three, with the Rams taking a 34-24 decision in Los Angeles. The Buccaneers' offense started slow, going scoreless in the third quarter because they failed on three relatively short third-down attempts, but eventually finished with 446 yards. As they fell behind 21-7 and spent much of the afternoon playing catch-up, most of that yardage came through the air. Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and was also the team's leading rusher thanks to three scramble for 14 yards.
Clearly, both teams have changed since Week Three. The Buccaneers' offense no longer has the services of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, though Brown also did not play in that game. Running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones are serious question marks in terms of their availability on Sunday and now the team is also sweating out ankle injuries for Pro Bowl offensive linemen Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen. Meanwhile, the Rams have added long-time Broncos star Von Miller to make their already formidable pass rush even scarier.
However, there were some outcomes in that game that can be instructive for the matchup. Most notably, Brady was extremely productive on quick throws, which would end up becoming a theme for 2021. In Week Three, 28 of Brady's 55 passes were considered "quick passes," in that the time from snap to release was 2.50 seconds or less. He completed 25 of those for 221 of his 432 yards.
That's still relevant at this point in the season because Brady led all quarterbacks in every quick-pass category this year, completing 292 of 382 such throws for 2,421 yards and 23 touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Rams' defense allowed the most yards by any team in the league on quick throws, giving up 2,268 yards and a 98.3 passer rating. And the Buccaneers were already trending in that direction in the playoffs. In the Wild Card win over the Eagles last Sunday, Brady averaged 2.17 seconds to get rid of the ball, the fastest mark he's had in any game since NFL Next Gen Stats began tracking these things in 2016.
The obvious benefit of quick throws is that they allow less time for opposing pass rushers to close in. Brady has seen a pressure rate of 16.1 so far this season, including the playoffs, easily the lowest for any quarterback in the league. In Week Three, Brady was pressured 10 times on 58 dropbacks, or 17.2% of the time against a defense that overall this season has compiled a 26.6% pressure rate. Fearful of Donald wreaking havoc along with Von Miller and fellow edge-rushing demon Leonard Floyd, opposing teams have taken this approach quite a bit against Los Angeles. The overall average time to throw against the Rams' defense this year was 2.66 seconds, the third-fastest against any defense in the league.
While Godwin and running back Giovani Bernard were the main recipients of Brady's quick passes, Mike Evans was able to get down the field a bit more, finishing with 106 yards on eight catches. Notably, he was not shadowed throughout the game by All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who had paid him special attention in the teams' regular-season meeting in 2020. Ramsey, who is now taking a lot more snaps out of the slot than he did last year, only lined up over Evans on nine snaps back in Week Three.
Evans mentioned earlier in the week that he loves when he sees a lot of man coverage, and he's especially effective against press coverage, with a league-high 10 touchdown catches after being pressed at the line. He may or may not get what he wants. The Rams do not use press coverage much; none of their defenders ranked in the NFL's top 50 in press-coverage snaps. Technically, Los Angeles also relies on zone coverage far more than man, but Brady says that in practice the Bucs will still see plenty of man looks.
"Zone coverages kind of become man once people come to their area," said Brady on Thursday. "This is a really tough matchup. These guys lock on to you pretty good at times, too. They may call it zone but a lot of times it plays like man and certain route concepts are guarded like man. I think this team does a lot of things well – obviously they rush the passer well; I think they cover you really well in the secondary; they get a lot of turnovers; they sack the quarterback, strip sacks. They have a lot of dynamic players. Obviously Jalen Ramsey's one of the great corners in the league. Between the guys that they have in the secondary as well as the front, you have no plays that you can take off."
Indeed, the Rams have a long list of talented defenders that can cause the Bucs' problems. Ramsey is joined by cornerback Darious Williams in base coverages and Williams has turned it up in recent weeks after a slow start to the season. When Ramsey goes into the slot, David Long, who had a pick-six in the Wild Card round, comes in with the sub package.
Up front, the addition of Miller has made it even harder for opposing teams to double-team Donald, or to keep Miller and Floyd out of the backfield if they do put extra men on the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And it's not just raw talent; Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris does a good job of drawing up plays that get blockers into disadvantageous positions.
"They do a really good job of trying to figure out ways to get you one-on-one and they have really good pass-rushers, so they do a really nice job there," said Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet.
That potential pressure up front becomes a bigger problem if Wirfs and/or Jensen can't play. Josh Wells would be the man at right tackle if Wirfs is out, but Wells himself is dealing with a quad injury. Rookie Robert Hainsey is the backup to Jensen at center but has so far only seen a handful of NFL regular-season snaps. Marpet has watched this week as his injured line mates have worked to try to be available on Sunday.
"They're a lot of tough dudes," said Marpet. "I think that at this point in the year, in order to play offensive line you're going to be dealing with some stuff. Basically, we're all dealing with different degrees of injuries here. But Wellsy stepped up and played great. You've just got to learn how to play banged-up if you can."
The Bucs' offensive performance in Week Three and it's continued ability to put up points even as more and more key players are sidelined or removed from the picture is reason for optimism on Sunday. Brady and company will likely be able to move the ball for decent portions of the game, but the key may be a faster start and cleaner play overall. Not only did the Bucs stall early on third downs in Week Three but they also committed seven penalties versus just one by the Rams. Six of those seven were on offense, including three false starts and, five of them were in the first half.
Fast starts and fast passes – when the Bucs' offense is on the field Sunday it will have a need for speed.