The Bucs will need superior tackling by Derrick Brooks and his teammates to contain Marshall Faulk once again
The St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay's upcoming opponent, leads the NFL with a remarkable 336.1 passing yards per game. That's more yardage than the total offensive output put up by 20 other NFL teams, the Buccaneers included.
So it might come as something of a surprise to hear Buccaneer LB Derrick Brooks say he wants to force the Rams to throw the ball. Isn't that a bit like forcing Dennis Rodman to express himself?
But Brooks is dead serious. Tampa Bay follows the same line of thinking each week – stop the run first – and that apparently holds true even in the face of such an obviously pass-happy team.
"We have to control Marshall Faulk first," said Brooks. "They throw first to set up the run. When Marshall Faulk can run the football, it makes them that much more dangerous. We definitely want to make them throw as much as we can."
Of course, Brooks knows that a majority a team's turnovers come in the passing game, and that's one area in which the Bucs have a significant advantage. Tampa Bay is first in the NFC with a plus-minus turnover ratio of 12, while St. Louis ranks 13th with a mark of negative-nine. Moreover, the Bucs are 9-0 when they have won or tied the turnover battle in a single game, 0-5 when they have lost it. The Rams are 7-1 at even or better, 2-4 when they commit more giveaways.
"They're playing well and scoring a lot of points," said Brooks. "I think teams are getting some turnovers against them. We don't want to take anything away from them (as a team), but that's going to be the key to the game, how many turnovers we can get and how well we protect the football."
Furthermore, more passing attempts means more chances for the Bucs' elite pass rush to make game-turning plays. The Bucs are fifth in the league in recording sacks per pass play, while the Rams are 15th in the NFL in allowing sacks. Tampa Bay did intercept Rams QB Kurt Warner three times last January in the NFC Championship Game, when the Bucs held St. Louis to 11 points, but they didn't sack him once.
The 2000 Buccaneers are the most sack-proficient team in franchise history, with nearly four per game, and the majority of those sacks have come from the defensive line. It would be helpful if Tampa Bay can get pressure on Warner without bringing extra men out of coverage, but the team will take its chances with blitzes if necessary.
"Well, we're going to do a little bit of both," said Brooks. "We're going to allow our front four to get after them, but at the same time mix in some blitzes. We're going to try to keep them off balance and not let them get into a rhythm."
If goading the Rams into passing all afternoon seems risky, keep in mind that the Buccaneers almost completely removed the big play from St. Louis' arsenal last January. Ricky Proehl's game-winning 30-yard touchdown catch in the closing minutes was the obvious exception, but the Bucs kept the St. Louis attack under wraps by not letting the passcatchers pick up extra yardage after the reception.
"We're going to have to punish them when they catch the football," said Brooks. "They do a lot of turning, a little hitch or a slant route, three-yard catch and 20-yard gain. It's going to be very important that we tackle. We've got to make it a physical ballgame. That's one of the keys to what we did last year. We turned it into a physical game, and that's what we try to do every week."
The Rams lost four of their last six games, but didn't exactly lose their scoring touch. In five of those games, they still scored an average of 29 points per contest. In the other, however, they posted just one field goal, losing to Carolina, 16-3, two weeks ago.
In that game, Carolina did not allow Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Az Hakim or Proehl to catch a pass of 20 or more yards. Isaac Bruce did catch one 20-yard pass, but that was the team's longest gain of the day.
The Buccaneers may not be able to duplicate that effort and hold St. Louis to just three points, or even the 11 they allowed last January. But if Brooks and his teammates can accomplish the goals listed above, they believe they'll find themselves on the winning side of the ledger this time around.