NFL

23 January, 2022

AUTHOR: James Dowen

STAR PREVIEW Sun: Los Angeles Rams @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

ANDY RICHMOND is a lifelong punter and sports enthusiast who now writes extensively on horse racing and the NFL. His CV includes long spells on Timeform Radio and Racing UK having previously held several positions at the then-fledgling Betfair Exchange where he worked for six years. He has a particular love for the statistical and analytical side of sports which fits in well with the NFL. He writes all the NFL content on Paul Jones subscription service as well as having his own betting advisory service.


One of two repeats on tonight’s dual-game slate with the Rams hoping to reprise their 34-24 victory back in Week 3 at home but they now have to try and repeat on the road. In that game it was Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford who took the honours with four touchdown passes outduelling Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady in a game that saw over 700 passing yards and seven touchdowns, in fact the two teams only combined for 111 yards on the ground and we could be in for a similar aerial bombardment this time around.

In that game the Rams led wire-to-wire at one stage they were 31-14 up and they will need to impose themselves on the game again and be aggressive as if you give Brady and the Bucs a second chance they will probably take it. For a team that has gone “all in” to win a Super Bowl looking at their recent player acquisitions to fail now will leave them in a precarious position in years to come.

A big part of the masterplan came with the signing of Stafford this year from the Lions and sending Jared Goff the other way after he had failed at this stage last year against the Packers. For the most part Stafford has played well but there is a narrative that says that he still has to prove himself in a really big game such as this. Stafford is still 0-53 when his team allows more than 24 points against a winning team which Tampa Bay, the No2 seeds certainly are.

The Rams are 0-5 when allowing more than 24 points this year and 13-0 otherwise. That last statement feels most significant as the Buccaneers are used to scoring a lot of points. Since 2020, Tampa Bay is 26-0 when scoring at least 28 points, easily the best record in the league and the most such games.

Stafford steps into this game without his left tackle with Andrew Whitworth ruled out with a knee injury and that could be a significant loss as Whitworth protects the quarterbacks blindside and given the effectiveness of the Bucs run defence the Rams are likely to be disproportionately dependent on their passing game.

Stafford may well find Tampa Bay edge rusher Shaq Barrett pressuring him quite a bit if Whitworth’s replacement isn’t able to hold up. The Bucs do have injuries in their secondary but they have enough big names on defence to be effective and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles showed in the playoffs that he can adjust to specific opponents like he did for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

To Stafford’s credit the game against the Bucs earlier in the season showed that he could compete against them and it won’t be a surprise to see that level of pass volume again; the Bucs faced a league-high 680 pass attempts in 2021.Returning from an Achilles injury that has finished off plenty of running backs Cam Akers looks to have secured the main running back spot from Sony Michel but both face a tough start against a very stout Bucs run defence.

With Tampa Bay being so hard to run on Stafford is going to have to load up with the passing game again and traditionally that’s the way that Rams head coach Sean McVey has tried to do things in this match and against Brady. One thing that Stafford must do is protect the ball well he threw 13 interceptions in the last nine games of the regular season after having four picks in the first eight games. If he’s careful with the ball he has the receivers to make a difference with the season’s leading receiver Cooper Kupp sure to play an integral part again.

Only three NFL teams allowed more catches to wide receivers than Tampa Bay in 2021 (242) and the Bucs do have injuries in their secondary. Aside from Kupp the Rams look to be making a big effort to get another of their in-season acquisitions going with Odell Beckham being targeted aggressively over the past few weeks especially against the Cardinals in the Wild Card game on Monday night. Playing at or near his early-career speed since joining the Rams, OBJ has hit paydirt six times in his last eight games. Van Jefferson is always a deep ball threat whilst tight end Tyler Higbee faces a tough matchup as the Bucs only allowed six TD’s to the position all year.

Looking at Tampa Bay and the potential they have to score points the Rams defence which contains several star names – Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey amongst them is going to need to step up. Since 2020, Tampa Bay are 26-0 when scoring at least 28 points, easily the best record in the league although Brady this time around could have to do things behind an offensive line that is struggling with injuries. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and centre Ryan Jensen were both injured last week against the Eagles and if one or both miss this game that will be detrimental to the Tampa Bay offence. If the Rams are to be successful they have to create pressure on Brady and force him to throw an interception, he’s 45-4 when he throws for at least 325 yards with zero interceptions.

Brady also has to contend with a depleted receiving corps that will really revolve around wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski. If the offensive line (in whatever format) can protect Brady then those two are enough to get the Bucs moving and it will be interesting to see how the Rams defend the pair and who star defensive back Jalen Ramsey ends up covering. My money would be on his shadowing Evans but the Eagles tried that with their defensive star Darius Slay last week and Evans still went for 117 yards and a TD on 9 catches. Gronkowski is still a dangerous individual and the Brady-to-Gronkowski delivery will once again be to the fore.

The Tampa Bay backfield is still in a state of flux with the return of Leonard Fournette from injured reserve complicating matters although their ground game didn’t appear to suffer last week with Giovani Bernard and Ke’Shawn Vaughn splitting time equally and registering 145 yards between them. Even with Fournette returning, I think Gio played well enough in the Wild Card Round to earn a major Divisional Round role especially on passing downs.
One key area of this game will be the turnover battle if the Buccaneers win the turnover battle, they are likely to be winning this game. In the last two postseasons, Tampa Bay has seven touchdown drives that started in opponent territory. The rest of the NFL has nine in this time, Stafford cannot afford to give Brady and the Bucs a short field if they do they will be punished for it.

The Rams have enough star quality, X-factor or whatever you want to call it to deal with the Bucs but it could well be another close game, the spread suggests it will be. The Rams are 6-1 in close games, the best record in the league, but they did just blow a 17-0 lead to the 49ers in excruciating fashion in Week 18 and they can’t let that happen here to a side led by Tom Brady that never knows when they are beaten.


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