The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:15 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
C/G Ryan Jensen . Whether he plays center or left guard – which is dependent upon the availability of Ali Marpet, who is considered doubtful – Jensen will continue to play a key role on a line that has allowed the fourth-lowest sacks per pass play figure in the NFL this season. And maintaining that level of protection for Tom Brady will be critical in getting the Bucs to eight wins, because Tampa Bay is 7-0 this season when Brady is sacked two or fewer times, and 0-3 otherwise. Wherever he's lined up, Jensen is sure to get action against two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who may be on his way to a third such award. That may be a one-on-one competition, or an attempt to double-team Donald to keep him from wreaking havoc in the backfield. Jensen will also be crucial to helping the Buccaneers establish the running game early, something they made a point of doing against Carolina, with very pleasant results. Ronald Jones probably would not have been sprung for his record-setting 98-yard touchdown run if not for a key second-level block by Jensen. And while it's not always easy to isolate one particular offensive linemen for specific viewing, Jensen can be fun to watch because he plays with a high level of intensity to the last echo of the whistle.
CB Sean Murphy-Bunting. Earlier this week, Head Coach Bruce Arians said that the Buccaneers' second-year cornerback "got his swagger back," and that's a good thing for Tampa Bay's defense. Arians was very pleased with Murphy-Bunting's performance against the Panthers, as he helped contain shifty receiver Curtis Samuel as the Buccaneers held Teddy Bridgewater to 136 passing yards. Murphy-Bunting began the season as the starter opposite Carlton Davis in the Bucs' base defense, moving inside to the slot when the defense shifted to nickel. However, Jamel Dean eventually replaced Murphy-Bunting in the starting lineup, making the latter strictly the nickel corner. Arians now says he has confidence in either one as the starter on the outside, but more importantly Murphy-Bunting's improved play gives the Bucs' defense a chance to stifle opposing offenses with three strong cover corners. Whether he starts or not, Murphy-Bunting will remain the top slot corner, which means he's going to be busy this week against the Rams' leading receiver, Cooper Kupp. Kupp plays almost exactly two-thirds of his snaps either in the slot or lined up tight against the line, and he's been the league's second-most productive pass-catcher out of the slot since the start of last season. The Rams use a lot of pre-snap motion and crossing routes, so as Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said, Murphy-Bunting and the rest of the Bucs' defenders will need to be "disciplined with their eyes." A newly-confident Murphy-Bunting has a big challenge this week but the Buccaneers are confident he can handle it.
WR Mike Evans. In addition to getting the ground game going early, the Buccaneers also clearly made a point to get the ball into Evans' hands against the Panthers. He had a team-high 11 targets in the game, and his line of six catches for 77 yards and a touchdown could have been even more robust but for a few near-misses on big plays. Evans is finally running and cutting free again after spending much of the middle of the season gritting through a nagging ankle injury, and Brady will likely lean on him more and more down the stretch, even with all of the Bucs' talented offensive weapons. In fact, that deep cast of pass-catchers is very much a good thing for Evans, who didn't see much double-team against the Panthers and showed what he could do when spending an afternoon (or evening in this case) battling a cornerback one-on-one on every route. Evans' size and strength makes that a difficult proposition for just about any cornerback in the league. Of course, this week Evans may see a lot of a cornerback who can handle such a challenge in the Rams' Jalen Ramsey, most recently seen shutting down Seattle's D.K. Metcalf. If the Rams choose to shadow Evans with Ramsey it should prove to be one of the most entertaining things to watch during Monday's game.
ILB Lavonte David. David will start and play in his 132nd NFL game on Monday night, all of those with the Buccaneers since he was drafted in the second round in 2012. In the process he will pass John Lynch for seventh place on the franchise's all-time games started list and tie Richard Wood for 10th place on the game played chart. When he ties Wood, he will be the only player in that top 10 to have started his career since 2000, meaning he is very much the current face of the franchise. And, incredibly, he is still playing at the same level, if not better, than he did in his early 20s. The NFL Defensive Player of the Month for September, David has been a force in coverage and a tackling machine for the NFL's top-ranked run defense. Both will be critical to the Bucs' defensive success on Monday night as the Rams' attack features two good pass-catching backs in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, and a rushing attack that gains 135 yards a game by constantly throwing fresh legs at defenses with Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and Cam Akers. The Rams' offense is tricky, not because it runs different plays than the Bucs' other opponents but because it does a good job of making everything look like it's going to be something else before the play unfolds. The best weapon against this sort of thing is a veteran defender who has seen it all and has a high football IQ, and that's a good description of Lavonte David.
TE Rob Gronkowski . Gronkowski had his biggest "Gronk" moment yet as a Buccaneer in Week 10, snatching a deep pass over a defender down the sideline and then running over said defender and bulling his way down towards the goal line. The Saints stopped Gronkowski (and virtually everything else in the Bucs' offense) in Week Nine but otherwise the big tight end has been on a roll. He has at least 50 yards and at least one touchdown in four of the Bucs' last six games. The Rams' defense has been superb this season, but it no longer features Cory Littleton, one of the best pass-coverage linebackers in the NFL. His replacement in the starting lineup, Micah Kiser, is having a fine season but is more of a thumper than a cover man. The Rams have given up some notable numbers when facing some of the league's top tight ends, with George Kittle, Evan Engram, Zach Ertz and Jimmy Graham all catching at least five passes against Los Angeles this season. Kittle stung Los Angeles for seven catches, 109 yards and a touchdown before hitting injured reserve. Last week, even with Los Angeles containing the Seahawk's powerful offense, tight end Greg Olsen had one of his team's few big plays with a 22-yard reception. Gronkowski plays almost all of the Bucs' offensive snaps in most games because he's such a good blocker, so if the Buccaneers can indeed establish the run against the Rams' very solid front, it will open up the possibility for Gronkowski to slip off the line and into open space, as he did on a seven-yard touchdown catch against the Panthers.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 11 practice at Raymond James Stadium.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 32.3%/57.8%/81.8/19/9. As we noted earlier this week in our opposition scouting report, the Rams' defense has been incredibly stingy in the second halves of their games, allowing an average of just 4.0 points per outing. The next closest team, Washington, has allowed nearly double that total. The defense dominance for the Rams has been across the board in the second half, as referenced by that selection of numbers above. Los Angeles has allowed the third-lowest third-down conversion rate (32.3%), the second-lowest completion percentage (57.8%) and the second-lowest net passing yards per game (81.8) while recording the second-most sacks (19) and the second-most takeaways (9). By the way, the only team with more second-half sacks and takeaways than the Rams is Tampa Bay.
· 97.5%/70.0%/20. Through the first eight weeks of the season, the Buccaneers' offense had a league-leading 100% scoring percentage on red zone drives and was ranked third in the NFL with a 77.4% touchdown rate on those possessions. Since then, the Bucs have only scored touchdowns on four of their nine red zone incursions and have had their first such drive come up empty. In neither case did it particularly matter to the outcome, as the pointless drive came late in a 38-3 drubbing by the Saints and the Bucs' settling for a handful of field goals didn't hurt as they ran away from the Panthers, 46-23. Turning red zone opportunities into points, and hopefully touchdowns, could be far more critical on Monday night in a game that could be tight and low-scoring. Fortunately, Tampa Bay's numbers in that area are still quite good, as their 97.5% score rate ranks first in the NFL and their 70.0% TD rate is still seventh. Tom Brady has been a master in the red zone, as the Bucs' lead the NFL with 20 touchdown passes on plays snapped inside the 20.
· 92.2%. The Buccaneers are hoping to improve their record to 8-3 with a win on Monday night. If they do, they will further solidify their shot at the team's first playoff berth since 2007. Since the NFL expanded its playoff field to six teams per conference in 1990, 90 teams have started the season with an 8-3 record and 83 of them, or 92.2% went on to make the playoffs. That list includes Tom Brady's 2018 Patriots team, which finished 11-5 in the regular season and went on to win the Super Bowl.
· 3.63%/4.05%/9.01%/9.90%. Which team will mount the most impactful pass rush on Monday night? It won't be easy for either defensive front…or either offense. The Buccaneers rank fourth and the Rams rank 6th on offense in sacks allowed per pass play, which are the first two percentages listed above. At the same time, the Buccaneers rank fifth and the Rams rank fourth in sacks per pass play on defense. It's strength on strength on strength on strength, and something has to give.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Rams are expected to start third-year man Joe Noteboom at left tackle with Andrew Whitworth landing on injured reserve due to last week's knee sprain. Noteboom has had eight previous starts, including two this year, but this will be his first start at tackle. Noteboom performed well after replacing Whitworth in Week 10, earning Sean McVay's confidence moving forward.
· While the Rams adjust to the absence of Whitworth, the Bucs have already had the chance to do so with their star left guard, Ali Marpet, who is likely to miss a third straight game due to a concussion. If so, the Buccaneers are certain to repeat the lineup that had success against Carolina, with Ryan Jensen sliding over to left guard and A.Q. Shipley taking his spot at center.
· The Rams had to put a starting safety on injured reserve this week, but fortunately they just got another starting safety back from injured reserve last week. Jordan Fuller started four of the team's first five games at strong safety but then landed on IR on October 13 with a shoulder injury. Taylor Rapp stepped in to start the next three games at free safety, and then Fuller returned last week and they both started in a three-safety package with John Johnson. With Rapp going to injured reserve this week due to a knee injury, Fuller will presumably resume his role as the starting strong safety.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE RAMS
The Rams are the only team in the NFL that can currently be found in the top 10 of the league's rankings in both offense and defense. The Los Angeles offense runs the ball well and protects the quarterback well, giving Jared Goff time to distribute the ball widely. Five different Rams, including the wideout trio of Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds, have more than 250 receiving yards. The L.A. defense ranks in the top 10 in nearly every statistical category and is only allowing 18.7 points per game. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald may be the single most disruptive defensive force in the NFL and he got a dynamic outside pass-rusher to help him this season in former Bear Leonard Floyd. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Monday night.
The Rams have an athletic duo of tight ends in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Last year, those two combined for 106 catches, 1,142 yards and five touchdowns, and Higbee in particular was the league's most productive pass-catcher at any position over the last five weeks of the season. Those two haven't yet dialed up the same level of production in 2020, with a combined 45 catches for 551 yards through nine games, but they still pose potential matchup problems. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles calls Higbee a dual threat and one of the few all-around tight ends in the league, noting that the Rams move him all over the formation, wide and tight. With all the pre-snap motion and shifting the Rams' offense employs, the Bucs have to be careful not to lose Higbee and let him get out into open space, where he has the speed and athleticism to do some real damage.
Donald is the biggest concern for Tampa Bay's offense, full stop. Still, he's far from the only problem the Rams' defense poses and one of the biggest challenges for the Buccaneers on Monday night will be getting the ball deep. Emerging star Darious Williams, who picked off Russell Wilson twice in Week 10, has paired with Jalen Ramsey to give the Rams one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. Safety John Johnson (61 tackles, five passes defensed) has also played very well this season and the Rams' secondary as a whole has put the clamps on big plays. In fact, when opposing quarterbacks have thrown passes that travel 10 or more yards downfield in the air, the Rams have allowed them a combined passer rating of 52.1 on those plays, with two touchdowns and six interceptions. That's the lowest mark in the league. Under Bruce Arians, the Buccaneers aren't likely to abandon the deep shot completely, but the level of difficulty in completing them will be much higher than usual on Monday night.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if the Buccaneers' offense can succeed against any defense if Tom Brady is given time to throw:
"Yeah, and I think a huge part of that is the running game. When we establish the run – and it doesn't have to be a 200-yard running game – the establishment of the run and the play-action keeps him clean in the pocket. Any defensive lineman when he has two things to think about is not going to tee off like he does when it's just putting your ears back on third down or pass rush the entire time. When his uniform is clean we have a great shot."