Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. St. Louis Rams: Full Tampa Bay Game Preview
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't have much time to dwell on last week's deflating loss, as they'll have to turn around on a short week and head out on the road to face the St. Louis Rams in front of a national audience Thursday.
After dropping last week's home contest to the New Orleans Saints, the Bucs now need a miracle to get into the playoffs. The first step toward making that miracle a reality would be beating the Rams, who are 5-8 and coming off a 21-14 win over the Detroit Lions last week.
The quick turnaround won't do the Bucs any favors, as they're dealing with a handful of key injuries to players who won't get the benefit of a full week to heal up before game action.
Every game is a must-win for Tampa Bay from here on out, and they'll still need plenty of help even if they're able to win out.
Bucs fans, here's everything you need to know about this week's road clash with the Rams.
Date: Thursday, December 17
Time: 8:25 p.m. ET
Location: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis
TV: NFL Network
Week 14 Results and Recap
NFC South Standings
Tampa Bay missed a golden opportunity to stay in the thick of the NFC playoff race last week, suffering a disappointing 24-17 home loss at the hands of the New Orleans Saints.
On paper, it looked like a game the Bucs should have easily handled, but Drew Brees and company took control early and never gave it back. A pair of early touchdown catches from Marques Colston gave the Saints a 14-0 lead, with the Bucs clawing back in the second quarter to make it 17-10 at halftime. Aided by a penalty that nullified a drive-ending sack, Brees mounted yet another touchdown drive in the third quarter to stretch the lead to 24-10, putting the Bucs on the ropes.
A touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to rookie Adam Humphries—the first career score for the undrafted free agent out of Clemson—got the Bucs within a score, but they would get no closer. Their last chance to drive for a game-tying score sputtered, forcing a punt. The defense couldn't come up with another stop, and the Saints bled out the rest of the clock for the victory.
Brees carved up the Tampa Bay secondary all afternoon, completing 31 of his 41 passes for 312 yards as the Bucs were able to get little pressure and didn't force a single turnover.
Despite facing the league's worst defense, Winston managed just 182 yards through the air as Tampa Bay's wide receivers combined for just 66 yards on six receptions. Doug Martin had 86 total yards, but was only given 12 touches for the entire game.
The loss drops the Bucs back under .500 for the season, putting their hopes of a playoff berth on life support with just three games left in the regular season.
News and Notes
Bringing Back Bowers
With multiple injuries at defensive tackle, the Bucs brought back a familiar face by signing Da'Quan Bowers earlier this week.
Bowers said being out of football for most of the season was tough, but he's excited to help his former team down the stretch, per Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune:
I’m just glad to be back helping this team because they’re doing a lot of great things and I knew they would this year. I’m glad to be able to help them out the rest of the way.
Those were the most excruciating 14 or 15 weeks in my life. I’ve never missed football so much in my life.
A second-round pick out of Clemson in 2011, Bowers was never able to live up to his potential as a disruptive defender, mostly due to injuries. In 50 career games—all with the Bucs—Bowers has managed just seven sacks. He'll be hoping to add to that total over these last three weeks of the 2015 season.
After Tough Loss, Lovie Likes Quick Turnaround
Most wouldn't blame NFL teams for hating Thursday night games, as it gives them little time for quality game-planning and recovering from injuries.
But after last week's deflating home loss to the Saints, Bucs head coach Lovie Smith says he's happy to have the chance to get back on the field quickly, per Zach Shapiro of PewterReport.com:
You asked me after yesterday’s game – I love it [in this case]. I’m not totally against it. It’s a part of it. You know early on that you are going to have to play a Thursday night game. In an ideal world, Thursday night game you would rather play at home, but that’s how it goes. For us, we like playing this Thursday night game. We’re excited about the new uniforms and all of that. Again, we need to play quickly and Thursday night allows us to do that.
Going on the road to play a second game in five days doesn't seem like much fun, but it's completely understandable for Smith and the Bucs to want to wash out the nasty taste of last week's performance.
Martin Takes High Road on Lack of Touches
Despite being the NFL's second-leading rusher, Doug Martin got just 12 touches in last week's loss, leaving fans and analysts alike—both locally and across the league—scratching their heads.
But Martin refused to complain, admitting the score dictated the Bucs' need to try to throw more in the second half last week, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times: "As a running back, you have to want a lot of carries. But due to the situation of the game, I think we were down 14 (points), you know, you kind of stay away from the run and that's what the coaches thought we needed to do to get ahead."
A 14-point deficit might look like a decent explanation on the surface, but Martin leads the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more, and the Bucs averaged 6.1 yards per carry on the ground last week. If they wanted to claw back into the game—and possibly win—they should have given Martin more opportunities.
Latest Injury News
WR Vincent Jackson
Jackson left last week's loss to the Saints after reinjuring his knee, and it looks like his 2015 season could be over. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported Jackson has a sprained MCL and could miss several games. With just three games left in the regular season, Jackson could end up being done for the year, which would be a huge blow to the Bucs down the stretch. His absence was painfully evident last week, and will be felt throughout the final three weeks.
G Logan Mankins
Mankins wasn't able to practice Monday or Tuesday, which is a huge concern for Tampa Bay as they look toward Thursday night's matchup. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is one of the league's most disruptive interior defenders, and it will be even more difficult for the Bucs to keep him at bay if Mankins is out of the starting lineup.
DE Jacquies Smith
After missing last week's game, Smith was able to participate in practice on both Monday and Tuesday in a limited capacity. With Gerald McCoy a full participant on both days despite a hand injury, it looks like the Bucs could potentially have their two best defensive linemen back in the starting lineup together Thursday night, but it remains to be seen if Smith will be ready to go by then.
LB Bruce Carter
After filling in rather well for the suspended Kwon Alexander last week—eight tackles, two for loss—Carter left late in the game with an ankle injury that has kept him out of practice so far this week. The Bucs are extremely thin behind him at linebacker, as Danny Lansanah would have to slide over from the strong side to start in Carter's place if he can't go Thursday.
*All injury information courtesy of Buccaneers.com.
Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin vs. Bucs defense
You won't find the NFL's most complete, prolific offense in St. Louis, but you will find two of the most explosive playmakers in the league, as both Gurley and Austin will present plenty of problems for the Tampa Bay defense.
Gurley's rare blend of speed, quickness and physicality make him a monster in the ground game, while Austin's small stature doesn't keep him from making opposing defenses pay for letting him get the ball in space. Both of these players will test the resolve and discipline of the Bucs defense at every level this week. If they can't contain them, it'll be a long day for the Pewter Pirates.
Aaron Donald vs. Bucs interior offensive line
Defense is easily the stronger unit for the Rams, and it's led by one of the best young defenders in the entire NFL.
The 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Donald has already established himself as one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league, racking up 20 sacks through his first 25 NFL starts. Especially with starting left guard Logan Mankins banged up this week, Donald could present huge problems for the Bucs.
Bucs' X-Factor of the Week: RB Charles Sims
Doug Martin gets most of the press when it comes to the Tampa Bay backfield, and with good reason. But his running mate is the perfect complement, and should play a key role in the Bucs' offensive game plan this week against a stout Rams defense.
Not only is Sims an effective change-of-pace back—his quickness and explosiveness balance well with Martin's more physical running style—he's also a valuable weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. A former high school receiver who caught over 200 passes in his college career, Sims led the Bucs with 64 yards on six receptions last week.
Points may be hard to come by for the Bucs on Thursday, and a big play or two might be the difference between winning and losing. Sims is the type of player who can provide that spark.
Prediction: Bucs 17, Rams 13
This game could be an ugly one for a couple of reasons. It's tough for any NFL team to turn around and play their best football on just a few days' rest, and both offenses have had their struggles recently, which could lead to a low-scoring affair in St. Louis.
Tampa Bay should be focused on shutting down Todd Gurley and forcing the Rams to beat them through the air, and staying committed to the ground game when they have the ball and keeping Jameis Winston out of long third-down situations will be key. The Rams are at their best on defense when their talented front four are able to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback in clear passing situations.
If there's one thing this young Bucs team has shown this year, it's the ability to overcome adversity and bounce back from a rough outing with a strong performance the following week. Last week's loss to the New Orleans Saints was one of the most lackluster and disappointing of the entire season for Tampa Bay, but I expect them to right the ship with a close road victory in front of a national audience.
Final Prediction: Bucs 17, Rams 13