Things haven’t been great for the newly re-minted Los Angeles Rams in a long, long while — but a small silver lining for LA’s prodigal team is their recent domination of this week’s opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Rams have beaten the Bucs in each of the past four seasons.
Both teams are in rebuilding modes, but appear to have brighter futures on the horizon thanks to the progression of two young stars. For Los Angeles, it’s running back Todd Gurley, last season’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. While the days of the workhorse running back and power -running offenses dominating the game are likely over, Gurley is a refreshing throwback-type of player worth watching on a weekly basis.
For Tampa Bay, second-year quarterback Jameis Winston looks to be the real deal — or at least he appears to be on his way. Winston has shown his ability to throw well from the pocket, and manage an NFL huddle, but he tends to let one turnover snowball into multiple miscues.
Los Angeles at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 25 at 4:05 P.M. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Tampa Bay -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Rams’ Pass Rush
Instead of making the move to L.A., It seems that the Rams’ once volatile and unruly pass rush was left behind. For the last several seasons, the Rams’ defensive front was a terror on opposing quarterbacks, and one of the few bright spots on a marginal football team. Although Chris Long is now in New England, fellow defensive end Robert Quinn and All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald remain, but this defense simply isn’t attacking the quarterback the way it has in recent seasons. Through two weeks, the Rams have only two sacks — both coming last week against a hobbled Russell Wilson — and allowed a Blaine Gabbert-led San Francisco team beat them in Week 1.
Sunday, a healthier and more capable Jameis Winston will be a much tougher test than Gabbert or Wilson. With running back Doug Martin ruled out because of a hamstring injury, Winston will likely bear the load for Tampa Bay’s offense. This means that the Rams’ once-fearsome pass rush has another opportunity to be the difference-maker for a marginal team once again.
2. Which Winston?
The Buccaneers’ offense has been “A Tale of Two Winstons” so far in 2016. In Week 1, Jameis Winston was lights out, tossing four touchdowns on the road against Atlanta. Last week against Arizona, Winston was a mess, throwing four picks and losing a fumble. Because of the injury to Doug Martin and a couple of other skill position players, Winston will be relied upon even more this week to move the chains and get some points on the scoreboard.
Winston has proven that he’s got the skill set and mindset to be an elite NFL quarterback; he just hasn’t been consistent enough to make the Buccaneers a legitimate threat in the NFC South. With the Rams’ defense coming off of a dominating effort at home against Seattle, Winston will have to be at his best in making decisions and protecting the football and can ill afford to let one mistake snowball into an avalanche, like what happened last week in Arizona.
3. Let Gurley Run
Earlier this week Los Angeles running back Todd Gurley said he “sees 12 people on the field” when he has the ball. Translation: there is nowhere to run for Rams’ best offensive weapon. Through two games, Gurley has 36 carries for 98 yards and no touchdowns — tough numbers for a guy who ran for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games last season.
With no indication that quarterback play — no matter whom is under center — is going to be any good, getting Gurley going is vital to Los Angeles’ success, otherwise head coach Jeff Fisher won’t have to worry about going 8-8 ever again.
With Tampa Bay’s key injuries on offense looming large, the outcome of this game relies solely on the arm of Jameis Winston and his ability to counter Los Angeles’ stout defense. If we get a repeat performance of last week from Winston, it could be a very, very ugly football game for the Buccaneers’ home opener.
Prediction: Buccaneers 21, Rams 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.