The Buccaneers were favored heavily last week against the Eagles and they ended up delivering in a dominant performance that earned them the right to stay home for the Divisional Round. But with the Los Angeles Rams coming to town, despite having to make the cross-country trip from the opposite coast, the Bucs have lost some of that favorability and looking at the matchup, it isn't hard to see why.
The Rams are just as potent an offense as the one the Bucs possess. They rank fifth in passing and are top 10 in scoring, third down and rank fourth in yards per play as of the regular season's conclusion. Quarterback Matthew Stafford ranks just behind Tom Brady in multiple major passing categories, throwing 41 touchdowns to Brady's 43 and recording 4,886 passing yards, ranking third behind Brady's top-ranked 5,316. Stafford also has the league's triple-crown wide receiver at his disposal in Cooper Kupp – not to mention Odell Beckham Jr. now, two weapons with which this Bucs' defense will have to contain. Add in the fact that Los Angeles miraculously has running back Cam Akers back after an Achilles tear that was expected to sideline him for much longer than it has and you start to understand what other teams see when they look at the Bucs' offense, don't you?
A huge key will be for the Tampa Bay offense to start fast and aim to build some sort of lead. Scott Smith goes into that in the complementary part of this article series here. That will aid in making this Rams offense one-dimensional. The more quarterback Matthew Stafford has to throw, the more chances there are for mistakes. It will also eradicate any hope of getting any sort of play action game going, which can often help mitigate pressure, given that there won't be an opportunity to establish the run game. The Rams didn't lean that much on play action against the Bucs the first time around in Week Three but consider that Stafford completed seven of eight play action passes for 129 yards and a touchdown against Arizona last weekend, according to NGS. Not letting that happen is going to be key for this Bucs' defense – and they can do that by getting pressure on Stafford.
Granted, you can't take much from Week Three when these two teams last faced off but there are breadcrumbs there for how to exploit weaknesses. Yes, Stafford is the best of any quarterback against the blitz, boasting a 139.6 passer rating when facing five or more rushers. He has a second-ranked 16-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, which ranks second and against it in Week Three, he was 7-9 for 81 passing yards and a passing touchdown. Last week against Arizona, Stafford was again 7-9 but for 149 passing yards and one touchdown.
That being said, when he's pressured, he fares exponentially worse. In Week Three against the Bucs, he was pressured on six pass attempts and he went 1-5 for just 10 yards and a 39.6 passer rating. The Bucs might want to go back a couple weeks to Week 16 when the Rams played the Minnesota Vikings. Los Angeles ultimately may have won the game, but Stafford recorded his lowest passer rating of the season, throwing just one touchdown against three interceptions. And the Vikings accomplished this largely just rushing four. Stafford faced four rushers on over 75% of his throws yet the Vikings generated seven pressures on such rushes and all three of Stafford's interceptions came under such circumstances. Minnesota didn't even end up sacking Stafford in the game but it was enough.
Think of what this Bucs' offense could do with three bonus possessions.
The key will just be finding ways to get pressure that don't include blitzing, which is a little bit more challenging given that the Bucs blitzed at the second-highest rate in the league during the regular season. The more interior guys like Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh can harass Stafford and push the pocket, the better. But the good news is that Stafford isn't doing anything wildly different than what the Bucs have seen on the other side of the ball here in Tampa. See, Stafford beats the blitz largely following the Brady blueprint: get the ball out quickly and throw short passes. In Week Three against Tampa Bay, he had an average time to throw of just 2.57 seconds, which was his regular season low, and was pressured on just 15.4% of dropbacks as a result. He was most efficient on passes of 10 or fewer yards, according to NGS, going 6-13 for 177 yards and a touchdown. He had an 84% completion rate on such throws and was a perfect 3-0 in touchdown to interception ratio. That approach sound familiar?
A lot of the pressure to create pressure could fall on outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who finished the regular season with 25 quarterback pressures from Week 11-16. He also leads the NFL in turnovers caused by pressure since 2019, according to 2019, with 16, and ranks third overall in quarterback pressures in that span with 194. Both Jason Pierre-Paul and Joe Tryon should also be available to help Barrett out and keep that outside linebacker rotation fresh.
Add in the fact that the Rams are down left tackle Andrew Whitworth and I see a matchup to exploit.
The biggest asset Stafford has is wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who not only led the league in receptions but can evade defenders for more yards after the catch.
"You want to try and stop him from getting yards after the catch is the first thing you've got to do," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "He's going to catch his balls. You've got to slow him down from trying to break tackles and get extra yardage. You don't want 5-yard plays going for 20 and 15-yard plays going for 50. We've got to tackle better, and we've got to react to the ball."
What's interesting about Kupp is that he may have had the most yards, the most catches and the most touchdowns in the league but he also has by far and away the most targets. He actually ranked 32nd in the league at the end of the regular season with a 75.9% catch rate. That should give you some idea how much Stafford looks his way – especially against the blitz. Kupp has nine receiving touchdowns against the blitz this season, which is the most by any player in the NGS era and Stafford has a perfect 158.3 passer rating when targeting Kupp against the blitz. That's probably why Kupp was targeted on blitzed dropbacks at the highest rate in the league among players who ran a minimum of 75 blitzed routes at 39%, according to NGS. So yeah. You shut down Kupp, you essentially shut down a majority of the Rams' offense.
That'll be important to keep in mind given what the Rams do to essentially try and distract you from Kupp, too. They run 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) at the third-highest rate and have had a top 10 usage of that grouping in four of the last five seasons. With those receivers, they utilize bunch and tight formations very often. Bunch formations especially can be used to confuse defenders and force the defense to communicate given that all receivers start in the same area. With Beckham now a part of that group, it just gives you another guy to keep track of.
In the vein of confusion, the Rams also use a lot of motion. However, that can tell you a lot as a defense. The Rams aren't exactly covert in their intentions. In fact, motion seems to be a tell for runs, of all things. They use shifts and motion on 49% of their run plays as opposed to 27% without motion. That's the second-highest differential in the league, according to NGS.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
They also have Akers back to help lead the way on what looks like an increased rushing attack, at first glance. Last week against Arizona, the Rams rushed for 140 yards on 38 rushing plays. However, upon further consideration, that was likely more of a symptom of absolutely dominating the Cardinals and essentially not having to pull out half your offensive arsenal than any actual shift in offensive philosophy in the postseason. And against a stout run defense that allowed just 44 yards through three quarters to the number one rushing offense in the league last weekend, I wouldn't think the Rams place any sort of emphasis on their ground game on Sunday.
No, this is going to come down to shutting down Stafford and the Rams' aerial attack. The 'X' factor to me is going to be getting takeaways. That's not something the Bucs were able to do in Week Three and in the regular season the Bucs were 0-3 when the defense didn't force any turnovers. They managed three against the Eagles last weekend and have made a habit of taking the ball away since Bowles arrived in 2019. Since then, they are third in total takeaways with 82 and the Bucs lead the league in that span for points created off turnovers with 331.
And what cannot be overlooked is the fact the Buccaneer defense is finally fully healthy. Yes, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul are both listed as questionable for Sunday's game but both are expected to play as of Friday afternoon. Should they do that, it will be the first time since the first series of Week One's win over the Dallas Cowboys that the original starting 11 will be on the field together. We'll finally get to see the full capabilities of this defense at a time when it's needed more than ever.