Rams vs. Buccaneers: 10 Keys to the Game for St. Louis
They say you're only as good as your last game. If that were true, the Rams vs. Buccaneers Week 16 matchup would pit two pretty sorry teams against each other.
Thankfully, that proverb is not true in this case, at least as far as the Rams are concerned.
The Bucs, however, are reeling.
It can't get much worse. The Bucs made it look like Gregg Williams had snuck back into the building, bound and gagged Steve Spagnuolo, hidden him in a closet and retaken the reins of his once formidable defensive unit.
The Rams, on the other hand, played better than the box score indicates. If you take away Adrian Peterson's two longest runs (82 and 52 yards) he only managed 78 yards on 22 carries. Not bad. Pretty impressive, actually.
The Buccaneers are out of the playoff hunt. The Rams are mathematically alive, but not realistically. Both teams will be wanting to prove that their performances last week were the exception, not the rule.
Let's take a look at 10 keys to the Rams imposing their will on the Buccaneers.
Keep Feeding the Beast
When Steven Jackson gets 18 or more carries the Rams are 5-1-1. A pretty convincing argument could be made that they should be 7-0—the loss coming on a last-minute touchdown pass, and the tie being a game the Rams would have won on three different occasions had it not been for ill-timed, boneheaded penalties.
Yes, the Buccaneers run defense ranks first in the league and consequently, Jackson's efforts are likely to be fruitless.
The Rams have to keep giving him the ball anyway.
As long as the Buccaneers' linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties have to respect the running game and look into the backfield to see if Jackson is going to get the ball, the Rams receivers—most of whom struggle to get open under the best of circumstances—will have an easier time giving Bradford a target.
If Jackson gets 20 carries then the Rams come home 7-7-1.
Keep Josh Freeman Contained
At 6'6", 248 pounds, nobody in the Rams secondary wants to see Josh Freeman barreling toward them—except maybe Cortland Finnegan, but that guy is just nuts (in a good way).
If the Rams' front seven can't keep Freeman in the backfield the difficulty in tackling him may be the least of their worries.
The problem with facing mobile quarterbacks is that once they turn upfield, the members of the opposing secondary often neglect their assignments and go after him, even if he hasn't yet passed the line of scrimmage. If that's the case, he will throw the ball to the receiver or area of the field the defender has abandoned and a big gain will result.
It's up to Chris Long and Robert Quinn to keep him closed in. If they fail, James Laurinaitis, JoLonn Dunbar and the rest of the linebackers to track him down as expeditiously as possible while the members of the secondary stay on their assignments.
Protect Sam Bradford
The loss of Harvey Dahl is huge. The Rams' stalwart right guard was placed on injured reserve after suffering a torn biceps tendon on the second-to-last series of the Rams' Week 15 loss to the Vikings.
In his nearly two full seasons with the Rams, Dahl's rock solid play has been outshined only by his consistency, having started 30 straight games since joining the team prior to the 2011 season.
In his place against the Buccaneers will be either Shelley Smith—who played the last two series against the Vikings—or Chris Williams.
Smith is a former sixth-round pick of the Houston Texans who was cut by them during this year's preseason. Since joining the Rams he has started four games at left tackle while Rodger Saffold was out with an injury.
Williams is a former first-round (14th overall) pick of the Chicago Bears who started 16 games at right tackle in 2009 and 13 more in 2010.
That sounds exciting but when you consider that he was released by the Bears after getting beaten by J'Marcus Webb for a starting spot, he starts to sound more like a Jason Smith than an Orlando Pace.
Still, his 6'6", 320-pound frame should be able to plug some holes.
Whether it's Smith or Williams that gets the first shot they will need to play well. Sam Bradford is going to have to have time to make throws if the Rams are going to have a chance of beating the Buccaneers and their top-ranked run defense.
Corral the Muscle Hamster
Stopping the other team's running game while making your own work is one of the oldest maxims in football because it's true, and I like the Rams' chances against Doug Martin.
The Rams' run defense held the venerable Frank Gore to 58 yards on 23 carries in Week 13 before putting in an equally impressive performance against Buffalo's C.J. Spiller one week later. As I mentioned before, if you disregard Adrian Peterson's two biggest runs, the Rams defense did an impressive job against him, too.
So, all they need to do is continue the trend: clog up those running lanes and seal off those edges. If the Rams can force Josh Freeman to be the one to beat them, they stand a much better chance of not getting beaten.
Sam Bradford Proving His Vaunted Accuracy
Anytime anything even resembling criticism of Sam Bradford is mentioned it brings out some vehement Bradford supporters, and I like that. I think he is going to be a great quarterback, too.
Before the 2010 NFL Draft, Bradford's accuracy was hailed as "Peyton Manning-like." We haven't yet seen justification for that kind of claim on a consistent basis. Not by a long shot.
Of course Bradord doesn't have the offensive line or the weapons that Manning does, but those shortcomings do not explain all of his missed throws. Too many have simply been bad throws or bad decisions.
He is capable of performing better, and he is going to need to if the Rams are going to have a chance against the Buccaneers in Week 16.
Don't Allow Josh Freeman to Gain Any Confidence in the Passing Game
After last week's debacle against the Saints in which Josh Freeman threw four interceptions, his confidence must be teetering over a precipice.
The Rams need to come out and push it over the edge.
The Buccaneers may try to get Freeman some easy completions at the start of the game. If I'm the Rams I'm keeping a close eye on tight end Dallas Clark in the first series.
Also, I'm telling Janoris Jenkins, Cortland Finnegan and the rest of the Rams secondary to be aggressive at the start of the game. Look for some of the routes that lead to easier throws—short slants, quick outs, etc.—and be prepared to jump them if you see them developing.
If the Rams can get an early interception we may see Josh Freeman collapse right in front of our eyes.
First-Half Production from the Offense
To say that the Rams offense has sputtered in the first half of their four most recent contests would be putting it kindly.
Against the Vikings the Rams were kept off the scoreboard in the first quarter and trailed at halftime for the fourth game in a row. Here is an article with all of the ugly stats.
Granted, they have a 3-1 record over those four games, but the Vikings game showed the inevitable end-game of the kind of first-half ineffectiveness that has been plaguing the Rams of late.
In that game—during which they were behind 30-7 at the half—the Rams outscored the Vikings 15-3 in the second half but the hole they had dug for themselves with their first-half offensive futility was too deep.
The Rams are aware of the problem. Look for them to come out with some deep throws on their first possession against the Buccaneers' porous pass defense.
Consistent Production from a Wide Receiver Not Named Amendola
Danny Amendola is a rock. The rest of the group can't seem to figure out who they are from one week to the next.
In Week 13 against San Francisco, Chris Givens had 11 receptions on 13 targets for 92 yards. The following week he had three receptions on 10 targets for 25 yards. In the loss to the Vikings—with a healthy Danny Amendola back in the lineup—he was only thrown to four times, and only caught one of them.
Brandon Gibson has been surprisingly consistent, routinely seeing anywhere from four to seven targets a game and bringing in 69.7 percent of the balls thrown his way. His five touchdowns this year are more than double his previous career high of two. Still, his 613 receiving yards aren't going to scare anybody and neither are some of the drops he has had this season.
One or both of these guys are going to have to find a way to beat the coverage of the worst pass defense in the NFL and hang onto the ball when it is thrown their way.
Amendola can't do it all on his own.
Win the Turnover Battle
The importance of winning the turnover battle cannot be overstated.
Except for the Week 1 loss to the Lions (+3) and the Week 2 win over the Redskins (-2) the Rams have won or tied every game in which they had more takeaways than their opponent and lost every game in which they had fewer.
The Rams are -3 for the season. The Buccaneers are +7.
With Josh Freeman's recent turnover troubles, I like Janoris Jenkins' and Cortland Finnegan's chances to get their hands on an errant pass or two.
If the front seven can get The Muscle Hamster to drop his burden a time or two it will go a long way toward ensuring a successful afternoon for the Rams.
Sit Back and Watch Them Implode
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a team in turmoil.
As has been mentioned, they are in the midst of an 0-4 slide.
Josh Freeman has not had a quarterback rating above 79.2 in any game since their Week 12 contest against the Atlanta Falcons.
The last two weeks of the 2012 season will tell the Buccaneers and their fans a lot about what to expect in 2013.
If the poor play and the off-field and sideline antics the Buccaneers have been displaying over the last few weeks don't change, the Rams might not have to do anything other than show up and watch them destroy themselves.
But, just to be safe, the Rams could provide a little nudge in that direction with some positive plays early on.