How the Buccaneers can beat the Rams


Through the first two weeks of the 2021 regular season, Buccaneers head Bruce Arians was a pretty happy guy. His team was coming off the juice of a Super Bowl win, Tom Brady was fully integrated into Arians’ offensive concepts, and a 2-0 record with wins over the Cowboys and Falcons set a pretty nice tone for the new season.

Then, the Bucs traveled to SoFi Stadium to meet the Rams, and things fell apart pretty quickly. In a 34-24 loss, the Buccaneers — who are usually on the right side of the run defense equation — gave up 76 yards on 24 carries, and Tampa Bay’s run offense was, to put it bluntly, awful. Tom Brady was Tampa Bay’s leading rusher with 14 yards on three carries, Brady had to throw the ball far too often with far too little effect, and the Rams — who had leads of 21-7 and 31-14 in this game — were clearly the dominant team. It was Matthew Stafford who riddled Tampa Bay’s defense for four touchdowns.

“Obviously not the outcome we’re looking for,” Arians said after. “I didn’t think we played, in any phase, up to our ability today. Obviously, in the road game, we didn’t handle the noise like we should have offensively a couple of times. We’ve just got to get stops on defense, which we never did in the second half. Our pass rush didn’t get home and we had to get home to help those guys out and get it done. We didn’t score down in the red zone for the first time this year and it was a little disappointing, but we’ll bounce back next week.”

The Bucs bounced back overall to compile a 13-4 record and the NFC’s second seed, which means that they get to play host to the four-seed Rams this time. If they want to be inhospitable on the way to another NFC Championship game, here are three boxes they’ll need to check.

Account for Aaron Donald from everywhere on the line.

(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

In the Week 3 game, Aaron Donald had a sack and four quarterback hurries, and this was his most versatile game of the season from a deployment standpoint. Per Pro Football Focus, Donald lined up in the B-gap on 22 snaps, over the tackles on 20 snaps, and outside the tackles on 18 snaps. This was by far the most snaps in a game with Donald as an edge-rusher, and you saw a guy who, if he was just an edge-rusher, could probably get 15 sacks in a season. That’s just how scary Aaron Donald is.

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And as we saw on this play, putting Rob Gronkowski (one of the best blocking tight ends in NFL history) one-on-one on Donald outside isn’t going to solve that problem. This was a sack/fumble of Brady from Donald, who ripped past Gronk and evaded left tackle Donovan Smith around the edge.

At this point, right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who suffered a sprained ankle in the wild-card round win over the Eagles, is a game-time decision. If backup right tackle Josh Wells (who’s also banged up) is the answer in this game… well, if Ryan Kerrigan can do this to you, how do you think any Aaron Donald matchups are going to work out?

Uh, yikes.

The best thing the Bucs can do here is to go one-double on Donald every time he isn’t directly matched up with left guard Ali Marpet, the only Bucs offensive lineman who seemed comfortable with Donald in a mano a mano sense. And even that might not be enough.

Exploit the Rams’ safety depth.

(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

Both Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp, the Rams’ primary safeties this season, are now on injured reserve. Fuller suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the 49ers in Week 18, and Rapp suffered a knee injury in November. Now, it’s mostly up to Terrell Burgess, Nick Scott, and the recently un-retired Eric Weddle, who hadn’t played since 2019 before the Rams brought him back for the playoffs.

Scott has played well when pressed into service, with no touchdowns allowed, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating allowed of 66.3. Burgess hasn’t been bad, and Weddle held up pretty well after so long a layoff, but you have to think that Tom Brady can take advantage of this.

Why? Because Brady was able to do so in Week 3, especially when the Rams played their preferred zone concepts. This 21-yard completion to receiver Chris Godwin (who has been lost for the season since Week 15 to a torn ACL) shows how well Brady manipulates openings in two-deep zone (Quarters, in this case).

The Rams will want to play a ton of Quarters in this game, because they do it a lot, and because they’re very good at it. In fact, no defense had more dropbacks in coverage with quarters this season than the Rams’ 137, and they gave up just one touchdown to seven interceptions when using it. Brady has been iffy against Quarters coverage this season, completing 63 of 83 passes for 728 yards, 464 air yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 103.2 against it, but he has completed six of 12 passes of 20 or more air yards against Quarters for 191 yards, and 146 air yards. So, if the Rams want to roll that defense out there with a safety deficiency, it could get rough.

Keep Sony Michel from busting loose.

(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

In the early part of the 2021 season, teams were highly reluctant to run on Tampa Bay’s defense, and for good reason. With Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh as the bullies up front, and linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White flowing to the gaps, establishing a ground game against Todd Bowles’ fronts seemed to be an exercise in futility. The Rams went against type with 24 rushing attempts for a total of 76 yards, and Sony Michel was the main man there, with 67 yards on 20 carries.

As you would expect, Michel found very little up the middle — 15 of those 67 yards came on one outside run out of heavy personnel, but as Tampa Bay’s run defense has been less effective down the stretch due to various injuries, this play with 7:10 left in the game could be a good indicator as to how Sean McVay might like to get his ground game going.

This toss to the left had left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Johnny Mundt dealing with everybody to that side as Michel picked his way through. Michel has the power and explosiveness you want out of a feature back, and he has been exceptional since Week 13, when he established himself as the starter — he has 598 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 142 carries since that time. Add in the return of Cam Akers, and the Bucs should expect more rushing attempts against them than most opponents would show.

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