A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Rams.
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 has been a mainstay on NFL sidelines since 1994; in the 23 seasons since, he has occupied a head coaching job for all but one of them (2011). He is currently in his fifth year at the helm of the Rams, with a 28-37-1 record since 2012, including a 1-1 start to the 2016 campaign.
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 170-157-1. Those 170 victories rank second among active coaches behind only Bill Belichick, and are tied for 11th all-time. The Rams' next victory will push Fisher past Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan into sole possession of 11th place, and he needs only two more wins to catch Bill Parcells for 10th.
Pictures of the Top 10 Rams in week 2, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
After his run in Tennessee ended, Fisher took one year off in 2011 and then signed on to lead 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 27 games from 2012-15, but the Rams failed to reach .500 in any of those four seasons.
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.
In 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. One of nine 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.
The Rams' offense finished the 2015 season ranked 32nd in yards and 29th in points. There is a long way to go in the 2016 campaign – and potentially a prized rookie QB to enter the mix at some point – but so far a move to Los Angeles has not helped the team improve on those rankings. After two games, the Rams rank last in the league in both yards (234.0) and points (4.5) per game. Despite having the same 1-1 record as every other team in the NFC West (and the Buccaneers), Los Angeles is the only team that has yet to score a touchdown in 2016.
The aforementioned rookie QB is Jared Goff, the number-one pick in this 2016 draft. Goff has not yet seen the field in the regular season as the Rams have gone with fourth-year passer Case Keenum through two weeks and apparently intend to do so again against the Buccaneers. That is certainly understandable, given that Keenum completed 14 of 17 passes for 234 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a win over Tampa Bay last December. Through the first two games of 2016, however, Keenum hasn't found much success, ranking last in the NFL with a 57.8 passer rating. That rating is built on a 0-2 TD-INT ratio as well as the league's lowest completion rate (53.8%) and yards per pass attempt figure (5.68).
The engine of the Rams is offense is supposed to be second-year running back Todd Gurley, the 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Gurley is undoubtedly one of the NFL's most talented backs, but the Rams' rushing attack is off to a slower-than-expected start. Gurley has 98 yards and a 2.7 yards-per-carry average and has not found the end zone yet, and the Rams as a team are second-to-last in the league with a 2.7-yard per-carry mark.
That issue has obviously led to more long third downs than Los Angeles would like to see, which has contributed to a NFL-low 22.2% third-down success rate. Third-and-long has been a particular problem; the league-wide success rate on third downs of more than six yards is 28.9% but the Rams have converted on just 7.1% of their tries, last in the league. As such, the Rams' offense also leads the NFL in three-and-outs, suffering that fate on 41.7% of their possessions.
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Despite those depressed offensive numbers, the Rams have some talented playmakers on offense. Gurley (6-1, 227) combines power and speed and has been compared to Marshawn Lynch for his ability to break tackles. Even though his rookie debut was delayed a bit by a torn ACL from his final college season, Gurley still ran for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games last year, averaging 4.8 yards per tote. He was not involved too heavily in the passing attack, recording just 21 receptions, and he has only two catches so far this year. Los Angeles has not thrown to its backs much at all to this point in 2016, with Gurley, Benny Cunningham and Malcolm Brown combining for just five catches and 36 yards.
Gurley was the 10th overall draft pick in 2015, and wide receiver Tavon Austin was the eighth overall selection two years prior to that. Austin was the first skill-position player drafted in 2013 and he recently got a lucrative new contract extension from the Rams, so Los Angeles obviously believes he can contribute significantly to the offense. Last year he did that with nine touchdowns and a collection of big plays, both on receptions and handoffs, as he has top-notch speed when he gets into the open field. In the win over the Bucs' last December, Austin scored once each on a run and a reception. So far this year the Rams haven't been able to get him out in that space, as he has averaged only 7.0 yards on his nine catches and 2.7 yards on his three runs.
The Rams' O-Line is almost completely homegrown, and that includes several high draft picks in recent years. Left tackle Greg Robinson was the second-overall pick in 2014 and he's big (6-5, 332) and powerful, with athletic feet, but he was heavily penalized in 2015. The Rams used a second-round pick on Rob Havenstein to bookend with Robinson on the right side; Havenstein stands 6-8 and has proven to be a powerful run-blocker. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams' front line so far this year ranks 24th in run blocking and 26th in pass blocking. Keenum has been sacked five times in two games and the Rams rank 26th in sacks allowed per pass play.
The Rams likely will try to establish the running game with Gurley early in the game. They rank 11th in the NFL in percentage of first-and-10 plays that are runs, at 55.1%. And Gurley has rarely been tackled for a loss, as the Rams have just one run for negative yardage through the first two games. However, they haven't hit big very often either, with only two carries of 10 or more yards (28th in the league) and an overall average of 3.97 yards per play, last in the league. Furthermore, the Rams have had even less success when breaching the opponents' 30-yard line, ranking last in the NFL in both passer rating in that part of the field and touchdown efficiency on those drives.
Like the offense, the Rams' defense is picking up where it left off last year, and that's a good thing. Los Angeles ranks 10th in yards allowed (313.0) and seventh in points allowed (15.5) per game, and the team is coming off a 9-3 win over Seattle in its first home game back in L.A. Those rankings are actually improvements from 2015, when the Rams allowed 367.8 yards and 20.6 points per game.
The strength of the Los Angeles defense is up front, where a talented defensive line is anchored by All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald. At 6-1 and 285 pounds, Donald is a wrecking ball with power and blinding quickness off the line. Opposing teams generally try to double-team the third-year lineman as much as possible, but the Rams scheme to avoid this and get Donald his one-on-one pass-rush opportunities, which helped him rack up 20 sacks in his first two NFL seasons.
The other deterrent to double-teaming Donald is that it could mean single blocks for the likes of Robert Quinn, William Hayes and Michael Brockers, the rest of the starting line. Quinn is the big name there, and for good reason, as he totaled 40 sacks from 2012-14, third-most in the NFL in that span behind J.J. Watt and Justin Houston. He also leads the NFL with 17 forced fumbles since 2012. Quinn only played in half of last season's game thanks to knee and hip injuries and finally the need for back surgery that put him on injured reserve.
Brockers has been a steady complement to the big numbers of Donald and Quinn, recording between four and seven sacks in his first four seasons with the Rams. Brockers was a first-round pick in 2012 and he's an accomplished run-stuffer, as evidenced by his 12 tackles for loss last season. Surprisingly, the Rams have only two sacks so far this season (one each by Quinn and Hayes) but that drought is not likely to last long. Los Angeles has been quite good at getting to ballcarriers behind the line of scrimmage, ranking third in the league in opposing rushes for negative yards and seventh in yards off negative plays.
The Rams' linebacking corps is interesting in that there is only one LB spot listed on the depth chart's starting 11. That's fourth-year man Alec Ogletree, another former first-round draft pick, who leads the team with 21 tackles, including 19 solo stops, while also recording two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Ogletree is listed as the "MLB" or middle linebacker, while former Buccaneer safety Mark Barron is listed as the "WS" or will safety but is essentially another linebacker. Barron led the Rams in tackles last year after an injury to Ogletree prompted his move up into the box, and he also tied for the NFL lead with 15.5 "stuffs."
With Ogletree and Barron coming downhill to the line of scrimmage behind that dominant front line, the Rams have been very good at getting opponents off their run game. Only 28.6% of first-down running plays against Los Angeles have resulted in four or more yards, which is tied for second-best in the NFL.
However, when backs do break through that initial front they've found success, as the Rams are also dead last in rushing plays of 10 or more yards allowed.
The Rams used their franchise tag this year to keep cornerback Trumaine Johnson, which also allowed cornerback Janoris Jenkins to leave via free agency. Johnson is the Rams' biggest corner, at 6-2 and 208 pounds, and he's coming off an outstanding 2015 campaign in his fourth NFL season. The former third-round pick intercepted seven passes last year, third among all players and second among cornerbacks, and finished the season on a hot streak with three picks in the last four games. Johnson also led the Rams in interceptions in 2014 and has more picks (15) than any other player drafted in 2012.
Los Angeles lists three cornerbacks on its starting depth chart, with Coty Sensabaugh and LaMarcus Joyner filling the other two spots. A second-round pick in 2014, Joyner is a shorter corner at 5-8 but will likely match up against slot receiver Adam Humphries rather than the Bucs' big outside receivers. Sensabaugh, a free agent pickup from the Titans, is 5-11, and he has started both games so far. The Rams tied for 10th in the NFL in takeaways last year but they join the Bucs among the seven teams that have yet to pick off a pass this year.
The secondary is backed up by safety T.J. McDonald, who is known as a hard-hitter but is also tied for the team lead so far with three passes defensed. Following the departure of Rodney McLeod, Maurice Alexander, another good run defender, has moved into the starting lineup at free safety, though the two safety spots are largely interchangeable on many teams. Alexander started five games last year and had 27 tackles, one sack and one pass defensed.
The Rams have been quite good so far this year in defending the deep pass. On throws that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air, opposing passers have a combined rating of 39.6 against Los Angeles, tied for best in the league among NFL defenses. Consequently, Los Angeles has allowed only three completions of 20 or more yards, tied for second-lowest in the league.
It's hard to argue the claim that the Rams possess the NFL's best punter in Johnny Hekker. Last year, Hekker pulled off a rare trifecta, leading the league in gross average (47.9 yards per kick), net average (43.7) and punts downed inside the 20 (41). He is the first player to top all three categories in one season since the league began counting inside-the-20 punts in 1976.
Hekker's net average in 2015 was the fourth-best in league history, but he's not exactly looking up at any superior punters because he happens to also own the record in that category with a mark of 44.2 in 2013. Last year, he put up those incredible numbers while also punting more often (96 times) than any other player in the league. Oh, and Hekker is a former high school quarterback who has thrown 10 passes on fake kicks, completing six of them.
Greg Zuerlein has been the Rams placekicker since 2016, though he's coming off his least accurate campaign last year. After nailing 92.9% of his field goal attempts (26 of 28) in 2013, Zuerlein saw that number fall to 80.0% (24 of 30) in 2014 and 66.7% (20 of 30) in 2015. That was the NFL's lowest field goal success rate last year, and he also misfired on two extra point tries. However, Zuerlein remains one of the NFL's top long-range threats, as he owns two of the 15 field goals of 60 or more yards in NFL history. Last year he was just three of nine beyond 50 yards but did hit a 61-yarder.
Tavon Austin is a weapon in the kicking game, too, with one punt return for a touchdown in each of his first three NFL seasons. Those three scores came from 75, 78 and 98 yards away, making him the first player in league history with a punt return of 75 or more yards in each of his first three pro campaigns.
Overall, he owns a 9.1-yard career average on punt returns. Running back Benny Cunningham handles the kickoff returns, as he has for much of the past three years, and he sports a fine 27.1-yard career average. Last December, Cunningham returned a kickoff 102 yards against the Buccaneers…but didn't score. That was the third-longest non-scoring kickoff return in NFL history.