Moving the football wasn’t an issue last year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Then-offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston had no problem doing that, even against tenacious defensive fronts like that of the then-St. Louis Rams.
But while the Bucs were racking up yards and becoming the fifth-ranked offense in the NFL, they were all too often omitting one crucial step in any drive: scoring points. Twelve times in 16 games Tampa Bay moved the ball better the opposition, including during seven of 10 losses.
Last year’s Thursday Night Football game against the Rams was a prime example of this deficiency. The Bucs outgained the Rams by nearly 200 yards – 509-319 – but never led for a single moment and trailed by 22 points entering the fourth quarter before losing 31-23.
To retain the same amount of productivity but with added success on the back end of drives, Tampa Bay will again have to square off in the trenches against a highly regarded front four. Anchored by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams’ line will also feature healthy veteran end Robert Quinn.
“They’re good up front,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “[Donald’s] a tough guy to leave singled. He’s stout, he’s powerful, he’s quick, he plays hard, he’s a handful. He’s one of the best in the league. And then they’ve got Quinn back on the edge and he’s probably still kicking off some of the rust that he had from missing some of last year and he didn’t play a lot in the preseason. But he’s a good edge rusher. I don’t know what he has, 16 or 17 strip fumbles in his career.
“They play hard and they’re athletic and they make it a one-on-one game, a lot like last week. They like to bring five, which puts you in one-on-one pass [protection] and they like to challenge you on the perimeter playing man. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Similar to last year, the Rams are expected to start William Hayes at the other end position and Michael Brockers alongside Donald on the interior. Even though Tampa Bay rolled up over 500 yards of total offense, 146 on the ground and didn’t allow Winston to get sacked, Bucs linemen spoke highly of their upcoming challenges.
“A guy like 99, Aaron Donald, he’s probably the best defensive tackle in this league,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said Wednesday. “When you bring in guys like Gerald McCoy, [Ndamukong] Suh, [Donald’s] probably the best. And then add a guy like Quinn who’s on the edge they got back this year.
“I think as an O-line we have to put ourselves in manageable third downs. We can’t be in third and 10 and third and 8 and third and 12 and let those guys tee off because that’s what they want to do. So we’ve got to come off the ball and it’s going to be a fight and we’ve got to do a better job than we did last week.”
Center Joe Hawley got his first chance to go up against Donald last year and agreed that the 25-year-old is a next-level competitor. His ability to get to the Bucs’ backfield last December showed that. Despite not recording a sack, the Rams were credited with getting 11 hits on Winston and three of those belonged to Donald. He also picked up a pair of tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including one midway through the second quarter when he dropped running back Doug Martin for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the St. Louis 23.
“He’s one of the best, not only three-techniques, but football players in the league right now,” Hawley said. “He plays with a lot of energy and we’re going to have to do a good job eliminating him. Even as much as you prepare and watch film and go against him, he’s just a special talent. You’ll feel like you have him locked down and he’ll go right by you in the blink of an eye, so you can’t let up against him. You have to finish every play.”
Donald has yet to register a sack through two games but is still managing to affect the quarterback by being credited with seven pressures and five hits. The Rams enter Sunday afternoon’s contest with only two sacks on the season – one each for Hayes and Quinn.
“It’s a talented front, obviously,” right guard Ali Marpet said. “And for us I think we just need to be dialed in and we’ll be all right. They do a lot, actually, to single up guys from a scheme standpoint. They like to have [Donald] rushing one-on-one and they do a good job of that.”