Stafford's Legacy at Stake against Bucs
NFL Divisional - The last time the Rams faced Tampa Bay was in Week 3, when they took a 31-14 lead before eventually winning 34-24. Matthew Stafford threw for four touchdowns, including a pair to Cooper Kupp, while the L.A. defensive front put up a dominant performance, limiting Tampa Bay to 35 rushing yards and sacking Tom Brady three times.
Of course, a lot has changed since then. Chris Godwin was the Bucs' top receiver this year, but he tore his ACL against the Saints in Week 15 and is out for the season. Antonio Brown returned from injury only to quit the team mid-game in a public meltdown. Leonard Fournette, their leading rusher, hasn't played since Week 15 due to a hamstring injury; Ronald Jones, his primary backup, has missed the last two games with a bad ankle. Starting offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs both left the wild-card win with injuries. And a bevy of defensive players—including Antoine Winfield, Jordan Whitehead, Lavonte David, Carlton Davis, Jason Pierre-Paul, among others—missed significant chunks of the season, though most have returned for the playoffs.
The Rams, meanwhile, have rebuilt entire chunks of their roster on the fly, losing safety Jordan Fuller, wide receiver Robert Woods, and tight end Johnny Mundt to season-ending injuries; trading away starting linebacker Kenny Young; releasing wide receiver DeSean Jackson; acquiring Von Miller and Odell Beckham; watching Cam Akers return to the field after tearing his Achilles in the preseason; signing Eric Weddle out of retirement; and most recently, seeing offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth leave the wild-card win with a knee injury.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE: Uh-oh.
Sean McVay says ILB Ernest Jones and LT Andrew Whitworth won’t play on Sunday. Adds Taylor Rapp still in concussion protocol and also out Sunday.
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 21, 2022
That's a lot of in-season turnover. With so many moving pieces, it's hard to get a feel for what the game on Sunday will look like. The Bucs have the edge in our full-season DVOA numbers but are trending downwards, while the Rams have been playing some of their best football lately (particularly on defense) and look better in weighted DVOA. Each team got here with a dominant victory in the wild-card round, but neither should expect anything to be so easy in a matchup this weekend that likely won't be decided until the final possession.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||21.6% (5)||27.6% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||29.0% (3)||26.1% (6)|
|Rams on Offense|
|LAR OFF||TB DEF|
|DVOA||10.6% (8)||-3.5% (9)|
|WEI DVOA||3.9% (13)||-6.5% (9)|
|PASS||26.6% (7)||0.7% (10)|
|RUSH||-3.8% (12)||-11.8% (12)|
|Buccaneers on Offense|
|LAR DEF||TB OFF|
|DVOA||-8.3% (5)||26.7% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||-16.4% (3)||21.2% (2)|
|PASS||-1.0% (6)||43.9% (1)|
|RUSH||-18.0% (5)||6.9% (4)|
|DVOA||2.7% (4)||-2.5% (27)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Well, let's start with the obvious: Cooper Kupp remains the driving force behind the Rams offense, and beating L.A. starts with containing Kupp. The Buccaneers ranked 11th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, their highest ranking against any position group, but Kupp still has a big edge here. With Sean Murphy-Bunting not yet able to practice this week, the task of covering Kupp falls on Carlton Davis (34th among qualifying corners in success rate, 35th in yards allowed per target) and Jamel Dean (18th and 14th in those same categories), each of whom played every defensive snap against Philadelphia despite missing time earlier in the season with injuries. The Rams move Kupp around a lot, but he had more targets to the offense's left (89) than to the right (64) or over the middle (41). That suggests he'll typically be facing Dean most often; the Bucs used a lot of zone coverage (45.6% of all throws, second only to the Raiders) with Dean usually on the offense's left and Davis to the right. Of course, all that zone coverage also means they'll rarely be left covering Kupp alone.
Kupp's role in the offense, however, has been shrinking of late. He averaged 11.8 targets in his first 15 games this season, with at least nine targets every week. Since then, however, he has hit exactly seven targets in each of L.A.'s last three appearances (a Week 17 win over Baltimore, a Week 18 loss to San Francisco, and the win over Arizona in the wild-card round). Mind you, he has still been absurdly efficient, turning those 21 targets into 18 catches for 274 yards and scoring a touchdown every game. But he has stepped out of the spotlight just a bit to make room for a couple of emerging teammates—and we're not talking about Odell Beckham or Van Jefferson. Their targets have been dropping lately too, with just 16 and nine, respectively, in the past three weeks.
The first player getting more opportunity is tight end Tyler Higbee, who has matched Kupp by averaging 7.0 targets in the last three games, up from a 4.5-target average before that. Higbee's advanced stats were nothing special this season, but he's averaging 56.7 yards over his last three games, 20 yards more than what he did the rest of the season, with two of his five touchdowns coming in that stretch.
The other is Cam Akers, who was believed to be out for the season after tearing his Achilles last July. The Rams eased him back into the lineup with 13 snaps in the regular-season finale against San Francisco, but then gave him more snaps in the playoff win over Arizona (32) than they did to Sony Michel (24), even though Michel had been playing well as of late, averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game in December. Akers' rushing numbers have been frankly dreadful so far with only 58 yards in 22 carries, but he has added 50 more yards on four catches. That makes him more dangerous as a receiver than Michel, who averaged a paltry 7.5 yards per game through the air in 2021.
None of this is good news for Tampa Bay. The Bucs did not rank in the top 10 in pass coverage against any one position, but they may have been weakest on throws to tight ends (where they ranked 15th in DVOA) and running backs (where they ranked 21st in DVOA and gave up 46.9 yards per game; only four defenses gave up more).
The best way to cover Kupp and Co. may be to harass the quarterback and make sure his receivers never have time to get open in the first place. Despite all that zone coverage, the Bucs were fourth in the league in pressure rate, and a lot of that pressure came up the middle. Edge rusher Shaq Barrett led Tampa Bay with 38 pressures, but linebacker Devin White was second with 27, and defensive tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh added 20 and 19, respectively. That's going to present a big challenge for the Rams. They allowed the third-lowest pressure rate in the NFL, but each of center Brian Allen and guards Austin Corbett and David Edwards finished among the top 50 interior offensive linemen in blown blocks allowed on passing plays. (This is partly because, as usual, the Rams had one of the healthiest offensive lines in the league—Allen, Corbett, and Edwards missed only one start between them.)
As for Akers and the ground game, the general efficiency metrics of the Tampa Bay defense against the run are good, but nothing special—they rank 12th in rush defense DVOA and fifth in adjusted line yards—but they led the league with a 26% stuff rate. That may explain why opponents were so reluctant to run against them in the first place. The Bucs faced a league-high 680 pass attempts, but a league-low 366 runs. And no, it's not just because opponents were often playing catch-up late in the fourth quarter—the Bucs also saw the most passes and fewest runs in the first half of games. The Rams, however, might try to challenge them on the ground. L.A. loved to run off-tackle to both the left (23% of all runs, most in the league) and the right (18%, tied for second). The Bucs were ninth in ALY against right tackle runs, but just 19th against left tackle runs. If the Rams are going to run to the right, they may as well take it all the way to the sideline—they led the NFL with 6.91 adjusted line yards to right end, while the Bucs defense gave up 6.17, next to last.
We have been talking about the Rams offense for nearly a thousand words now and we haven't mentioned Matthew Stafford yet. He's the wild card, entirely capable of winning or losing this game all by himself. Since he entered the league in 2009, no quarterback has led more game-winning drives … but only two have thrown more interceptions. It was more of the same this season—Stafford had four game-winning drives (which is a lot considering he only had a tie or deficit in nine games), but also threw a league-high 17 interceptions, including eight in the final four weeks of the regular season. He also led the league in pick-sixes for the second consecutive season and third time in his career. Stafford's streaky nature was on full display on Monday night against the Cardinals. He picked up first downs on five straight throws in the first half and four straight to close the game, gaining 181 yards on those nine plays. In between, however, he went 3-of-7 for only 16 yards.
The M.O. for Todd Bowles' Tampa Bay defense this year has been to pressure opposing quarterbacks into making mistakes. Despite all those zone schemes, the Bucs still led the NFL by blitzing on 38.1% of opposing dropbacks. And they were effective when blitzing, limiting opponents to 5.6 yards to play; only Buffalo was better. However, Bowles has never been shy about adjusting his game plan to fit his opponent (last year's Super Bowl is just one example), and he'll probably have a more conservative plan in mind for L.A. The Rams were blitzed only 21.6% of the time, the lowest rate in the league outside of Kansas City. As you might surmise, the Rams were excellent against the blitz, ranking second in yards per dropback and first in touchdowns per throw; Stafford had the league's best QBR when defenses brought extra rushers. Blitzing, by definition, isolates your defensive backs in one-on-one situations with opponents' receivers. That's a bad idea against teams like the Rams, who have a deep arsenal of weapons and a quarterback with the arm to hit them all over the field.
There is a dark cloud that comes with this silver lining for Los Angeles, however—Stafford was deadly against the blitz, but awful against zone coverage. Against coverage marked as man or "other" by Sports Info Solutions, Stafford completed 66.9% of his passes with 29 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Against zones, however, that completion rate drops to 58.6%, with a dozen touchdowns and interceptions apiece. The best way to beat Stafford wasn't to force the issue, it was to sit back and wait for him to make a mistake and beat himself. There's a reason one quarterback in this game just picked up his first playoff win while the other got his 35th.
And speaking of that other quarterback…
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Tom Brady is very, very old, but he is still very, very good. Eventually, only one of those things will be true, but we're clearly not there yet. The question is who will be playing along with him? Let's take a quick look, position by position:
- Both Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs had been held out of practice until Friday. If they can't go on Sunday, the Pro Bowlers will be replaced by Robert Hainsey (a third-round rookie center out of Notre Dame who played all of 31 offensive snaps this season) and Josh Wells (a long-time backup who has started eight games in three seasons in Tampa Bay, including five this year, though all five came as a jumbo tight end in six-lineman formations).
- Running back Leonard Fournette remains on injured reserve, but he has been practicing this week and said that he will play Sunday. Ronald Jones has not practiced due to a bad ankle, and Giovanni Bernard was a limited participant due to hip/knee issues, leaving second-year back Ke'Shawn Vaughn the only fully healthy back on the roster. Vaughn ran for 17 yards on his first carry in the wild-card win over Philadelphia, but had only 36 yards on 16 carries the rest of the day.
- Mike Evans is a multi-time Pro Bowler who would be the top wide receiver on a lot of teams, but the depth behind him is paper-thin. With Godwin and Brown gone, Tampa Bay's next top wideout this year was Tyler Johnson, who had all of 360 yards in 17 games. Cyril Grayson and Breshad Perriman combined for 369 yards between them, but they have also been held out of practice this week with hamstring and hip/abdomen issues, respectively.
- The entire tight end depth chart has a clean bill of health. Thank goodness.
That last item is critical. Since Godwin was injured, Rob Gronkowski has been targeted 28 times for 20 catches and 306 yards, most for the Bucs in all three categories. Cameron Brate has added nine catches in 13 targets, and though he has only gained 57 yards, he has found the end zone twice. Unfortunately the Rams excel in coverage against tight ends, ranking fourth in DVOA on throws to those players. They are worst against running backs, ranking 24th in DVOA, which is a weakness Fournette could exploit if he's available—he was sixth at the position this year in receiving DYAR.
If Gronk and Fournette can't get anything going, will Evans be able to carry the wide receiver corps by himself? Tampa Bay has the bad luck to face that question against the L.A. Rams and Jalen Ramsey, perhaps the league's preeminent shutdown corner. Only three qualifying corners allowed fewer yards per target in coverage this year, and only one of those (Atlanta's A.J. Terrell) was a full-time starter. The Rams won't hesitate to move Ramsey all over the place—he led L.A.'s corners in pass plays on both the left and right sides of the field—so Evans will likely have his hands full all day while Darious Williams (no slouch himself, ranking 25th in yards allowed per target) deals with the Graysons and Perrimans of the world.
The players catching Brady's passes are important, but the players keeping him upright in the first place are even more so. The Bucs had the lowest adjusted sack rate and pressure rate allowed (15.3%) this season even though everybody knew they were coming out firing—they lead the league in passes but were next to last in runs. And they didn't disguise what they were doing, either, with a league-low play-action rate of 17.3%. (The Rams defense only saw play-action 19.8% of the time, which was also the lowest rate in the league, so play-action passing shouldn't play a big part in this game.) If they're going to maintain all those clean pockets, it's critical that Jensen and Wirfs play. Jensen ranked 33rd among centers in blown blocks, while Wirfs ranked 80th among tackles. Keep in mind that theoretically, there are only 32 starting centers and 64 starting tackles in the league. Also keep in mind that both Jensen and Wirfs started every game in the regular season.
Pass protection is especially meaningful for the Bucs because their facing a Los Angeles pass rush that is among the best in the game. The Rams were "only" eighth in adjusted sack rate, but their pressure rate of 29.0% was third highest. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was second in the league with 48 pressures; Leonard Floyd was also in the top five with 41. Von Miller had 29 in 15 games between the Broncos and Rams; counting him, the Rams were one of five defenses that had had three defenders with at least 25 pressures apiece. (Four of those teams—the Rams, Chiefs, Packers, and Titans—will be playing this weekend, while the fifth, the Raiders, also made the playoffs. Turns out that having a deep crew of pass-rushers is a good thing. Who knew?)
The Rams defense is somewhat similar to the Bucs in that they eschew man coverage (only the Raiders used man coverage less frequently), but they still blitzed fairly often, ranking fourth in blitz rate. Opponents didn't blitz Brady often—only seven teams were blitzed less frequently than Tampa Bay—but his numbers were pretty consistent whether blitzed or not, and against man or zone coverage. If Brady had a secret weakness, someone would have figured it out by now.
The running attack doesn't figure to be a big part of this game—remember, only the Jets had fewer running plays than the Buccaneers—and that's especially true if Fournette can't go. Though he failed to make the top 20 in carries, Fournette was second behind Jonathan Taylor in rushing DYAR at the position. For what it's worth, the Bucs ran 26% of the time to either right tackle or right end, but only 18% of the time to left tackle or left end. Only Baltimore had a bigger gap between right-side and left-side runs. The Rams, however, were fourth in adjusted line yards against right tackle runs, and second on runs to right end. This suggests that, if anything, the Bucs would be better off going even more pass-wacky than usual.
If you do some low-level data mining, you can find a few other scenarios where Tampa Bay has a significant edge in this game. They were second in DVOA on second-down passes, and seventh in third-down runs, while the Rams ranked 24th and 28th in defense in those same categories. But this all feels insignificant compared to the injury report. The Bucs could probably win a Super Bowl missing a starter or two—most championship teams do, somewhere on the field—but four or five on one side of the ball seems like too heavy a load to bear, even for Tom Brady.
Massive edge to the Rams here. They're better than the Bucs in four of our five special teams categories: placekicking, kickoffs and coverage, punts and coverage, and punt returns. Tampa Bay only has the advantage in kickoff returns, where the Rams ranked 26th and the Buccaneers ranked … 24th.
Those are full-season numbers, however, and anything can happen in one game. L.A. struggled in the kicking game against Arizona. Matt Gay made all four of his extra points and both of his field goal attempts, including a 46-yarder, but Johnny Hekker averaged less than 40 yards per punt, while Brandon Powell's two kickoff returns and two punt returns gained a total of 47 yards. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's special teams were just fine against Philadelphia. Though Jaelon Darden gained only 29 yards on five kickoff and punt returns, Ryan Succop made all of his kicks, Bradley Pinion averaged 48.7 yards per punt, and the Eagles gained only 92 yards (31 of them on one play) on eight total kickoff and punt returns.
Tampa Bay's injury situation makes this the most difficult game of the weekend to forecast, but on paper it's a fantastic matchup. It also might be more of a defensive contest than most are expecting. If it does come down to a one-score game at the end, remember that the Rams been slightly better in those situations (first in offensive DVOA, third on defense) than the Bucs (second and 14th). Still, while both quarterbacks have long track records of winning games at the end, if we had to bet on one of them making a critical mistake at the worst possible time, it would be Stafford. Until proven otherwise, Brady should have enough left in the tank to get Tampa Bay back to the NFC Championship Game.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.