The 2018 Los Angeles Rams went to the Super Bowl on the strength of the league's second-ranked defense, which rolled up 421 yards and 33 points per game that season with whiz kid Sean McVay calling the shots in just his second year at the helm. After a 2019 follow-up that didn't go as expected, with the Rams missing the playoffs at 9-7, McVay's team looks to be rounding back into Super Bowl contender form in 2020, but this time with Aaron Donald and the defense leading the charge.
In Week 11, Donald will lead that crew into Raymond James Stadium on Monday night for a prime-time matchup of two teams that could be battling down to the wire for NFC playoff spots…and perhaps into the postseason as well. While the Buccaneers are 7-3 and a half-game behind the 7-2 Saints in the NFC South, the 6-3 Rams are currently in a three-way tie atop the incredibly competitive NFC West, having gotten their in Week 10 with a season-altering win over Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.
Wilson is a good case study for how good the Rams' defense has been this season. Prior to last Sunday's game, Wilson had thrown at least two touchdown passes in every game this season and at least three in seven of the nine. Los Angeles didn't allow him a single scoring pass, picked him off twice and held him to season lows in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. Oh, and Donald and company sacked Wilson six times.
The Rams have a new defensive coordinator in 2020, with Brandon Staley replacing the venerable Wade Phillips, but their personnel is largely unchanged from last year, beyond the very successful addition of edge rusher Leonard Floyd. The biggest change to the Rams' defensive lineup came last year when the team traded for Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey and sent cornerback Marcus Peters to the Ravens. While Peters has played very well in Baltimore, the Rams are getting great ROI (two first-round picks in the trade and a new $100 million contract) in 2020 out of Ramsey, who has proved to be a true shut-down corner.
"The players haven't changed much; the scheme's totally different," said Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians. "But you've still got [Michael] Brockers and Aaron Donald and all those guys. [Leonard] Floyd's playing good for them. Jalen is a big addition to the secondary. They're pretty much a zone coverage team with Jalen playing some man-to-man in zone principles. He gives them flexibility to do a lot of different things differently. They have a lot of five-man pressures and they're very tough to block."
Though the Rams' offense is down more than a touchdown per game from its Super Bowl season heights, one thing about that attack remains the same two years later: Los Angeles is very effective on the ground. The personnel is different. Todd Gurley powered that rushing attack for most of the 2018 regular season, but he was released in the offseason and is now with the Falcons. The Rams now split carries between the trio of Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and 2020 second-round pick Cam Akers, and it has worked to the tune of 134.2 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry.
Even after the Rams dealt Brandin Cooks to the Texans in the offseason, quarterback Jared Goff still has a productive trio of receivers in Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds, and the Rams run more than 70% of their offense out of three receiver sets. All three of those players are frequently featured n the slot and the Rams utilize a lot of pre-snap motion with Woods and a lot of crossing routes with Woods and Kupp.
The Rams' offensive line struggled significantly in 2019 after being a strength in the Super Bowl season, but that group has found its footing again in 2020, with the strong running game and Goff only taking 13 sacks in nine games. However, the L.A. O-Line lost its primary anchor last weekend when left tackle Andrew Whitworth suffered a knee injury that has landed him on injured reserve.
Early in the season, it was difficult to get a feel for how good the Rams were in 2020, as they started off 4-2 but with all four wins coming against teams from the depressed NFC East. After that 4-1 start, the Rams have further confused by alternating wins and losses over the last four weeks, with defeats at the hands of San Francisco and Miami but convincing wins over playoff defenders Chicago and Seattle. It seems clear that the Rams have a defense capable of carrying a team deep into the playoffs. While the Rams offense only ranks 19th in scoring, it does put up nearly 400 yards a game, has a deep collection of skill players and, of course, has the advantage of McVay's creative mind.
Both the Buccaneers and the Rams would like to use the Monday night spotlight to demonstrate that they are prime playoff contenders as the calendar gets ready to flip to December. Both teams are also in the thick of very tight division races, where every game is huge. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they return to the Monday Night Football stage and take on the Rams:
Goff has only thrown six interceptions in nine games, with an INT rate of 1.9% and a passer rating of 94.9. He has spread the ball around quite a bit, with five different players, including tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, having at least 22 receptions and at least 255 receiving yards. The Los Angeles defense is fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt, just ahead of the Buccaneers, and has six different players with multiple sacks, including Floyd, who has already matched his single-season high with seven sacks through just nine games. In addition to those players, here are four Rams who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Monday night:
1. DL Aaron Donald. Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt are the only players in NFL history to win three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. Donald nearly joined them last year after taking those honors in 2017 and 2018, before New England CB Stephon Gilmore stopped his run. Or interrupted at least. Donald is right back at the top of the list of candidates in 2020 with his 9.0 sacks and 17 quarterback hits. Only Cleveland's Myles Garrett, with 9.5 sacks, has more. As has been the case since he joined the Rams as the 13th-overall pick in the 2014 draft, Donald wins his matchups consistently with elite get-off speed. According to Next Gen Stats, Donald is first among all NFL interior linemen with an average get-off of 0.85 seconds, and last year he tied for first in that category. Literally no player in the NFL, at any position, has been more disruptive in opposing backfields than Donald over the last five seasons. From the start of 2016 through the first half of this season, Donald has generated 312 quarterback pressures, 106 more than any other interior lineman and 71 more than any other player, period. Obviously, Donald commands frequent double teams, but not only does that create opportunities for other pass-rushers, like Floyd, to pile up the pressures and sacks, but it also doesn't always stop Donald from getting to the quarterback anyway. There is little doubt that Tampa Bay's plan to protect Tom Brady this week begins with finding ways to slow down Donald.
2. WR Robert Woods. Cooper Kupp is the Rams leading receiver but Woods has a team-leading four touchdown receptions and he's had 14 targets and 12 catches in L.A.'s last two games. Woods is the player the Rams like to move around the most before the snap; according to Next Gen Stats he has shifted or been put in motion before the snap 606 times since the start of the Rams' Super Bowl season, by far the most of any player in the NFL in that span. No other player is within 100 snaps of that total. Woods has also racked up 937 yards from scrimmage – including some runs – on those snaps when he's been put in motion in that span. Woods has run the ball 17 times for 11 yards and two more touchdowns this season, so the Buccaneers defense will need to be aware of the end-around or jet sweep when Woods goes on the move before the ball is snapped. Woods' totals are down a bit in 2020 from his big 2018-19 campaigns, with an average of 52.1 yards per game and 7.8 yards per target, both his lowest in four Rams seasons. However, his catch rate (catches per target) is at a career-high 70.0%, so he remains a very reliable weapon for Goff.
3. CB Jalen Ramsey. After a few games to get settled in, Ramsey was quietly dominant for the Rams down the stretch last year following his midseason trade from Jacksonville. This year, he's been even better. Most recently, Ramsey locked on to the Seahawks' breakout star receiver, D.K. Metcalf, and essentially took him out of the picture in the Rams' defense throttling of the NFL's top-scoring offense. Metcalf came into the game averaging five-and-a-half catches and 98.5 yards per game, but snared only two passes for 28 yards against L.A. (Ramsey also claimed after the game that both of those catches came when the Rams were in zone coverage.) According to Pro Football Reference, Ramsey has been targeted (been in coverage of a targeted player) 37 times all season, which is why his one interception and three passes defensed are not indications of how well he's played. He's only allowed 19 catches on those 37 targets, a 51.4% catch rate that is the best of his three-year career. Ramsey originally came into the league as the fifth-overall pick in 2016 because he was already playing press coverage at an elite level, with the change of direction skills to stay with any receiver on any route, plus speed and quickness to match up with the most dangerous pass-catchers. All of those traits have been on full display in 2020.
4. RB Darrell Henderson. Of the three Rams who have shared the backfield load so far in 2020, Henderson has gotten the most carries (102 to 82 for Brown and 45 for Akers), and he's had the most success with them. Henderson has averaged 4.8 yards per carry and has found the end zone four times, while adding 11 catches and another score through the air. The 5-8, 208-pound Henderson has good upper body strength and is able to fight for extra yardage after contact, as evidenced by the eight first downs over expected that he has created this season, according to Next Gen Stats. Only Minnesota star Dalvin Cook has had more, with 12. The Rams drafted him early in the third round in 2019 after he emerged as a big-play machine at Memphis, with 19 plays from scrimmage of over 30 yards in 2018 and a per-carry average of 8.9 yards. Henderson has had 24 plays this year that have gone for 10 or more yards, including a 40-yard run and a 28-yard catch. Because the Rams have distributed the handoffs so much, even getting 23 carries from receivers and tight ends, Henderson should be entering the stretch run with fresh legs. He's only had 15 carries in the Rams' last two games but he had 14 or more in four of the five previous outings.
The Rams' offense is seventh in the league with 395.6 yards per game and has given Goff good protection, ranking sixth in sacks-per-pass-play (4.05%). Los Angeles has also been very good on third downs, ranking seventh with a conversion rate of 46.0%, which has helped them also rank seventh in first downs per game (23.6). L.A.'s defense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in virtually every category and is in the top three in yards allowed per game (296.4), yards allowed per play (4.78), passing yards allowed per game (199.7), passing yards allowed per play (5.74) and first downs allowed per game (18.6). Here are some more specific areas in which the Rams have excelled in 2020:
· While stingy with their points allowed all season, the Rams have been nearly impenetrable on defense after halftime. In nine games this season, Los Angeles has only allowed 36 second-half points, or 4.0 per game. To put that in perspective, the Buccaneers are third in that category, with 79 points allowed after halftime (albeit in one more game played). Washington, which has played the same number of games as Los Angeles, is second-best with 70 points allowed.
· As noted, the Rams' third-down conversion rate on offense (46.0%) ranks seventh in the NFL, and they're nearly perfect on third-and-one, making it on 10 of 11 tries. That 90.9% success rate ranks fourth in the league. Los Angeles is averaging 6.36 yards per play on third-down snaps, also seventh best in the NFL.
· Los Angeles has not hurt itself extensively with penalties in 2020. The 37 penalties they've taken through nine games are the second fewest in the NFL, behind only the Patriots. The Rams' 327 yards incurred on penalties is also fourth-lowest in the league. The Rams have not been penalized more than six times in any game this season and they have drawn just one illegal contact flag all year, the fewest in the league.
· It is difficult to complete long passes against the Rams' defense. Through the first half of the season, Los Angeles allowed a passer rating of 57.0 on passes thrown 10 or more yards in the air downfield, the lowest allowed by any defense, according to Next Gen Stats. The Rams have allowed only two touchdowns on such passes, while picking off five of them.
The Rams offense is below league average (18th) with a goal-to-go touchdown efficiency of 76.2%, while the team's only real weakness on defense has been in the same category. Opponents have converted 92.3% of their goal-to-go chances into touchdowns, putting the Rams at 28th in that category. Los Angeles will be moving on to its third placekicker of the season this week and the results so far have been choppy, with the Rams ranking 29th with a field goal rate of 71.4%. In addition:
· Carolina's defense has struggled on third down. Opposing teams have converted on a whopping 54.2% of their third-down tries, with only Tennessee (55.4%) faring worse. The Panthers are giving up 6.93 yards per play on the make-or-break down, which is the third-highest mark any team has surrendered so far.
· The Rams have had no success on two-minute drills yet in 2020. They have started 20 drives within the last two minutes of a half and are one of three teams who still have not scored a point in that situation. Even drives the start before the two-minute warning and then cross into the last two minutes have been mostly fruitless. The Rams have only scored six points in the last two minutes of both halves this year.
· Even though the Rams' rushing attack has been very good this year, it has not been as successful when trying to run directly up the middle as when it veers to the left or right. The Rams have run 53 of their 280 carries straight up the middle but have only gained 3.47 yards per carry on them, as compared to 4.3 overall. The Rams rank 28th in the league in yards per carry up the middle.
· As good as the Rams have been at holding down scoring in the second, they have not been able to mount many comebacks of their own. Los Angeles is 1-2 when trailing after the third quarter, 1-3 when trailing at halftime and 0-3 when trailing after three quarters. The largest deficit the Rams have erased to win a game this season is four points, and that was just this past week when they fell behind the Seahawks 7-3 midway through the first quarter but took a lead they would never relinquish before that first period was over.
NEW FACES IN 2020
Having given out a string of large contracts in recent years, the Rams were not very active in free agency this year, and they did not have a first-round draft pick to work with this year. As such, 21 of the 22 offensive and defensive starters listed on the depth chart on the Rams' website were already on the team's roster (or on injured reserve) at the end of last season. There were a few notable additions, including a new pass-rusher who is working out well.
1. OLB Leonard Floyd. The Rams did not bring back linebackers Dante Fowler or Clay Matthews, instead moving Samson Ekubam into a starting role and picking up Floyd, a former first-round pick, after he was released by the Bears. Floyd has started every game and has racked up 7.0 sacks, 28 tackles, 15 QB hits and two fumble recoveries.
2. RB Cam Akers. The former Florida State standout was the Rams' first pick in the 2020 draft, taken 52nd overall, and the fourth running back selected after Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D'Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor. Akers has not yet gotten the same workload as those other three backs as he has shared time with Henderson and Brown. Akers has 45 carries for 186 yards plus two catches for 23 yards.
3. DT A'Shawn Robinson. Robinson, who started 37 games over four seasons with Detroit, was one of the few unrestricted free agents the Rams signed, but he only made his Los Angeles debut last week against Seattle. Robinson started the season on the reserve/NFI list due to a respiratory issue but returned to practice on October 21 and was later activated to the 53-man roster. Robinson only played 10 snaps in his debut but that was enough time for him to collect two tackles and a QB hit.
1. T Andrew Whitworth. For the second straight week, the Buccaneers will face an opponent that is missing its starting left tackle. After Russell Okung sat out last week in Carolina, Whitworth will miss Monday's game in Tampa after landing on injured reserve this week. Whitworth suffered a knee injury against Seattle that is not expected to be season-ending but will keep him out for a while.
2. S Taylor Rapp. Rapp, who started the last four games on the Rams' defense, was also placed on injured reserve this week due to a knee injury sustained in the Seattle game. Los Angeles did just get back safety Jordan Fuller, who has started five games this season.
3. K Kai Forbath. Forbath completes the trio of Rams placed on injured reserve this week due to injuries sustained against the Seahawks. Forbath had only inherited the Rams' kicking job from rookie Sam Sloman two weeks earlier and had made two of three field goal tries and four of five extra point attempts. Los Angeles has signed former Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay and also has kicker Austin MacGinnis on the practice squad for what will apparently be a competition between the two to replace Forbath.