The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional playoff round on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 3:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ryan Jensen. The Bucs' starting center was listed as "questionable" on Friday's injury report and could end up being a game day decision, but given his well-demonstrated toughness and determination, we're going to take the risk of including him on that list. If Jensen does play and is not significantly limited by the ankle injury he suffered last week (and played most of the game through), he will be a tone-setter on offense, as always. Jensen made his first Pro Bowl this season (as did left guard Ali Marpet) and the Buccaneers need all the talent and grit they can get in the middle of the trenches to slow down potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. The Bucs also need Jensen to help them get a productive running game going, as they did last week against the Eagles, even without the services of Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones. Jensen's veteran experience will also help Tom Brady figure out the stunts and games the Rams' talented defensive front tries to pull in order to create one-on-one matchups for their best pass-rushers.
Devin White. A year ago, White missed the Bucs' Wild Card game while on the COVID list but returned for the Divisional Round and promptly went on an incredible tear through the next three offenses the Bucs faced. White had double-digit tackles in every game, including a Bucs single-game postseason record for 15 in the NFC Championship Game and also had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, all enormously important takeaways in the Bucs' three victories. After a bit of a lull near the end of the regular season – perhaps related to the absences of Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul – White seemed to be rounding back into his playoff form in last week's Wild Card game, particularly in terms of invading the backfield. In addition to his five tackles, one of which was for a loss, he also recorded three quarterback hits and a pass defensed. If White can turn into a takeaway machine again as he was a year ago, he could be the Bucs' defender who provides the decisive plays on Sunday against the Rams.
Mike Evans. After missing a Week 15 game in Carolina, Evans returned from a hamstring injury to record 47 yards and a touchdown in Week 16, 89 yards and two touchdowns in Week 17 and 117 yards on nine catches in the Wild Card win over the Eagles. He's definitely trending in the right direction, and he has successfully returned to being the focal point of the Bucs' passing attack even though opposing defenses know that Tom Brady has fewer trusted targets than he has had at any other point in his two years with the team. Evans had a strong showing in the Bucs' Week Three game against the Rams, catching eight passes for 106 yards
Jordan Whitehead. One thing is certain, we had to include at least one of the Bucs' three main safeties on this list. The trio of Whitehead, Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Mike Edwards provided most of the big plays on defense in the Bucs' throttling of Philadelphia last Sunday, and it was Whitehead who set the tone early with two thunderous tackles for loss to shut down the Eagles' early drives. In his fourth NFL season, Whitehead had his best campaign yet and is riding high as the Bucs try to go on another deep playoff run. During the regular season, Whitehead missed three games but still compiled 73 tackles, five tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, two interceptions, eight passes defensed and a forced fumble, a fine stat line that doesn't adequately describe the impact he made. Teammates credit him with bringing an infectious energy and intensity to the field, and he certainly got everyone fired up in the first quarter of last weekend's game. Bruce Arians certainly enjoys watching Whitehead at work. "Well, he's a hitter," said Arians on Friday. "He is a hitter and he's a guy that's always prepared. He's really, really improved his pass defense in the last year and a half. He's a force because he's one of those guys that he's going to bring it. He's going to cause turnovers, and you love having him on your squad."
Scotty Miller. We're just playing a hunch here that Miller does something attention-grabbing against the Rams. What that might be is a bit more of a mystery. Two weeks ago, he got a chance to carry the ball at the end of a blowout against the Panthers and suddenly ripped off a 33-yard touchdown on an electric end-around. He's had three carries in the last two games, all resulting in at least a nine-yard gain. Last week, the speedy wideout made a big impact on special teams while serving as a punt gunner, racing all the way across the field to crash into Jalen Reagor just as the Eagles' return man was trying to hold onto a ball that was slipping through his hands. The Bucs recovered the loose ball and immediately drove for a touchdown that gave the Bucs a 24-0 third-quarter lead. Then, of course, there is the Scotty Miller who showed he could make game-changing plays in the passing attack in last year's playoffs, most notably on his 39-yard touchdown catch just seconds before halftime in the NFC Championship Game. Miller has not had an abundance of opportunities on offense this season, but Breshad Perriman sidelined by injury and Cyril Grayson questionable to play, that chance could arrive this Sunday.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 139.6/71.5%/89.1/7. Blitz Matthew Stafford at your own peril. Defenses that tried it this year were very rarely rewarded and often gashed. Stafford faced five or more pass rushers on 137 dropbacks this season and produced a gaudy passer rating of 139.6 on those plays. That's the best passer rating versus the blitz by any quarterback since NFL Next Gen Stats started tracking it in 2016. Stafford completed 71.5% of his passes in that situation, was only sacked seven times and finished with a cumulative "expected points added" on those plays of 89.1. Not only did that EPA lead the league, it wasn't even close. Second on the list was the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes at 53.9 and those were the only two passers to even surpass 50.
- 41%/22%. The Buccaneers watched Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette all go down with injuries in the span of roughly 10 offensive snaps against New Orleans in Week 15. The response in the weeks to follow was unsurprising (even after Evans' return in Week 17), as the offense started making more use of tight ends and heavier alignments. Since Week 16, the Buccaneers have had two or more tight ends on the field for 41% of their snaps. They were only using such personnel packages 22% of the time from Weeks 1-15. The Bucs have also started using a sixth offensive lineman more often, going that route on 11% of their plays as opposed to 7% from Weeks 1-15. Tampa Bay has found a way to make it work, averaging 404 yards and 33 points per game over the last four weeks. The Bucs averaged 402 yards and a bit over 29 points per game from Weeks 1-15.
- 47.1%/43.9%. Tampa Bay's offense finished second in the league in third-down conversion rate, succeeding a team-record 47.1% of the time. The Rams were seventh on that list, at 43.9%. Sustaining drives and keeping the other offense off the field will be critical in Sunday's Divisional playoff game. In September, the Buccaneers failed on a series of fairly short third downs in the first quarter, which helped the Rams eventually get out to a 21-7 lead. Tampa Bay finished up with a decent 46.2% success rate on third downs in that game (six of 13) but couldn't climb out of that two-touchdown hole as the Rams' offense converted 66.7% (10 of 15) of their third down tries. Last weekend, the Buccaneers made relatively short work of the Eagles in the Wild Card game but were only four of 11 on third downs, with Tom Brady being sacked on four drive-ending plays.
- 8-1/33.0/16.9/+11. The stands at Raymond James Stadium returned to full capacity in 2021 after the deep COVID restrictions of last season, and the Buccaneers have put on a good show nearly every week. The Bucs have gone 8-1 so far in 2021 home games, playoffs included, while scoring an average of 33.0 points per game and allowing 16.9 points per game. The Bucs' offense has been almost as productive on the road, averaging 30.6 points per game, but the defense has been much better at home, with a road average of 27.0 points allowed per contest. The Bucs also have a +11 turnover ratio in all home games combined, compared to +2 in all road games combined. This is all relevant, of course, because the Buccaneers get a rematch against a Rams team that beat them in Week Three, but this time they'll have the home crowd behind them.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- Tampa Bay's offensive line was one of the few positions to steer clear of the injury bug for most of the season, but it has now been bitten at a very inopportune time. During the regular season, the Bucs' five starting offensive linemen combined to miss just one of a possible 85 starts, but now right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen are dealing with an ankle injuries that could lead to some shuffling up front on Sunday. If Wirfs can't play, Josh Wells would likely step in at right tackle, as he did for most of the Bucs' Wild Card win over Philadelphia. If Jensen is out, rookie Robert Hainsey, a third-round draft pick, could see the first extended action of his career.
- The Rams have an issue on their offensive front, too, as stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth was ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday, thanks to a knee injury he sustained on Monday night. Whitworth, the second-oldest active player in the NFL behind Tom Brady, had a strong season protecting Matthew Stafford's blind side. When he exited the Rams' Wild Card win over Arizona, fourth-year player Joseph Noteboom, finished the game at left tackle. Noteboom has made 17 career starts.
- Jason Pierre-Paul, who was held out of the last three regular-season games due to the shoulder injury that has limited him all season, returned to action last week but was away from the team during this week's round of practices to attend to a personal matter. Pierre-Paul is considered questionable to play on Sunday; if he's out, the Bucs would start either first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka or ascending third-year player Anthony Nelson opposite Shaq Barrett at outside linebacker.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE RAMS
The Rams had the fifth-ranked passing attack during the regular season but recently seemed to have found a much more effective ground game with Sony Michel getting hot and Cam Akers making a surprising return from injured reserve. The Los Angeles offense presents opposing defenses with a lot of pre-snap motion and is very good at scheming pass-catchers open in the short and intermediate range. The Rams' defense was fifth in the NFL in sack percentage and also had 19 interceptions during the regular season before completely shutting down Kyler Murray and the Cardinals' offense in the Wild Card range. Kicker Matt Gay is going to the Pro Bowl after making a combined 80 of 83 kicks on field goals and extra points. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
The Rams have quite a few standout defenders, including All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey, but any game plan against the Los Angeles defense has to start with keeping Aaron Donald away from the quarterback. The Rams selected Donald with the 13th-overall pick in the 2014 draft and since then all he has done is lead the NFL in sacks (101.0), quarterback hits (235) and tackles for loss (156). He has already won three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and is certainly a strong candidate for a fourth; in fact, Pro Football Focus had Donald as their highest-rated defender in the league in 2021. The Bucs' inside blockers will have to be prepared for instant contact because Donald had an average get-off at the snap of 0.87 seconds this year, the fastest of any interior defensive lineman in the league. Double teams are a good idea, but that makes it more likely that someone will be dealing with Von Miller and/or Leonard Floyd one on one, which also isn't an easy task. As if the challenge of keeping Donald away from Tom Brady isn't enough, the Rams' superstar can also make it very difficult to run the ball. NFL Next Gen Stats credited him with 21 run stuffs this year, which was also the most in the league.
When the Rams beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in Tampa in 2020, they got a combined 23 catches for 275 yards from wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. A lot of that came on horizontal routes in which Kupp and Woods got wide open and tacked on significant yards after the catch. That's still a staple of Sean McVay's offense but the addition of Matthew Stafford has opened up more of a vertical threat, too. When the Bucs and Rams met in Week Three, Stafford threw 13 passes to receivers running vertical routes, completing seven of them for 179 yards and two touchdowns. Kupp caught four of those for 63 yards and a score. Of course, the Buccaneers still have to worry about the short stuff, and in particular getting to Kupp quickly when he is targeted on a screen or in the flats. That's the key to limiting the damage the NFL's leading receiver can inflict, according to Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. Said Bowles: "You want to try and stop him from getting yards after the catch is the first thing you've got to do. 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."
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On trying to defend Rams wideout Cooper Kupp, who lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches during the regular season:
"He's one of the best. I think he and Chris Godwin, to me, are the best all-around receivers in the league because they block, they do everything – inside, outside. They're very comparable, and you know how I think about Chris. Cooper, he's a challenge. You can't double team him all day, that's for sure – they have too many other weapons. You just have to own up your guy and fight him. He's a hard tackle just like Chris is."