TAMPA, Fla. –
1. Finding Freeman
THE KEY: After a difficult 2011 season that followed a breakthrough 2010 year, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has bounced back in 2012 with perhaps the best season of his young career.
Although there have been hiccups along the way, including last week’s tough performance against New Orleans, Freeman has again flashed the tantalizing potential that made him one of the league’s up and coming signal callers two years ago.
In just his fourth year in the league, Freeman is already just two touchdown passes and a little more than 2,000 yards away from setting franchise records in both categories for the Bucs.
This season, Freeman has thrown for 3,471 yards with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a rating of 85.7.
The 6’6, 248-pound quarterback does have the ability to make plays on the run and has a special knack for making plays in the clutch as many Rams fans will remember from the Bucs’ come-from-behind win against St. Louis in 2010.
“The tough part about him is he’s so big and strong, he’s hard to get down,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He is able to get himself out of trouble just because of his strength.”
In 10 of his 23 victories as a starter, Freeman has led a fourth quarter or overtime comeback win.
For the Rams to get a win, they’ll have to find ways to get to Freeman and force him into some mistakes.
THE ANSWER: While Freeman threw for 372 yards, most of that was with the Bucs down and trying to come back. The Rams harassed Freeman for five sacks and also came up with four interceptions, many as a direct result of the pressure on him.
2. The Muscle Hamster
THE KEY: Although he has one of the strangest nicknames in all of sports, Bucs rookie running back Doug Martin is becoming a household name no matter what you call him.
The rookie out of Boise State has been an immediate impact player, ranking third in the league in scrimmage yards per game (117.6) and fifth in rushing yards per game (89.3).
Martin also sits seventh in the league in yards per carry (4.6) and is tied for fourth in total touchdowns with 11. Martin is just 5’9, 215 pounds but is built solid as a rock, running low to the ground and making it hard for defenders to wrap him up for sure tackles.
The Rams have defended the run well for the most part this season but were victimized by Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson for a pair of big runs last week and will need to find a way to eliminate those big plays against Martin.
“He’s just an outstanding back,” Fisher said. “We had high grades on him coming out of last year’s draft. We knew he was going to be a good pro. He’s had a lot of touches and is making a lot of plays in the passing game as well as the running game.”
THE ANSWER: Martin was mostly quiet, as the Rams held him to 62 yards on 18 carries. He chipped in seven catches for 57 yards but many of those came on checkdowns late when the Rams were trying to prevent big plays.
3. Air It Out
THE KEY: Despite an offseason attempt to bolster the secondary, Tampa Bay’s pass defense has struggled some against a pass-heavy division loaded with talented quarterbacks.
Going into Sunday’s game, the Bucs are 32nd in the league in pass defense, allowing 310.6 yards per game through the air. Last week, they surrendered 307 yards and four touchdown passes to Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
While the Rams and quarterback Sam Bradford aren’t in the Brees stratosphere in terms of the aerial attack, Bradford did post 377 passing yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings last week, although some of that came when the game was out of hand.
Still, with receiver Danny Amendola close to full speed, the opportunity exists for Bradford and the passing game to put together big weeks back to back.
Of course, in order to take advantage of those chances, the Rams will have to protect Bradford. Tampa is led by end Michael Bennett, who has nine sacks on the year and the Rams are without guard Harvey Dahl, who had season ending biceps surgery on Wednesday.
Getting off to a quick start and grabbing an early lead would be a step forward in that regard.
“Obviously when you fall behind early in a game, especially by the margin that we fell behind on Sunday, they know that you’re going to throw the ball and they pretty much pin their ears back and come,” Bradford said.
THE ANSWER: Bradford finished with 196 yards in the air and completed less than 50 percent of his passes but he hit when he needed to as he threw a pair of touchdowns, including an 80-yarder to tight end Lance Kendricks that was the longest of his career.
4. Slowing Vincent
THE KEY: A big part of the reason for Freeman’s return to prominence in 2012 is the addition of a big-time play maker in the form of wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Tampa signed the 6’5, 230-pound wideout to a lucrative contract in order to lure him from San Diego in the offseason and Jackson has paid immediate dividends.
Through 14 games, Jackson is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,226) and tied for eighth in the league in touchdown catches by wide receivers with eight.
Jackson has been especially adept at moving the chains on his catches which should come as no surprise given his yards per catch average of 19.8. He has moved the chains on 54 of his 62 receptions, an astounding percentage of 87.1, ranking first in the league.
For the most part, the Rams have fared well against bigger, elite receivers such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald. They are ninth in the league in pass defense but Jackson provides a different dimension that can be tough to stop.
Preventing Jackson from hitting the home run would go a long way toward a Rams victory.
“I think they lead the league in passes over 40 yards,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “They’re really good at that. Jackson can have a safety over the top and a corner underneath him and Freeman will still launch it up there to him.”
THE ANSWER: Jackson had seven catches for 108 yards but couldn’t get into the end zone and was targeted 15 times, coming up with catches on less than half of those plays.
5. Room to Run
THE KEY: In one of the more interesting statistical anomalies you’ll find, the Bucs actually rank on the complete opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to run defense. They are first in the league against the run, allowing just 83.3 yards per game.
That is an amazing number considering Tampa Bay was last in the league against the run in 2011. But this year, they’ve allowed just two 100-yard rushers and are yielding just 3.5 yards per carry.
Of course, many teams have elected to pass more regularly against the Bucs and the 334 rushing attempts against are the fourth fewest in the league this year. That’s essentially a chicken or the egg type of discussion but either way, it’s been tough sledding trying to run against the Bucs defense.
The Rams are 17th in the league in rushing offense with 110.4 yards per game on the ground. Starting running back Steven Jackson is closing in on more history and needs just 91 yards to break the 1,000-yard mark for eight consecutive seasons.
Making history in Tampa would be nothing new for Jackson, who set the franchise mark for rushing yards in the team’s last visit there in 2010.
According to left tackle Rodger Saffold, the Bucs run defense excels because it throws so many looks at an offense, using a variety of twists and stunts that make it difficult to know where pressure is coming from.
Just as important, the Rams need Jackson to find some running room against the Bucs to keep the Rams balanced offensively and control the clock.
“They do many different things upfront,” Saffold said. “As long as we are focused in, we should be able to help him get to that next milestone but if we fall to pieces because of the stunts and the movement that is going on, it’s going to be really tough for him.”
THE ANSWER: The Rams and Jackson did find some running room late in the game as he finished with 81 yards on 19 carries, coming up just short of the 1,000 mark for the season.