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BUCS’ OPPONENT: St. Louis Rams

WHERE: Edward Jones Dome

SPREAD: Rams by 6

WHERE THE RAMS STAND: The Rams are 3-2 and in second place in the NFC West Division.





OVERALL: 25th (283.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 31st (81 ypg)
PASSING: 18th (202.4 ypg)

OVERALL: 4th (274.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 23rd (130.6 ypg)
PASSING: 3rd (143.8 ypg)

OVERALL: 4th (386.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 14th (116.4 ypg)
PASSING: 3rd (270 ypg)

OVERALL: 29th (372.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 30th (147.2 ypg)
PASSING: 20th (225 ypg)

…the Bucs rank 12th (17.8 avg.) and the Rams rank 21st (22.6 avg.) in points allowed per game this season?

St. Louis head coach Mike Martz is the brains behind the Rams’ potent offense, which is the strength of the team and ranked 4th overall.

Although Martz is often criticized for abandoning the run too early in games, he has two viable options in tailbacks Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson. Faulk is the team’s starter and although he’s lost a step over the years, he’s having a solid season. Faulk has rushed 84 times for 364 yards (4.3 avg.) and two touchdowns. Jackson, St. Louis’ 2004 first-round pick, has carried the ball 27 times for 185 yards (6.9 avg.) and one touchdown. Both ball carriers are fast, balanced runners and have great field vision. In addition to those skills, both Faulk and Jackson are solid receivers out of the backfield. Faulk has 17 catches for 113 yards and Jackson has added three receptions of his own.

The Rams released quarterback Kurt Warner during the offseason, so the team has gone with Marc Bulger, who led the team to the playoffs last season and has completed 66.3 percent of his passes for 1,426 yards and tossed seven touchdowns and five interceptions this season. While Bulger’s stats suggest he’s deadly accurate, he tends to miss open receivers, especially when he’s pressured, which often stalls drives in enemy territory.

One of the reasons Bulger has fared well is because of the Rams’ receiving corps, which features Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, both of whom have displayed soft hands and blazing speed, especially on the Edward Jones Dome’s artificial surface. Bruce leads the team in receptions with 38 for 526 yards and has scored one touchdown. Holt, who was a Pro Bowler in 2003, has hauled in 30 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns this season. Bruce and Holt will be matched up against two of the league’s better cornerbacks in Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, respectively.

St. Louis’ offense has been hindered without a solid number three receiver, but Dane Looker, who has caught 11 passes for 160 yards, appears to be on the verge of becoming the team’s No. 3 threat. Martz likes to spread defenses out by going to three- and-four-receiver sets, so don’t be surprised if Looker and WR Shaun McDonald, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass against Seattle last Sunday, see some action against Tampa Bay on Monday night.

The Rams are converting a whopping 46 percent of their third down attempts this season, and the Bucs secondary must do a good job of covering the Rams receivers in this game, and when they do catch the ball, the Bucs, who laid out the blueprint on how to halt the Rams offense in the 1999 NFC Championship Game when they held the Rams to 11 points, must make the finesse receivers pay by getting some good hits in on them.

St. Louis’ offensive line has struggled without right tackle Kyle Turley, who is sidelined for the year with a serious back injury. This unit still, however, has left tackle Orlando Pace, who will go up against Bucs right defensive end Simeon Rice. Bulger has been sacked 12 times in five games. Tampa Bay’s front four has struggled to produce a pass rush on its own this season, and Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin might not be able to give this unit help since the Rams could spread them out with three-and-four-receiver sets.

The Rams have sorely missed defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who left St. Louis for a head-coaching job in Chicago during the offseason.

St. Louis replaced Smith with Larry Marmie, who has watched his unit struggle. The Rams defense is currently ranked 29th overall and is allowing opponents to produce 372 yards of total offense and nearly 23 points per game. This should present an interesting matchup for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s offense, which is ranked 25th overall but showed some signs of life last Sunday in New Orleans by producing over 300 yards of total offense vs. the Saints.

Gruden will likely attack the Rams via the ground game, where St. Louis ranks 30th against the run and is surrendering 147 yards rushing per game. Tampa Bay’s rushing offense is ranked 31st, but RB Michael Pittman played well enough last Sunday against New Orleans to allow the Bucs to use play-action passes effectively.

As poorly as St. Louis’ defense, particularly, defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett, has played, the Rams still have some solid players on that side of the ball. Left defensive end Leonard Little, who will go up against Bucs right tackle Todd Steussie and/or Kenyatta Walker, leads to team in sacks with two. Little has a knack for stripping the ball from ball carriers and is regarded as a solid run defender, which could prompt Gruden to call most of the team’s running plays to the left side of the field.

Rams weakside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa brings a lot of speed to St. Louis’ defense and leads the team in tackles with 29. He’s also notched 1.5 sacks, which means the Bucs will have to account for him on passing plays. Linebackers Tommy Polley and Robert Thomas have struggled in run support.

St. Louis’ inability to stop the run has left its secondary vulnerable too often. The Rams have come up with just one interception and cornerback Aeneas Williams and strong safety Adam Archuleta haven’t played as well as the Rams need them to. Bucs rookie WR Michael Clayton will be matched up against Williams, who is a seasoned veteran, which means QB Brian Griese may use WR Charles Lee, who will be matched up against CB Jerametrius Butler, as his go-to guy. He’ll have to be careful, though. Butler has the team’s lone interception.

The Rams are allowing teams to convert over 38 percent of their third down attempts this season, and the Bucs, who converted 50 percent of their third down tries against the Saints, will need to keep drives alive in this contest since it could be high-scoring.

St. Louis’ kickoff return team isn’t giving the Rams offense the best starting field position to work with. In fact, it’s one of the worst. The Rams have the worst average starting field position (22.7 yard line) of any team in the NFC. Kick returner Arlen Harris is averaging just 19.3 yards per kickoff return, which is why the Rams could have Mike Furley and/or Steven Jackson return kickoffs on Monday night.

Rams punt returner Shaun McDonald is averaging 8.8 yards per return and his longest was a 10-yarder. The Bucs special teams coverage units, which have performed extremely well thus far, need to make sure the Rams offense has a long field to work with, but even that feat won’t guarantee them anything since the Rams are capable of striking from anywhere on the field.

Kicker Jeff Wilkins has drilled 8-of-9 field goal attempts, including 2-of-2 from beyond the 50-yard mark. Punter Sean Landetta is averaging 44.3 yards per attempt.

Tampa Bay’s defense is built off speed and tackling ability, and those are two attributes the Bucs need to bring to the field on Monday night if they’re going to down the Rams, who have one of the NFL’s most explosive offensive attacks.

But as well as Tampa Bay’s defense might matchup against St. Louis’ offense from a speed standpoint, it will be extremely tough to keep the Rams off the scoreboard. That said, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s offense will need to take advantage of the Rams’ suspect defense, which is giving up more points than the offense is scoring these days. If Tampa Bay can establish some sort of ground attack, the Bucs will stand a great chance of moving the ball with play-action passes, which were very effective last Sunday against the Saints.

Of course, creating some turnovers will help the Bucs score some points, too. The Rams have the 29th ranked turnover ratio (minus-7). The Bucs are tied for the 21st ranked turnover ratio with a minus-2, but their defense has already scored two touchdowns this season.

Tampa Bay probably won’t win this game if its defensive front four can’t get consistent pressure on St. Louis QB Marc Bulger and stop the Rams ground attack early. However, if defensive end Simeon Rice and under tackle Anthony McFarland can have the types of games they had in Week 2 against Seattle, the Bucs will halt the Rams offense.

Tampa Bay only won back-to-back games one time last season, but this game has a lot riding on it. That, along with the fact that the Bucs are 3-0 in their last three meetings with the Rams, gives me a few reasons to believe the Pewter Pirates might actually be able to sneak out of the Edward Jones Dome with the upset.

FLYNN’S PICK: Bucs 21 Rams 20
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