St. Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

St. Louis Rams
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

When Gerald McCoy was growing up in Oklahoma City, his youth team never got to play the one quarterbacked by Sam Bradford. McCoy, the Bucs defensive end, says it’s because Bradford’s team wouldn’t schedule them. Bradford, the Rams rookie quarterback, insists that McCoy’s team moved to another league.
The two were teammates and good friends at Oklahoma, and were selected with the top three picks of the NFL Draft. That’s one of the subplots to Sunday’s game between the Rams and Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
“I never got to play against Sam. It’s going to be fun,” McCoy said. “We played together in college, but it’s a little different. He can’t duck a guy because it’s on the schedule now.”
In many ways, the Rams (3–3) and Bucs (3–2) resemble each other. Both are led by young head coaches and have drafted franchise quarterbacks. The Bucs’ Josh Freeman is in his second year.
The Rams appear to have turned the corner and are seeking their fourth win in five games and a chance to go over .500 for the first time since 2006. But they have lost their last five road games. After Sunday, one of these teams will continue to be the biggest surprise in the NFL.
“I told the football team this morning we’re 3–3, which means we’re an average football team,’’ Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “That’s where we are right now. You are what your record says and we’re average. We don’t want to be average. We’re trying to get better than that. So we go back to work.’’

Keys for the Bucs
• Pressure Bradford. The No. 1 overall pick is a rookie, which means there’s a chance you can force him into a few turnovers. But to do so, the Bucs must slow running back Stephen Jackson, who is coming off a 109-yard rushing performance against the San Diego Chargers. A lot depends on the play of McCoy, who says he’s got a better understanding of his responsibilities after last week’s blowout loss to the Saints. “We play as a whole defense, but the better I play, the better the defense is,’’ McCoy said.
• Freeman needs to hit the lay ups. Last week against the Saints, Freeman faced another array of blitzes, but this time he was out of synch with his receivers. He missed running back Kareem Huggins on a wheel route and wide receiver Mike Williams on a deep post. There was too much miscommunication as well. The Rams don’t blitz nearly as much as the Saints, Bengals or Steelers, but they have been very good at putting pressure on the quarterback. St. Louis is tied for sixth in the NFL with 19 sacks, including three by former first-round pick Chris Long.

Keys for the Rams
• Pound away with Jackson in the running game. The Bucs have an undersized defensive line that’s struggling to make plays. While Jackson needed 29 carries last week to go over the 100-yard mark, he can wear down more formidable defenses. His 127 carries are the most in the NFC. The easiest way to protect a young quarterback like Bradford is to allow him to turn and hand the ball off. If the Rams are committed to running Jackson Sunday, the play-action passing game will pay off against the Bucs’ mostly young secondary.
• Bradford must protect the football. His passer rating on the road this season is 60.5 with three interceptions and two touchdowns. For whatever reason, Bradford has been at his best when the down and distance doesn’t favor him. On 3rd-and-8 or longer, he has a 118.9 passer rating. The Bucs have a ball-hawking, opportunistic secondary that is led by 35-year-old Ronde Barber. Tampa Bay already has 10 interceptions this season and a plus-5 turnover margin.

Bottom Line
This is a defining game for the Bucs, who have avoided losing two in a row this season. Clearly, they’re not ready to compete with Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers and Rams. But Tampa Bay has proven is can beat lower rung teams like Cleveland and Carolina and even steal a game on the road to a struggling club like Cincinnati. The Rams are ascending but going through growing pains of their own. Tampa Bay should rebound and win this game in a very tight one. Bucs 21-–20.

Week 7
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