On Sunday, the 6-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 5-8 St. Louis Rams in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. It will be the 21st meeting between the two teams in the regular season and a chance for the Bucs to break the Rams' three-game head-to-head winning streak (more on that series history). The Buccaneers will be trying to get back to .500 and keep their playoff hopes alive.
To remain relevant in the NFC playoff chase, the Buccaneers will need to slow down rookie running back Todd Gurley and crack a Rams O-Line that has allowed just 16 sacks all season. On offense, Tampa Bay will be tested by Aaron Donald, the NFL's leading sack artist among defensive tackles. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Thursday in their first prime-time game of the season.
Jeff Fisher is four years into his run as the Rams' head coach but he's been guiding an NFL team for 21 of the last 22 years. Before taking over the Rams in 2012 he had an impressive 17-year run as the head coach of the franchise now located in Tennessee. In fact, Fisher was a fixture for so long for the Titans that he actually started out as head coach of the Houston Oilers in 1994 before that club made the move to Tennessee in '97. His overall record as an NFL head coach is 167-155-1. Those 167 victories rank third among active coaches behind only Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin, and 14th all-time. One of seven current NFL head coaches who also played in the league, Fisher spent five seasons with the Chicago Bears and has always been known for his ability to relate with his players.
After one year off in 2011, Fisher took over a Rams team that had won a total of 15 games over the previous five seasons combined. Under his guidance, the Rams have improved, winning 20 games from 2012-14, but only a three-game winning streak to finish the 2015 campaign will keep St. Louis from a fourth straight losing season.
During his tenure in Houston/Tennessee, Fisher led his team to the playoffs six teams and compiled a 5-6 postseason record, including a trip to Super Bowl XXXIV (where the Titans coincidentally lost to the Rams). Fisher started coaching in Chicago immediately after his playing days ended and the former defensive back stayed on that side of the ball throughout his 10 seasons as an assistant coach. He served as a defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Rams (when the team was still based in Los Angeles) and helmed one of the league's most aggressive and successful units in Philly from 1988-90. n 2012, the Rams were seeking a coach who could instill a sense of stability on the franchise and honed in quickly on Fisher, who reportedly had several very interested suitors at the time. Though injuries and uncertainty at quarterback have held the Rams' offense back, Fisher's defense has developed into a force, particularly in terms of rushing the passer.
The St. Louis offense does one thing very well: Run the football. Rookie Todd Gurley was the first running back drafted in the top 10 since 2012, and it is proving to be a wise investment by the Rams. A leading Rookie of the Year Candidate (perhaps Jameis Winston's biggest competition), Gurley is fourth in the league in both rushing yards (975) and yards per carry (5.2) and he found a groove in Sunday's win over St. Louis after being used sparingly the previous two weeks. A rare combination of speed and power, he can run over would-be tacklers and hit another gear in the open field.
The Rams obviously know that Gurley is their best offensive weapon. They run the ball on 63.8% of their first-and-10 plays, the highest percentage in the NFL. Gurley has five 100-yard games this season, and the Rams have won four of them. They have just other victory in the rest of their games. St. Louis snapped a five-game losing streak against Detroit on Sunday when Gurley had his first 100-yard game (140 and two touchdowns on 16 carries) since their last victory. The Rams are tied for fifth with 47 runs of 10 yards or more, tied for first with 17 of 20 or more yards and tied for first with four of 50 or more yards. Moreover, they turn to Gurley when the game is on the line; his 337 fourth-quarter rushing yards are second in the entire NFL.
Unfortunately for the Rams, the good news stops outside of their sixth-ranked rushing attack. Overall, the team ranks 31st in yards and last in points because the passing attack has found no traction at all. No team averages fewer than the Rams' 173.1 passing yards per game, and they have just eight touchdown tosses all year.
Only one of those belongs to Case Keenum, who took over for a struggling Nick Foles a month ago. Foles had a 69.0 passer rating through 11 starts, which included two more when Keenum was out due to a well-publicized concussion; Keenum is at 68.1 after his two games under center. Collectively, the Rams have the league's worst team passer rating, at 69.2, and they have struggled mightily to keep drives alive. Thanks to a 25.3% success rate on third downs, they have just six 10-play drives (the league average is 21) and four five-minute drives (the league average is 16) all year. All of those are the 32nd-ranked team totals in the NFL.
That's not to say that the Rams are devoid of offensive weapons out of Gurley. Wide receiver Tavon Austin, in particular, is an intriguing option in the St. Louis attack, given that he has 386 receiving yards and 358 rushing yards. He has accounted for seven of the Rams' 20 offensive touchdowns, including half of their eight passing scores. St. Louis recently changed offensive coordinators, from Frank Cignetti to Rob Boras, but whoever is calling plays is obviously finding creative ways to get the ball to Austin, as he is averaging 9.2 yards per tote.
TE Jared Cook is the team's second-leading receiver, with 34 grabs, and the team also recently added long-time Patriots star Wes Welker. Gurley has not been used extensively in the St. Louis passing game (18 catches) but reserve running back Benny Cunningham his fourth on the team with 202 receiving yards. WR Kenny Britt, with an average of 17.1 yards per catch, is the big-play threat. No matter the target, however, the Rams have had trouble moving the ball through the air. They rank last in the NFL with 97 passing first downs, well below the league average of 159.
Like the Buccaneers, the Rams drafted two offensive linemen and put them directly into the lineup. To be exact, second-round pick Rob Havenstein was the opening-day starter at right tackle while sixth-rounder Cody Wichmann has stepped in at right guard after season-ending injuries to Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown. Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, anchors the line from the left tackle spot. Left guard Garrett Reynolds and center Tim Barnes had a combined 21 NFL starts before this season, but all of this apparent inexperience isn't slowing the Rams' line down at all. In addition to creating lanes for Gurley, the Rams have also been outstanding in pass protection. St. Louis quarterbacks have suffered just 16 sacks all season, the lowest total in the NFL. Football Outsiders grades the Rams' front as the second-best pass-protection group in the league.
As well as the Rams protect their own quarterbacks, they go after opposing passers with equal vigor. Since Fisher's arrival in 2012, St. Louis leads the NFL with 181 sacks. This year, the Rams have recorded 36 sacks and rank sixth in the NFL in sacks per pass play on defense. That is likely the biggest reason that St. Louis has allowed just 243 points, or 18.7 per game, tied for eighth-lowest in the NFL.
Leading that charge is second-year DT Aaron Donald, an emerging NFL superstar. St. Louis hit the absolute jackpot in the first-round of the 2014 NFL draft, following up the Robinson selection with Donald at #13. All Donald has done since entering the league last year is lead all defensive tackles with 20 sacks in the 29 games since. (Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy is second on that list, unsurprisingly.) The Rams' pass-rusher stands just 6-1 and weighs 285 pounds, but as McCoy explained this week, that actually works in Donald's favor because it helps him keep his pad level below that of the opposing blocker. Bucs' Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter compared Donald favorably to Houston's J.J. Watt. Worse yet, Donald happens to be red-hot, with three sacks last week against Detroit and 6.5 in his last five outings.
Donald has a very potent running mate on the edge in DE Robert Quinn, who had no fewer than 40 sacks over the three previous seasons. Quinn has five this year but has also missed the last six games with a back injury, so the Buccaneers may dodge that particular bullet. Unfortunately, St. Louis has impressive depth in pass-rushers, with 14 different players contributing at least one sack and nine of those with at least two. Pay attention to defensive end William Hayes, a bit of an ageless wonder whose 2.5 sacks don't seem overwhelming until you note that he also has 27 quarterback pressures, just six fewer than Donald.
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The Rams' current linebacking corps includes the franchise's all-time leading tackler as well as a player who isn't officially referred to as a linebacker.
The former is James Laurinaitis, who has 997 tackles, surpassing legends like Merlin Olsen, Jack Reynolds and Deacon Jones. Laurinaitis also has a sack and an interception this year, which is par for the course. Since his rookie season of 2009, he is the only player in the NFL to have racked up at least 15 sacks and at least 10 interceptions. Laurinaitis is a big reason why the Rams lead the league with 50 instances of an opposing running play resulting in negative yardage.
Laurinaitis is not the Rams' leading tackle this year, however. That distinction belongs to former Buccaneer Mark Barron, who has 116 stops and one unusual distinction on the Rams' depth chart. A safety for most of his first three NFL seasons, Barron is currently listed as a "WS," which is presumably a "WILL safety." In essence, he has been playing weakside linebacker since not long after standout Alec Ogletree landed on injured reserve. With the help of their active linebacking corps, the Rams rank fourth in the NFL in opponent third-down conversion rate, at 32.8%.
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The St. Louis secondary boasts a pair of playmaking cornerbacks in Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins. On Sunday, Johnson returned from a two-week injury absence and promptly picked off Matt Stafford and returned the interception 58 yards for a touchdown. Johnson was drafted in the third round in 2012 but he has the most picks of any player in his draft class with 13, including five this year. Jenkins has added three picks of his own – that's eight of the team's 10 interceptions from these two players – and has generally made a habit of turning in big plays. His six defensive touchdowns since 2012 are the most in the NFL.
The Rams' offensive numbers might be even more bleak if not for the defense providing good field position with 20 takeaways. St. Louis has scored 66 points off turnovers this year (including two defensive scores) which is the 10th-highest total in the league. In addition to taking the ball away, St. Louis has also been stingy in the red zone, allowing a touchdown efficiency rate of 43.2% that is the third lowest in the NFL. Opposing teams are averaging just 2.6 yards per play on snaps from inside the 20, which is also the third-best mark in the league.
St. Louis boasts a very dangerous weapon in this phase of the game, and we're not talking about Tavon Austin. The best thing the Rams have going for them in the kick-and-return game is punter Johnny Hekker, who got a well-deserved six-year contract extension late last year.
It's easy to see why the Rams would want to keep Hekker around long-term. His career net punting average of 44.2 yards is the best in NFL history (the stat has been tracked since 1976). This year he ranks second in that category at 43.9 and is first in gross punting average at 48.5. The October NFC Special Teams Player of the Month, Hekker is also consistent, with a net average of 45.0 or better in seven different games. Oh, and don't let your guard down when he's waiting to receive the snap; Hekker has six career completions on kick fakes, including one this year (albeit in three tries). Fisher's teams are generally more innovative than most on special teams, and they've got a not-so-secret weapon in Hekker, a high school quarterback.
Photos of the Rams' starters via team depth chart.
The Rams' kicker is Greg Zuerlein, who is also a weapon in terms of long-distance kicking, though he has struggled in 2015. Zuerlein has made 15 of his 23 attempts and the Rams rank last in the NFL in field goal percentage, though it should be noted that five of his eight misses have been from 50 yards and beyond. The Rams have let him try eight such long-range kicks because, historically, he has shown he can hit from downtown. He is one of just two kickers in NFL history with two successful field goals of 60 or more yards. His kickoff touchback percentage of 63.8% ranks 12th in the NFL, as well.
Austin is a threat, too. He actually has eight touchdowns this year because he also took a punt 75 yards to the house on opening day. Overall, his 7.9-yard punt return average is remarkable (the Rams rank 23rd in that category) and Welker has gotten into the act a little bit since signing with the team, with two returns for 23 yards. Cunningham handles most of the kickoff returns and is averaging 25.8 yards per try. The Rams' coverage teams have done a fine job, allowing 7.1 yards per attempt on punts and 22.0 on kickoffs. That's ninth and 10th in the league, respectively.