St. Louis (0-2) at Tampa Bay (1-1)
Monday, 9 p.m. EDT (ABC)
Raymond James Stadium (65,657), Tampa, Fla.
Before the season began, most viewers would have expected to see the Rams’ "greatest show on turf" offense go head-to-head with a very stingy Buccaneers defense this Monday night. After recording its fifth shutout in franchise history, Tampa Bay appears ready to meet the challenge. Spoiled by 6-0 starts in each of the last three seasons, St. Louis walked off its home field to a chorus of boos last week. The winless Rams must regain their swagger quickly to have any hope of returning to postseason play.
Keyshawn Johnson AP
Buccaneers' offense vs. Rams' defense
How often can a team win when its offense cannot outscore its defense? Tampa Bay did not score a touchdown in four trips to the red zone last week against Baltimore. The offense compensated for this lack of scoring with a ball-controlled, conservative game plan that allowed QB Brad Johnson to complete 24 of 31 passes for 211 yards without a turnover. Johnson, who does a good job of finding secondary receivers, completed passes to seven players. Wideouts Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, dubbed "the Florida Keys," combined for 85 yards on seven receptions. McCardell drew two defensive holding penalties to keep Tampa Bay’s 17-play drive alive in the second quarter. The return of OG Casey Coleman from injury and OT Kenyatta Walker from Jon Gruden’s doghouse provided solid pass protection for Johnson, who was knocked down five times by the Ravens (a big improvement over the 17 times by the Saints in Week 1). Both Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott had trouble gaining yardage against the Ravens’ 3-4, two-gap hit-and-read defense.
The Rams defense, ranked third in the league last season, looked dazed and confused against the Giants last week. MLB Jamie Duncan has been playing with two broken fingers and that has limited his tackling ability. The run defense could not slow down HB Tiki Barber (4.2 yards per carry) until SS Adam Archuleta rolled up to create eight in the box. From this defensive formation, the Giants’ receivers faced single coverage and were able to rack up eight plays of 18 yards or more yards. The defensive front could not generate consistent pressure vs. New York’s makeshift offensive line and did not take QB Kerry Collins out of his rhythm (he completed 84.6 percent of his passes, a Giants’ club record). On the positive side, the defense did hold New York to field goals on four of its trips to the red zone and DT Brian Young deflected a pass that was intercepted for the second consecutive week.
Kurt Warner AP
Rams' offense vs. Buccaneers' defense
The St. Louis offense relies on a four wide receiver set with at least one "burner" who can stretch the field vertically in order to open seams for the horizontal passing game. If the deep threat is covered, QB Kurt Warner checks down to the shorter slant, seam and crossing routes that many times require a run after catch to gain first downs. These shorter routes have affected the Rams’ ability to sustain drives, especially against solid pass defense units such as the Broncos and Giants. WR Terrence Wilkins was brought in to be the deep threat but has taken longer than expected to learn the offense and has been replaced by 13-year veteran Ricky Proehl, a possession-type receiver. LG Tom Nutten left Sunday’s game in the third quarter with a concussion and TE Ernie Conwell has been playing through injuries. The rule change forcing offensive tackles out of their quick drops have put more pressure on the passing game. HB Marshall Faulk has carried a total of 24 times in two games, not enough for a premier back to help balance the attack. Against the Giants, St. Louis opened with a Faulk in run five of its 10 offensive series.
The Buccaneers had one of their greatest defensive efforts against an inept Baltimore offense last week. Tampa Bay did not give up an earned first down until the second quarter and did not allow 100 yards of total offense until the early fourth quarter. It was the first time in franchise history that the Ravens were shutout. Any fears from their slow Opening Day start were eliminated when the Bucs held Baltimore to an average of 2.8 yards per play, had three sacks and scored points on both turnovers. The linebackers combined for 20 tackles, but the highlight was Derrick Brooks’ interception and 97-yard TD run at the end of the game. DC Ronde Barber proved worthy of last year’s Pro Bowl selection by recording six of the team’s 12 defended passes. The secondary was able to follow Ravens QB Chris Redman’s eyes to the intended receiver, thanks to the consistent pressure created by the blitz packages and pass rush.
Tampa Bay’s Karl Williams provided the highlight -- a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter -- in what was a good special teams day against the Ravens. Chartric Darby blocked a field goal attempt before halftime and Martin Gramatica made all three of his field goals. Gramatica is perfect this season on attempts less than 40 yards but is just 2 for 4 on longer kicks. Tom Tupa, whose aborted punt turned into the game-winning score for Denver in Week 1, has been booming the ball but only has a 35.5 net average due to touchbacks and out-kicking his coverage.
Wilkins gained 195 all-purpose yards for the Rams in last week’s game against the Giants and is among the league leaders in kickoff returns with a 28.2 average. Punter Mitch Berger won the field position battle last weekend against New York with a 41.3 net average and three punts inside the 20. The punt coverage unit has done a solid job of supporting Berger, allowing only four yards per return. Kicker Jeff Wilkins missed a 35-yard field goal attempt in the dome last week. Wilkins has only missed 11 of his 123 career attempts inside the 40 but two of those have occurred already in this young season.
DT Warren Sapp vs. Rams' offensive line
Sapp had two sacks and a forced fumble in Tampa Bay’s 24-17 upset win over the Rams last November. His primary competition will be LG Tom Nutten (who missed part of last week’s game with a concussion) and RG Adam Timmerman (whose play has been affected by a sore knee). With DE Simeon Rice favoring a sore shoulder and matched up against Pro Bowl OT Orlando Pace, it will be up to Sapp to disrupt the passing game without help from blitzing linebackers that would compromise the pass coverage.
HB Marshall Faulk vs. LB Derrick Brooks
With the Cover 2 defenses taking away the long pass, Faulk will be called upon more often to run and catch the ball out of the backfield. Faulk has 21 receptions in the first two games of the season and will need all of his speed and quickness to avoid Brooks in the open field.
QB Kurt Warner vs. Bucs' pass defense
Having turned the ball over three times, Warner personally accepted the blame for the team’s loss to the Giants last week. Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 defense compares favorably to the Giants, Broncos and Patriots defenses that have stymied the Rams offense. Warner has seen enough of the scheme by now to recognize its tendencies and attempt to exploit it.
Tampa Bay has a 39 percent third down conversion rate in two games, slightly better than its 35 percent average for last season. The Bucs did a better job of getting the ball to the backs and tight end on short passes to keep the chains moving. After allowing the Saints to convert 50 percent of their third downs in Week 1, the Bucs defense held Baltimore to a mere 27 percent. The speed of Tampa Bay’s linebackers helps to limit the effectiveness of short passes that require additional yards running for first downs.
Thus far this season the Rams have struggled with ball control and time of possession, converting only 29 percent of third downs. St. Louis doesn’t run often on third down, even in short yardage situations. The overwhelming number of passes go to wide receivers, with Faulk the target of just one third-down pass last week. Faulk has accounted for 21 of the 23 completed passes to backs this season and needs to touch the ball more often in clutch situations.
Tampa Bay paid the Raiders $8 million and surrendered its top draft picks for the next two years to bring Gruden to the Sunshine State. In their win over the Ravens last week, the Bucs showed that they are slowly progressing toward Gruden’s style of offense with more smash-mouth running plays, more risk taking and more touchdowns. The running game has not been consistent, which has forced Tampa Bay into a high percentage, short passing game. The play-calling was very conservative in the red zone last week, settling for three field goals. While Gruden has shown strong discipline and accountability, at this point the offense (just two touchdowns this season) doesn’t look much different than it did in past years. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has exactly what the Rams don’t want to see: another solid Cover 2 defense known for its hard tackling and ability to read and jump the receivers’ routes.
Losing promotes reflection in the NFL. After just two games, Mike Martz has questioned himself on his play-calling, blown plays due to late substitution, clock management and not knowing his on-field personnel. With Nutten out of the game in the third quarter last week, Martz called for a running play behind his replacement guard on fourth-and-1, which resulted in a fumble. Above all, Martz has to adapt his offense to the Cover 2 defenses that everyone will run at him. Lovie Smith created a defensive unit that uses its speed and aggressiveness to create turnovers for the high-powered offense, but at this point has not delivered. St. Louis is a minus 3 in the giveaway-takeaway category. The defense must turn over the ball more often for the offense to have a chance.
Every defense in the league will be using some version of the Patriots’ strategy that harnessed the high-powered Rams in last year’s Super Bowl. Start with a Cover 2 pass defense with the safeties and linebackers playing deeper than normal. This will prevent the long pass and keep the action out front. The Rams are then forced into the short passing game and must sustain drives, something they haven’t done this September. Vital to making this defensive scheme work is having the personnel to pressure Warner with only three or four players, with either down linemen or the zone blitz. Tampa Bay has all the tools to follow in these footsteps. Martz must better utilize Faulk to force a defensive adjustment.
Like their opponent this week, the Bucs need to be patient on offense and take what the defense gives them. Johnson completed his first nine passes last week, which helped to build confidence in the system. Four backs caught passes against Baltimore last week (for 15 receptions), and the recent addition of Rickey Dudley means that the tight end position should play a bigger role. With an undersized front four, the Rams’ defense has difficulty pressuring quarterbacks and will have to resort to blitzing and stunts to make something happen. Even though the Bucs are playing at home and have beaten St. Louis in their last two Monday Night appearances, the possibility of the Rams’ offense regaining form is more likely than Tampa Bay suddenly opening up its attack. Expect a slow-paced conservative game until the first big play, with the Rams avoiding their first 0-3 start since 1987.
Reported by Real Football. Throughout the season the Real Football staff will bring you an "insiders"
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