The defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked dominant in the wild-card round, outrushing the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, overwhelming one of the league’s best pass-blocking offensive lines and getting a clinical performance from quarterback Tom Brady. Now on a four-game win streak during which they’ve outscored opponents 132 to 62, the red-hot Bucs have a 68 percent chance — according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo predictions — of streaking right into the NFC championship game.
But Tampa Bay can’t look ahead to a potential same-time, same-place rematch of last year’s NFC title tilt. The squad still has to beat the No. 4-seeded Los Angeles Rams to get there, and the Rams are as well-equipped as any team to stop them.
Los Angeles already beat Tampa Bay, three weeks into the Rams’ impressive 7-1 start. As my colleague Neil Paine noted earlier this week, the Rams pressured Brady on 26.7 percent of his dropbacks that game, more than any other team has managed this season. But we also know that regular-season results don’t guarantee playoff performance — just ask the New England Patriots, whose 46-carry, three-pass regular-season win in Buffalo gave us no clue that, in the wild-card round, the same teams would take the same field and Buffalo would pitch the first “perfect game” in NFL history.
Nearly four months of NFL football have been played since Los Angeles beat Tampa Bay, and both teams have seen major changes in personnel. Yet they still match up in a way that suggests the Rams aren’t nearly as disadvantaged as the Elo ratings suggest.
The Bucs offense, led by coordinator Byron Leftwich, is one of the NFL’s strongest units. It scored the second-most points, gained the second-most yards, finished No. 1 in ESPN’s offensive expected points added (EPA) and was the No. 1 offense by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). The defense ranked highly in many major categories, too; coordinator Todd Bowles directed his unit to fifth place in scoring defense, 13th in yards allowed, sixth in defensive expected points added and ninth in defensive DVOA.
But while the Bucs’ offense is loaded with difference-making stars — Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Mike Evans and tailback Leonard Fournette — the Bucs’ star defenders haven’t played up to their billing. Edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett is their only defensive Pro Bowler this year; linebacker Lavonte David and run-stuffer Vita Vea are the only other two members of the Bucs front seven who earned Pro Football Focus grades over 70. Linemen Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul graded out terribly: Suh’s 49.5 ranked 105th out of 145 interior defenders, and though Pierre-Paul gutted out multiple injuries to contribute this season, his 46.5 grade 125th out of 127 edge defenders.1
In fact, PFF grades the Rams as the stronger team. Los Angeles was PFF’s top overall squad during the regular season, with an overall grade of 93.2. Its offense graded fifth (84.1) and defense first (82.5). Meanwhile, the Bucs were fourth overall (92.1), fourth offensively (86.0) and 10th defensively (72.4).
After all those grades in the 80s and 90s, that 70.7 sounds like a clunker. Drilling down to the unit level reveals the Bucs’ issues on defense: Their outstanding 89.6 coverage grade was second-best in the league, but they ranked 10th in run-stopping (57.4), 23rd in tackling (51.7) and 25th in pass rush (68.0).
But wait — how did the Buccaneers generate the league’s third-highest quarterback pressure rate with the 25th-best pass-rushing performance? If you guessed “Bowles blitzed like their title defense depended on it,” you were right: Tampa Bay rushed five or more defenders on 38.1 percent of dropbacks this regular season, the highest blitz rate in the NFL.
But nobody was better against the blitz this season than the quarterback they’re facing next, the Rams’ Matthew Stafford.
According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Stafford ranked No. 1 in Total Quarterback Rating (92.3), No. 1 in NFL passer rating (129.5) and No. 3 in touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-to-1) when blitzed this season. Opposing teams touched him on only 9.6 percent of their blitzes — the second-lowest rate among quarterbacks, behind only Brady (8.8 percent).
Not only was Stafford the worst possible quarterback to attack with extra rushers this year, the Bucs defense is much worse when blitzing. Tampa Bay ranked eighth in pressure rate, 13th in defensive EPA, 21st in opponent raw QBR and 26th in allowed third-down conversion rate when it sent five or more. When rushing four or fewer, it was still (tied for) eighth in pressure rate — yet ranked second in defensive EPA, 12th in opponent raw QBR and second in allowed third-down conversion rate.
In theory, Tampa Bay’s talented secondary should help cover for all the defenders Bowles throws forward. Opposing passers saw a huge rise in their QBR when Tampa defended receivers man-to-man (72.5, sixth-highest) instead of in zone (40.2, 12th-lowest), the third-biggest differential in the league. That explains why the team played a 61-39 overall split of zone coverage to man.
But when the Bucs blitz, the man-zone split is reversed. Only 38.8 percent of team blitzes came in zone coverage, despite the Bucs allowing the 11th-lowest QBR (41.6). 61.2 percent of the Bucs’ blitzes on opponent dropbacks came in front of man coverage; the unit allowed the third-highest QBR in the NFL (80.7) on those plays.
And who’s No. 1 in raw QBR against man coverage this season? The Rams’ QB.
The top-line results of Bowles’s coaching are hard to argue with; he got top-10 production out of his unit without any top-10 individual production. Bowles has also been known to use opponents’ anticipation of his aggressive tendencies against them. When asked in 2014 why he blitzes so often, Bowles said: “It’s not that you blitz so often; you see certain things. Sometimes it’s to take away the run, sometimes it’s to stop the quarterback from stepping up, sometimes it’s to keep a good running back in who’s a good pass receiver.”
Well, Los Angeles just added a good running back who’s a good pass receiver. After a remarkable Week 18 return from a July 2021 Achilles tear, 2020 breakout rookie Cam Akers racked up 95 yards from scrimmage on just 18 touches in the wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals. If Bowles blitzes even more to limit Akers’s touches, Stafford may just see more opportunities to burn the Bucs deep with his other weapons, including Cooper Kupp, the league’s most productive wide receiver this year, and Odell Beckham Jr., who was acquired after the first Rams-Bucs meeting (and whose production has cushioned the blow of Robert Woods’s season-ending ACL tear).
Tampa Bay has had personnel changes since then, too; wideout Antonio Brown missed Week 3 due to COVID-19, came back, got suspended, came back, then left again due to … irreconcilable differences. They also lost wide receiver Chris Godwin to an ACL tear and cornerback Richard Sherman (who signed before Week 4) to a calf injury. Starting center Ryan Jensen and tackle Tristan Wirfs went down with ankle injuries against the Eagles, and both are in doubt for this weekend. Like Los Angeles, Tampa Bay is hoping its top running back — Fournette, out since Week 15 with a hamstring injury — will be healthy enough to make an impact.
The Rams have had other major injuries, too. Defensive signal-caller Jordan Fuller went down in the regular-season finale, and Los Angeles signed free-agent safety Eric Weddle (who had been retired for almost two years) as an emergency fill-in. But Los Angeles also added Von Miller to bolster its outside pass rush; he’s notched six sacks in nine games.
After weighting DVOA to emphasize recent performance, Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz found that Los Angeles’s plus-29.0 percent is not only higher than Tampa’s (plus-26.1 percent), it’s third-highest overall and second to only the Buffalo Bills among teams still alive in the playoffs. Their DVOA-derived playoff odds give the Bucs a significantly lower probability of advancing (57 percent) than Elo does (68 percent).
By all rights, Tampa Bay has earned its higher seed. The Bucs have performed better overall across the sweep of the longest season in NFL history. But the Rams’ defense has already proven it can hassle Brady as well as anybody, and Stafford has been the best in the game at attacking the Bucs’ few weaknesses.
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