The Los Angeles Rams took a page from the music industry in 2021 and went the supergroup route, adding a new front man to their already very accomplished band. It remains to be seen whether the results will be as propulsive as the Chris Cornell-Rage Against the Machine mashup Audioslave or the vaguely disappointing addition of Sammy Hagar to Van Halen.
The Rams’ new leading man is long-time Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who came over in a March trade that sent back Jared Goff and three draft picks, including first-rounders in 2022 and 2023. Goff had started for most of the previous five seasons, including the 2018 campaign in which Sean McVay’s upstart team made it all the way to the Super Bowl, but the details of the trade make it clear that the Rams believe Stafford to be a significant upgrade.
After a dozen years in Detroit that included three playoff appearances but no postseason wins and no appearances since 2016, Stafford drops into a very favorable situation in Los Angeles. He has a deep and talented group of pass-catchers around him led by wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods and tight end Tyler Higbee, and he’s backed up by one of the league’s best defenses. So far, the formula has worked, with the Rams off to a 2-0 start with a per-game scoring differential of +11.5 points that ranks sixth in the league.
Under McVay, the Rams’ offense has been known as one that does well to scheme men open in the short and intermediate range. For instance, in their 27-24 win in Tampa last season, Both Woods and Kupp topped 10 catches and 130 yards but the Rams’ 376 passing yards came at the clip of 9.6 per reception. So far this season, Los Angeles is pushing the ball down the field more with Stafford’s big arm, averaging 15.4 yards per catch. In the backfield, third-year man Darrell Henderson has taken over as the lead man after the promising second-year back Cam Akers ruptured an Achilles tendon in July, and he is averaging 4.2 yards per carry while scoring twice in two outings. Henderson’s status for Sunday is a bit unclear due to an injury to his ribs, but the Rams also have Sony Michel, whom they added in a trade with the Patriots after Akers’ injury.
The Rams’ defense revolves around two players who may be the best in the NFL at their respective positions, interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. We’ll take a closer look at both players in the Difference-Makers section below but suffice it to say that the Bucs’ offensive game plan will emphasize avoiding those two players. The Rams were the NFL’s best defense in 2020 in terms of both yards and points allowed, and while they haven’t been quite as dominant in the early weeks of 2021 they still have the league’s eighth-best scoring defense.
That defense has a new leader after Brandon Staley departed for the Chargers’ head coaching gig, and he’s a familiar figure to Buccaneers fans. Raheem Morris, the Buccaneers head coach from 2009-11, directs a Rams defense that identifies as a 3-4 base, with Leonard Floyd providing the outside pass-rush to complement the consistent pressure that Donald gets from the middle.
The last time the Bucs went to Los Angeles, in 2019, they left with a new single-game scoring record after blitzing the Rams, 55-40. However, the Rams’ defense was much more in control in a rematch in Tampa last year, holding the Bucs to their second-lowest yardage total of the season and their worst per-play average of the year at 251 and 3.7 respectively. Given the loaded offenses on both sides and the Buccaneers’ current record streak of nine straight wins in which they scored at least 30 points in each game, Sunday’s game is likely to split the difference between those 2019 and 2020 meetings. Here’s a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they play their first intra-division game on Sunday:
Obviously, the Rams consider Stafford the difference-maker in their efforts to get back to the Super Bowl, and we’ll stipulate that he is at the top of the list here. The Rams have a deep group of receivers with Kupp and Woods also joined by Van Jefferson and DeSean Jackson and Higbee may be bound for a breakout campaign now that he is not sharing targets with Gerald Everett. The Rams defense actually features two standout cornerbacks, with Darious Williams having a very impressive breakout season in 2020. Former Bucs kicker Matt Gay joined the Rams midway through last year and made 87.5% of his field goal tries. He’s a perfect 4-4 so far this year. Besides those standouts, here are four other difference-makers for the 2021 Rams:
1. DL Aaron Donald. Donald has won three of the last four NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and he’s likely to remain a prime candidate for that honor for years to come. Absolutely the most dominant inside pass-rushing force in the NFL, Donald has led the league’s interior defensive linemen in pressure rate for four consecutive seasons according to NFL Next Gen Stats, last year generating pressure on 13.9% of his rushes. He is simply too fast off the ball for many guards and centers; each of the last two years he’s led interior linemen with an average get-off at the snap of 0.86 seconds. Because of this, Donald both draws a lot of double teams, helping out the Rams other pass-rushers, and actually beats those double teams with alarming frequency. He has one sack through two games this year but has averaged over 12 sacks per season since being drafted 13th overall in 2014. He has never failed to make the Pro Bowl and he’s been a first-team Associated Press All-Pro every year except his rookie campaign. To make things even more troublesome for opposing offenses, the Rams can move Donald all over the line, sometimes rushing him off the edge. Donald uses his stout, compact frame to get leverage on blockers and is great at creating instant separation with his quick hands and fluid hips. Furthermore, he is absolutely relentless from play to play.
2. WR Cooper Kupp. Just like the Buccaneers with Chris Godwin, the Rams struck gold in the third round when they drafted Kupp in 2017. According to Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians, what makes Kupp so productive is that he is surprisingly good after he gets the ball in his hands for a 6-2, 208-pound receiver. Said Arians earlier in the week: “He can make people miss. He’s a great run-after-the-catch guy. He’s a hard tackle for a big guy and a shifty guy. He’s a really hard tackle and just one hell of a football player.” Arians has a point – last year, Kupp ranked fifth in the NFL with 535 yards after the catch, and second only to Davante Adams among wide receivers. Kupp generally takes about half of his snaps from the slot and, like Godwin, he’s a bigger-than-average slot receiver and one of the best in the league. In fact, since 2019, Kupp has 1,309 receiving yards from the slot, third-most in the league. (Godwin is fifth at 1,120.) The Buccaneers’ defense has definitely not solved Kupp yet. He had nine catches for 121 yards and a touchdown in that aforementioned 2019 shootout in L.A., then another 11 grabs for 145 yards in Tampa last year. He’s quickly formed a strong connection with Stafford, racking up 271 yads and three touchdowns through the first two games of the season.
3. CB Jalen Ramsey. When the Bucs and Rams met last November, Los Angeles assigned Ramsey to shadow Mike Evans, and Evans finished the game with four catches for 40 yards. That’s actually pretty good! The Rams frequently use Ramsey in this way on an opponent’s top receiver, and the results are usually pretty dramatic. For instance, Ramsey shadowed Seattle’s DK Metcalf in Week 10 last year and held the explosive receiver without a catch. He only allowed the Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins to haul in five passes in two games last season, as well. This is precisely why Ramsey’s interception totals – 12 in five-plus seasons, just one in each of the last two years – seem underwhelming. He simply dissuades opposing quarterbacks from throwing in his direction. When they do throw his way, they don’t get much out of it; in his career he has allowed opposing pass-catchers just 3.2 yards after the catch per reception, fifth-best among all cornerbacks in that span. During the offseason, new Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris worked on ways to utilize Ramsey in a wide variety of spots in the defense, a versatile role that thrilled the four-time Pro Bowler. So far this year he’s played slot corner, outside corner, box safety and free safety and he’s even lined up with the defensive line three times. According to Pro Football Focus, Ramsey has allowed a passer rating of just 25.6 when targeted, far and away the best in the NFL among all defenders. Last week, the Colts only tried to throw in his direction four times, which led to no completions and one game-sealing interception.
4. T Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth is the Rams oldest player at age 39 with a 40th birthday party coming in December, but he also remains one of their best players. A knee injury in the Rams’ ninth game last year robbed him of about half the season but he was excelling prior to going down. Whitworth was credited with allowing no sacks through the first eight games of 2020, while committing just five penalties. He also impressed his teammates with his toughness by coming back from his injury to play in the postseason. Pro Football Focus gave Whitworth a very strong 88.7 grade for the 2020 season and his pressure rate allowed of 1.8% was actually his best in four seasons with the Rams. Whitworth is actually the oldest starting offensive lineman in the NFL, but his effort to return from his knee injury last season convinced him that he wanted to play at least one more season and he put in even more work in the offseason to get into very good shape. Whitworth is an anchor for a Rams offensive line that has allowed just two sacks so far and ranks eight in the NFL with a 3.57% sacks-per-pass-play rate. The Rams were sixth in that category last year, as well.
So far this season the Rams’ offense ranks right in the middle of the pack in yards gained but is fifth in yards per play(6.88) and fifth in scoring (30.0 points per game). As noted above, the Rams are making more plays downfield with Stafford at the helm and they actually lead the NFL with 10.39 yards per pass play. The Los Angeles defense already has three different players with an interception and six different players with a sack and is allowing just 5.70 yards per pass play, sixth lowest in the league. Here are some other areas in which Los Angeles has excelled in the early part of the 2021 season:
- Stafford is undoubtedly enjoying his new group of pass-catchers because they almost never let him down with dropped passes. In fact, according to Statspass, L.A. players have yet to drop what has been deemed a “catchable” pass this season. The league average is 4.3 dropped passes per team, or over two per game.
- One reason the Rams’ defense is fifth in scoring despite being 12th in yards allowed is because it has been very stingy in the red zone. Overall, Los Angeles ranks eighth in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing a touchdown on just 42.86% of drives into that territory. In just two games, the Rams have already forced two turnovers in the red zone, one of only three teams to do that so far.
- The Rams appear to be doing an excellent job of scripting their opening series of plays, as they have now scored on their first drive of each game and the first second-half drive of each game. Obviously, that has them tied for first in the NFL in both categories.
- Again, the Rams are doing a good job of pushing the ball downfield in the passing game. While the Rams’ offense is good at scheming ways for players to take short passes for long distances, that’s not what is driving this impressive big-play performance. Rather, Stafford’s deep shots have gone very well. On passes that have traveled more than 20 yards downfield in the air this season, Stafford has a passer rating of 149.3, putting the Rams at third place in that category.
Los Angeles hasn’t generated much of a running game yet with Akers out, though they’ve hardly needed to do so. The Rams rank 25th in rushing yards per game (87.5) and 27th in yards per carry (3.37). The Rams’ defense, meanwhile has given up 121.5 rushing yards per game and 4.67 yards per carry to rank in the back half of the league in both categories. In addition:
- As good as the Rams’ defense is, it has not been nearly as good as it was last year at getting off the field. After ranking third in the NFL by allowing a third down conversion rate of 35.41%, that number is up to 45.45% in 2021, which ranks 26th. As a result, the Rams have only forced one three-and-out possession through two games, which is tied for the fewest in the league.
- On the other side, the Rams’ offense has been forced into three-and-outs on four of their 19 possessions so far. That three-and-out rate of 21.1% ranks 24th in the NFL.
- The Stafford-led passing attack has been very good, as detailed above, but strangely it has been less effective on first-down throws. The Rams have only earned four or more yards (which is considered a successful first down play) on 52.2% of their first-down passes. That is tied for 23rd best in the NFL.
- Whoever is returning kickoffs for the Buccaneers on Sunday may want to consider bringing it out of the end zone. So far, opposing return men are averaging 29.4 yards per kickoff return and the Rams have already given up a 50-yard runback. Los Angeles ranks 28th in the league in this department.
NEW FACES IN 2021
The Rams are infamously willing to give up draft picks in trades for veteran performers and they went back to that well in 2021. In contrast, the Rams were almost completely silent in free agency this offseason, with one main exception.
1. QB Matthew Stafford. Yes, we’ve covered this already, but Stafford was one of the most significant additions by any team this offseason and he could change the trajectory of the franchise.
2. WR DeSean Jackson. The veteran deep threat was the one free agency signing of note, coming over after his second stint in Philadelphia. Jackson hasn’t seen a ton of action yet, with just 17 snaps and two catches for 21 yards through two games, but Sean McVay wants to get him on the field more often going forward. Said McVay on Monday: “I’ve got to figure out a better way to get him involved. He’s too good of a player. We brought him here to impact and influence the game and that’s something that’s going to be reflected moving forward.”
3. RB Sony Michel. The former Patriot arrived in a trade in August after the Cam Akers injury and turned in a good effort against the Colts in Week Two after Darrell Henderson was hurt. Michel provided a power-rushing presence in the backfield, carrying 11 times for 48 yards.
1. RB Darrell Henderson. Henderson didn’t return to last Sunday’s game after being sidelined with a rib injury that, McVay said on Monday, involved a cartilage issue. McVay said Henderson’s chances to play against the Buccaneers will depend upon whether the pain subsides in time. His status for the game will probably remain uncertain right up to Sunday, and if he does suit up he may not be able to take on as big of a load as he did in the first two games.
2. OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. The fourth-year edge rusher has had some injury issues early in his career and he started this year on injured reserve due to a shoulder stinger suffered in training camp. He played in 20 games over the previous two seasons and contributed 2.5 sacks.
3. S John Johnson/CB Troy Hill. The Rams saw two members of their very good 2020 depart through free agency in the offseason, as Cleveland poached both Johnson and Hill to strengthen their own defensive backfield.