The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Rams in Week Two, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 first-round draft pick, essentially the only new figure on defense for the defending Super Bowl champions, is about to get his first chance to really shine. With Jason Pierre-Paul staying back in Tampa due to a shoulder injury, either Tryon-Shoyinka or third-year man Anthony Nelson will start, and so far the rookie has logged twice as many defensive snaps as the third-year veteran. Tryon-Shoyinka has shown off his speed and burst in his limited number of reps so far, and he's also lined up in some unexpected spots in Todd Bowles' defense. So far he has logged two tackles and one quarterback hit, but that one hit on the Cowboys' Dak Prescott led to an interception that set up a quick Bucs touchdown. Tryon-Shoyinka has also played a high number of special teams snaps in his first two games and will likely still be used in coverage even if his playing time on defense goes up sharply. The former University of Washington star was extremely impressive in training camp and preseason games, showing off not only a power game against big offensive linemen but also a well-developed set of pass-rushing moves.
Scotty Miller. Another player likely to see increased action due to an injured teammate, Miller is already a proven producer for the Buccaneers. Last year, he caught 33 passes for 501 yards and three touchdowns, and he played extensively in three-receiver sets with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin before the arrival of Antonio Brown. Brown has taken the majority of such snaps in 2021 but is not likely to be available on Sunday because he is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. When Brown missed the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay last January due to a knee injury, Miller stepped up and delivered one of the Buccaneers' biggest plays of the year, a 47-yard touchdown catch just before halftime. The 2019 sixth-round pick may be the Bucs' fastest receiver, and even when he isn't targeted he can make an impact on the offense by luring defenders deep with him and opening up space for Godwin in the slot. Miller has an excellent career average of 15.2 yards per catch and he's also delivered 8.9 yards per target. His average of 11.9 yards at the point of the catch over the past two seasons ranks eighth in the NFL, right between NFC South stars Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore. Miller didn't get a single target in the first two games of 2021 but he should have a significantly more prominent role in Week Three.
Mike Edwards. We may be a week late on this one but the instinctive defensive back my play a critical role in slowing down a Rams passing attack that is difficult to decipher and defend. Last week the Buccaneers played their first full game without injured cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, and cornerback Ross Cockrell drew the early snaps at nickel corner. However, Edwards played significantly in that role in the second half and ended up with the rare accomplishment of two pick-sixes in a single quarter to seal the Bucs' 48-25 win over Atlanta. With Edwards, Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Jordan Whitehead the Buccaneers have three safeties they want to get on the field as often as possible and with Edwards that is largely in passing situations where his nose for the ball pays off. Edwards had three interceptions last year, postseason included, despite playing only about a quarter of the snaps that the team's starting defensive backs logged. If Edwards does draw a lot of playing time in the slot in Los Angeles, he'll draw a very difficult task in Cooper Kupp, one of the most productive slot players in the NFL.
Rob Gronkowski. Telling you to keep an eye on Gronk in a football game is like suggesting you look out for the Al Pacino character in "Scent of Woman." Both are going to chew up some scenery and you will be entertained. Still, there's an additional reason to focus on the Buccaneers' veteran tight end this weekend, as he has a chance to do something no other tight end has done in NFL history. Dating back to the Super Bowl, Gronkowski has scored two touchdowns in each of Tampa Bay's last three games. That ties former Patriot Ben Coates for the most consecutive multi-touchdown games by a tight end in league annals, playoffs included. Thus, if Gronkowski can work his red zone magic once again and hook up two times in the end zone with Tom Brady against the Rams, he will be the first tight end with a four-game multi-TD streak. Gronkowski appears to be rejuvenated in his second season back from a one-year retirement and he's back to being a matchup nightmare with incredible hands and body control. Gronkowski is playing almost all of his snaps as an inline blocker this season, which makes it harder for opposing defenses to guess whether a run or pass is coming next.
Lavonte David. Stopping the Rams' multi-faceted passing attack is going to take a whole team effort on defense, and if Matthew Stafford routinely gets rid of the ball very quickly it will be difficult for the pass rush to disrupt that aerial assault. The Buccaneers can't afford to have coverage weakness the Rams can exploit in the back seven, and fortunately they will be running with two inside linebackers who have proved they can excel in pass coverage. That assessment has come more recently to Devin White, who improved greatly in that area in the second half of last season, but David routinely rates as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. Not only can the Rams flood the intermediate zone with shifty receivers like Kupp, Robert Woods and Van Jefferson, but they also have a talented tight end in Tyler Higbee who can exploit weaknesses in the zone. David's well-developed instincts and his quick reaction skills make him a key figure in the Bucs' efforts to keep Stafford and the Rams from piling up huge numbers through the air.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 2-0. We begin with the most basic and important statistic in any sport, wins and losses. That's the record so far for the Buccaneers and the Rams, and they are the only two teams out of the 14 that made the playoffs last year to remain undefeated in 2021. This is not common. The only other times that only two of the previous season's playoff teams started out 2-0 were in 2010 (Saints and Packers) and 2005 (Colts and Steelers). On both occasions, one of those teams went on to win the next Super Bowl (2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers). The Bucs and Rams have put themselves in strong opening positions but one will be much stronger after Sunday.
- 2/13/6/. Tom Brady has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 13 consecutive games, including the postseason. As such, he could tie the record that both he and Aaron Rodgers set across the 2010-11 seasons of 14 straight games with multiple TD passes. However, that won't be easy to do against the Rams' stingy pass defense. In fact, the Rams have gone six straight regular season games without allowing the opposing team to score multiple passing touchdowns.
- 1,309/1,120. Sunday's game at SoFi Stadium will feature two of the best slot receivers in the NFL. Since the start of the 2019 season, Kupp has recorded 1,309 receiving yards on plays when he lined up in the slot. That's the third-most yardage in the league in that span but less than 200 more than Chris Godwin's total in the same category. Godwin ranks fifth with 1,120 yards. In that same time frame, Kupp leads all NFL receivers with 1,216 yards after the catch.
- 22.9%. Through two games, Buccaneer opponents have chosen to throw the ball 54 times in 70 total first-half plays. That first-half pass-play percentage of 77.1% is by far the highest against any defense in the NFL ,and the league average is 60.4%. That leaves just 22.9% of those snaps to be runs. It is becoming increasingly clear that, even before the Buccaneers get a big lead (in the games that they do get a big lead) that some opponents are simply not interested in trying to run against their stout rush defense.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· As noted above, the Buccaneers will be without starting outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul for the first time since the sixth game of the 2019 season. That means the defense will take on the Rams with only three players in its outside linebacker rotation. Shaq Barrett will start on one side, leaving the other spot for either Tryon-Shoyinka or Nelson. All three will play extensively but the snap counts in Weeks One and Two suggest the rookie will get the opening nod on Sunday.
· Rams running back Darrell Henderson suffered a ribs injury in Week One and was not able to practice this week. He had been thrust into the starting lineup when second-year man Cam Akers suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in late July. Now, with his availability for Sunday in doubt, the Rams are likely to turn to fourth-year back Sony Michel, whom they acquired in a trade with New England after Akers' mishap. Michel has 11 carries for 48 yards so far as a Ram.
· Leonard Floyd, the Rams' top edge-rushing complement to inside powerhouse Aaron Donald, didn't practice much this week due to an ankle ailment that Head Coach Sean McVay said was a "nagging" injury that the team doesn't want to let linger. Floyd and fellow starter Justin Hollins have played 82% and 75% of the Rams defensive snaps, respectively. If Floyd is sidelined completely or limited to some extent in the game, that would likely mean more snaps for Terrell Lewis (22% so far) or Justin Lawler (9%).
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE RAMS
The Rams made a bold move at the game's most important position in the offseason, trading Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to get their new quarterback, long-time Detroit Lion Matthew Stafford. So far the results have been everything Los Angeles could have hoped for. Stafford has a 127.0 passer rating and is averaging a lofty 10.7 yards per pass attempt and he's found a new favorite target in wideout Cooper Kupp (16 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns). The Rams' defense features two of the NFL's most dominant players in defensive lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey and is holding opponents to 216.5 passing yards per game. Earlier in the week, Arians agreed with the notion that the Rams are the most complete team the Buccaneers have seen so far. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
In last year's 27-24 win in Tampa, the Rams threw the ball 51 times to rack up 376 yards, a lot of it on quick-hitters that led to a lot of YAC – yards after the catch. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods combined for 23 catches and 275 yards, and just over 150 of those yards came after they got the ball in their hands, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And, again, that was with Goff at the helm. The Rams still have that potent Sean McVay passing scheme to contend with, but with Stafford under center they are developing another dimension that makes keeping them out of the end zone even more difficult. As a team, the Rams averaged 10.7 yards per reception in 2020; this year, that number is up to an incredible 15.4 yards per reception. Los Angeles leads the NFL with an average of 10.39 yards per pass play; the post-merger NFL record in that category in a single season is 8.56 by Dan Marino's Dolphins in 1984. That yards per play average is probably not sustainable, but it does show early evidence that the Rams can and will push the ball downfield more with Stafford at the helm.
The Rams have made a point of moving their first-team All-Pro cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, all over the defensive formation in Weeks One and Two, and that is making it even more difficult for opposing offenses to keep Ramsey from wrecking their plans. Mostly teams simply try to avoid throwing it in Ramsey's direction. The problem with that approach, even when it's just a matter of Ramsey playing outside corner and eliminating half the field, is that it's not such a joy to throw in the direction of the Rams other outstanding cornerback, Darious Williams. Williams plays both outside and in the slot – basically wherever Ramsey isn't playing on any given snap – and he's very strong in coverage. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Williams was one of the most difficult defenders against whom to complete a pass in 2020. His completion rate allowed as the nearest defender was 50.0%, which ranked fifth among qualifying cornerbacks. And opposing passers compiled a passer rating of 62.7 on those passes, which was also fifth best in the NFL. Ramsey and Donald are the big names on the Rams defense, and for good reason, but Los Angeles doesn't make it easy to throw the ball anywhere on the field.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the Buccaneers having good success on offense in the red zone in 2021 and not often settling for field goals:
"We probably practice red zone more than most teams, as far as Thursday and Friday and the amount of time we spend in the offseason and training camp. It's such an important part of situational football and our guys understand what we're going to see, how we're going to handle it. And so far, so good. They've executed pretty well."