-The Buccaneers may be mainly dealing with offensive injuries in the postseason but the defense was in a constant state of flux throughout the regular season. Even at this point in the year, the defense has yet to field all 11 of its starters at the same time. What the Bucs once thought would be a season full of continuity has ended up being anything but.
"It's been different every week, so we've been kind of juggling all year," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "We've kind of gotten used to it. It's almost the norm right now. Whoever is healthy is going to play. We're going to line up and we expect them to perform. We try to coach it the same way. We've figured out what everybody can do, and we try to jell that together to make sure everybody is on the same page."
If there is a silver lining, it means that the Bucs are well-equipped to adjust on the fly – something that's often needed in the postseason by any team given the fact that these guys have been playing football for six months now. It's also given some players the chance to get healthy and come back. The scales have tipped back the other way and the Wild Card Round saw the return of key defensive pieces, like both outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, along with defensive captain Lavonte David.
"I think it means a lot to have a lot of the veteran leaders back on the defense, just having that energy and that presence out there," said Barrett. "Then Lavonte [David] with everything he brings – he brings a lot to the defense. Having him back just meant a lot. We were able to take advantage of being back, being healthy and just being able to make plays."
Hopefully that gives hope to the offense, who could be down some very significant pieces come Sunday thanks to ankle injuries to not one but two offensive linemen in Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs.
"It seems like it's not stopping," said Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. "It seems like every week it's something. It's something every week, but that's the game. [Those are] the challenges of this game. It's not supposed to be easy for anyone. You expect to be put in tough situations just because that's what the National Football League is. It's a tough league and it's tough to win in this league. It's tough to have success. We prepare for it. We go into it with the understanding that anything can happen – anything is probably going to happen. How we handle it in the [moment] is going to really determine most outcomes. We try to prepare everybody. I try to prepare everybody that's on this offensive side of the ball with the awareness that there is a chance that they're going to play. So, you approach it like that from the beginning. You approach it like that in OTAs. I have true confidence in everybody that's on this team. It's just about whose name and number is on the back of the jersey."
Especially at this point in the year, according to left guard Ali Marpet.
"They're a lot of tough dudes," he said of his fellow linemates. "I think at this point in the year in order to play offensive line, you're always going to be dealing with stuff. Obviously, we're all dealing with different degrees of injuries here, but I think 'Wellsy' (Josh Wells) stepped up and played great. You've just got to learn how to play banged up if you can."
The offense could see the number seven back this week, which would be a huge boost for its production. Running back Leonard Fournette, who has the possibility to return this week, could be crucial to what the Bucs want to do against the Rams with his reliable hands and ability to get vertical – especially on first and second down. Especially if the Bucs' offensive line isn't at 100%, the quick passing game that quarterback Tom Brady has matriculated into this offense becomes a necessity and having a target like Fournette is especially helpful. That seemed to be what the Bucs deployed last week during the second half against the Eagles. Brady's time-to-throw was his fastest yet, averaging 2.17 seconds to throw which is his fastest in any game since at least 2016, according to Next Gen Stats.
Not only do these quick passes relieve some of the pressure off the offensive line, but they also could be an advantage over the Rams, whose defense ranks last in passing yards allowed on quick passes in 2021. They are ranked 28th in completion percentage allowed on such passes and are tied for 17th in passing touchdowns allowed.
Such is the chess match that goes into preparing for an opponent. Spotting and exploiting opponent weaknesses is an integral part of game planning week to week – and Brady is one of the best at prepping. He went into his philosophy a little bit on Thursday.
"I think the preparation, it just obviously starts as soon as the moment ends and then it goes right up until the start of the game," said Brady. "I don't put it past any of us to come in Saturday morning or Sunday morning and say, 'Hey, I think we should do this. Or, I was watching some things on Saturday afternoon and I think maybe this gives us a better opportunity.' You've just got to keep using every minute you have to get to ultimately the game. I think it's a really important part of preparation. Once you get the gameplan in, you keep refining it and tweaking it and you always get in a position where you feel like it's a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better. We do that throughout the week and obviously it goes right up until kickoff, and then obviously into the game, 'I think we should do this as a type of adjustment.' Those are all really important things to have at your disposal."
-That brings me to a bit more of a scouting report on Los Angeles from the eyes of Buccaneers' players and coaches. Though we've heard Mike Evans begrudgingly say the Rams play a lot more zone, which is true, Brady elaborated on Thursday that there's a little more nuance to it than that. Nuance that might benefit Evans, after all.
"These guys lock on to you pretty good at times too," said Brady. "They might call it zone, but a lot of time it plays like man and certain route concepts are guarded like man. I think this team does a lot of things well. I think they rush the passer well. They cover you really well in the secondary. They get a lot of turnovers. They sack the quarterback – strip sacks [too]. They have a lot of dynamic players. Jalen Ramsey is one of the great corners in the league. Between the guys they have in the secondary as well as the front, you have no plays that you can take off. These guys, they can turn you over, they can make big plays like they did the other night when David Long got the pick-six. It's a very, very challenging team."
While Ramsey is their number one corner, they haven't made a habit of making him a shadow. In Week Three, NGS tells us that Ramsey didn't spend more than a third of his coverage snaps lined up over any specific Tampa Bay receiver. Evans was targeted twice when covered by Ramsey and he caught one for a 14-yard gain. But Los Angeles much prefers to move their corners around, even if their coverage essentially becomes one-on-one once a receiver enters their zone, like Brady said.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs' defense will have to contend with an also-productive offense with no shortage of weapons, even though they're missing some pieces themselves. Most notably, quarterback Matthew Stafford, in addition to being second to Brady in things like passing touchdowns this year, has also excelled against something the Bucs like to do a lot of: blitz.
Stafford has the best passer rating (139.6) this season when facing five or more rushers. That's bad news for a defense that blitzes the second-most of any team in the league. So how much will that alter how the Bucs approach the matchup?
"It all depends on what is in the gameplan," said Bowles. "We can do a lot or a little [blitzing] depending on how we see everything fitting with our guys first and worrying about them second. He's done a heck of a job. He's been a heck of a quarterback for a long time and one of the best in the game. We've got our hands full whether we blitz him or whether we play coverage, so we're just going to go out and play our game and we've just got to be disciplined."
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