The rivalry that has been forged between the Bucs and the St. Louis Rams has been well documented over the past decade. From the classic NFC Championship Game in 1999 in St. Louis to the thrilling Monday Night contest at Raymond James Stadium in 2000. Whether it was a defensive battle like the 11-6 loss in the NFC Championship Game, or an offensive shootout, the Bucs defense has had success against the powerful St. Louis offense.
The Bucs secondary has had little turnover since 1998 as cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly have been mainstays on the defense. Kelly and Barber know exactly how dangerous St. Louis’ wide receiver tandem of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt can be with the ball in their hands. Holt and Bruce have torched the NFL on a regular basis with Bruce averaging 68 receptions a season and 80 career touchdowns in this his 14th year in the league. Holt is arguably the best wide receiver in the league averaging 89 receptions and has 66 touchdowns in this his ninth year in the NFL.
Fans would be hard pressed to forget the 38-35 shootout on Monday Night Football back in 2000 in which the Rams routinely found the end zone. However, Bruce was held in check with only three receptions for 36 yards. Holt, on the other hand, had nine receptions for 165 yards, but only scored one touchdown. Even though Holt has had success against the Bucs defense, he is quick to point out how good Tampa Bay’s defense still is.
“I like there secondary, watching those guys on film they look very good. The thing about Tampa Bay’s defense and their secondary period is that these guys are some of the best and they do a great job of playing their scheme,” Holt said. “There are not a lot of loose holes and not a lot of garbage in their techniques. These guys play very well together as a secondary and play very well together obviously as a defense and have for a lot of years. I have been playing against the Tampa defense for some years now. They are going to be skilled and they are going to be sound in their technique, pass rush and in their run defense. The linebackers are going to thump you leading with [Derrick] Brooks and the safety [Jermaine] Phillips and [Ronde] Barber and those guys are going to hit you and [Brian] Kelly and those guys are great tacklers. So we are going to have to come in and really be focused and be on top of our game from a skill and technique standpoint because these guys can exploit you. It’s always a great challenge going up against Tampa Bay and I have the ultimate respect for those guys.”
Holt has made a career of torching the Bucs secondary. Along with his stellar performance against the Bucs in 2000, Holt had six receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns in 2004 when the Rams defeated the Bucs, 28-21. Holt is the main weapon in the passing game for the Rams and the Bucs secondary must limit his touches to have any chance of a victory on Sunday.
Head coach Jon Gruden knows all about what Holt can do with the ball in his hands and realizes the task at hand for his secondary.
“It’s going to be a challenge because they are clearly three of the best receivers in the NFC or in football,” Gruden said. “[Torry] Holt might be the best there is if you want to argue, we can have that argument. He’s great and Isaac is playing great and has been playing great for some time. Drew Bennett is not an old soul, he’s a great young talent. It will be a challenge to stop Steven Jackson and stop these receivers and stop these Rams. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Running back Marshall Faulk did the most damage in 2000, scoring four touchdowns against the Bucs defense. The secondary doesn’t have to worry about containing Faulk anymore, but it doesn’t get a break as running back Steven Jackson has taken over the all-purpose duties in the Rams backfield. Along with 346 carries for 1,528 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing last season, Jackson was second on the Rams, behind Holt, with 90 receptions for 806 yards and three touchdowns.
Jackson does just as much damage catching the ball out of the backfield as he does running the ball. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was impressed with what he saw on film from Jackson and knows that the Rams offense is much better than what it has shown in the last two weeks.
“First thing that stands out to me is that they haven’t done as well in the last couple weeks as they would have like to,” Kiffin said. “I looked back at their stats last year and saw where they were No. 4 in the NFL in total offense. They are outstanding and have a fellow by the name of Steven Jackson, who had the most total yards from scrimmage. There are guys by the name of LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gore, Tiki Barber and Larry Johnson that are pretty good players and he was No. 1. And he had 90 catches, he’s a running back with 90 receptions and he never comes off the field. You know most teams rotate their backs and I wish they would rotate their backs in St. Louis because he never comes off the field. We all talked about it to the defense that this guy is not a good player, he’s a great player. They want to get it going….and it’s such a big challenge.”
With Kelly returning to practice on Thursday and Friday after sitting out last week’s 31-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints while recovering from a groin injury, the Bucs secondary could be at full strength on Sunday. However, if Kelly can’t go, Tampa Bay will have to look to cornerback Phillip Buchanon to start and fifth-year cornerback Sammy Davis to play in the nickel formation, which consists of four defensive linemen, two linebacker, three cornerbacks and two safeties.
Rookie safety Tanard Jackson will get his first taste of facing Holt and Bruce after admiring both wide receivers while watching them while attending Syracuse. After seeing Holt and Bruce on film, Jackson is looking forward to challenge of facing two great receivers.
“[They have] speed and are very smart route runners,” Jackson said. “They find holes in the defense and they’ve got great speed and great hands and are just all-around great receivers. Their quarterback puts it there so it’s a great challenge for our secondary and defense and we are looking forward to it.”
Jackson has not only seen Holt and Bruce on film, but has also talked to Barber and Kelly about their experiences against the Rams tandem.
“Between Ronde [Barber], [Derrick] Brooks and [Brian] Kelly, they know this team like the back of their hand and have had success against them too,” Jackson said. “So that’s another key part just asking those guys questions and learning the Rams tendencies definitely helps us out and gives us an advantage.”
The Rams offense has always had a third wide receiver to complement Holt and Bruce from Ricky Proehl to Az-Zahir Hakim. St. Louis added 6-foot-5 wide receiver Drew Bennett, who played for the Tennessee Titans last season, to give the Rams offense a talented trio of receivers.
Buchanon or Davis will be called on to cover Bennett when the Rams go to their three wide-receiver sets and will have a noticeable height advantage. Davis gives away four inches at 6-foot-1 and Buchanon is listed at 5-foot-11. Barber, who has had to face tall receivers his entire career, believes it’s all about technique no matter how tall or strong a receiver is.
“You still have to play the ball and that’s the way I look at it,” Barber said. “He’s just a big receiver until he has ball that’s in a position that I can’t get to. If you have the ability to play the ball it doesn’t matter who you are up against. Just play the football. Drew is a damn good talent and gives those guys something that they didn’t have before. Every tall receiver is different; some guys have quickness some guys don’t, some guys use their body some guys don’t so we will see.”
Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris is excited about the challenge of facing St. Louis’ talented trio of wide receivers. Morris takes the outlook that to be the best you have to beat the best and instills that kind of mentality in the Bucs secondary. Morris has brought a fire back to the Bucs secondary and holds every player accountable for their assignments on the field.
Morris, who was an assistant defensive backs coach when the Rams faced the Bucs in 2004, understands the task at hand for his secondary, but feels that all of his defensive backs are ready to face the Rams.
“Every week you have a different challenge and this week presents itself with a great challenge,” Morris said. “As everyone knows these guys [Holt and Bruce] are both really great receivers in this league and have been around for a long time and [Drew] Bennett is a really good receiver that we have faced against before in Tennessee. The thing about the receivers with the Rams is we looked forward to playing this kind of team because we know they want to get the ball to their best players. In order for us to be the best, we have to have the ability to be able to stop the best. We feel like we want to have the ability to go out and play with the best. They will get some and we will get some, we just have to have more at the end of the day to have success and that’s how we look at it. My guys look forward to this challenge, they are all eager and up to it and I can’t wait to go out and play these guys.”
Barber, however, believes that the success of Holt and Bruce has more to do with quarterback Marc Bulger than what the talented receivers do in running their routes. Bulger sets the table for Holt, Bruce and Bennett and his accuracy is what worries Barber more than covering the receivers.
“The key is understanding obviously their offense, but how their quarterback plays,” Barber said. “I mean Torry [Holt] and Isaac [Bruce] are great players, no doubt about it, but this offense doesn’t run without a good quarterback. Just watch Marc Bulger work and how he anticipates routes and how quick he lets go of the ball and just the quality of his passes and then you understand why they are so good in the passing game. It has a lot to do with Torry and those guys, but to me it’s Marc Bulger. He’s the one that makes this thing go.”
So the success of the secondary will hinder on how quick the Bucs pass rush can force Bulger to throw the ball. But the pass rush is another matchup for another day. The secondary, however, must keep everything in front of them against the Rams and not allow any of their receivers to get behind the coverage or it will be a long day for the defense on Sunday.
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