RAMS (3-4) AT BUCCANEERS (3-5)
When: Sunday, 1:25 p.m.
Where: Raymond James Stadium
TV/Radio: CBS (Ch. 2); 710 AM; 93.1 FM; 1330 AM (Spanish); Sirius 81, 226
Line: Buccaneers by 3 points
Notable injury designations: Rams: WR Van Jefferson (questionable; knee), C Brian Allen (questionable; knee), LB Jake Hummel (out; hip)
Buccaneers: WR Russell Gage (out; hamstring), TE Cameron Brate (out; neck), S Antoine Winfield Jr. (out; concussion), OG Luke Goedeke (out; foot), CB Carlton Davis (questionable; hip), DL Akiem Hicks (questionable; foot)
What’s at stake? The winner will return to the postseason race while the loser is stuck with three wins heading into Week 10. It’s not quite a must-win situation, but it might feel that way for two teams that have disappointed through two months of the season. The Buccaneers are only one game behind the Atlanta Falcons (4-4) for first place in the NFC South. A motivated Tom Brady will be looking to get his offense back on track and this might be a revenge game for him after the Rams defeated the Buccaneers in a thrilling divisional playoff game last season. The Rams have more work to do with the Seattle Seahawks (5-3) sitting in first place in the NFC West, but a win in Tampa Bay might reignite the Rams’ postseason aspirations.
Who’s better? These teams are similar, with offensive line issues and low-scoring offenses. The Rams are averaging 16.9 points per game and the Buccaneers average 18.3, both ranking near the bottom of the league. But the Buccaneers have Brady under center and they’re not flying across the country, which is enough to consider them the better team. When the intensity level increases, Brady tends to lead his team to victory and the pressure will be on Tampa Bay to avoid a 3-6 record. The Rams, however, don’t have to deal with a Pro Bowl pass rusher for this game because Shaquil Barrett is out for the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Rams’ offensive line have struggled against stout defensive fronts.
Matchup to watch: Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald against the Buccaneers’ interior offensive linemen. Donald has had a quiet season by his lofty standards, mainly because he’s constantly being blocked by multiple linemen. But this might be the game when he makes his presence felt because Brady has had shaky protection for most of the season and his two starting guards are dealing with injuries. If Donald is able to apply constant pressure, perhaps that leads to game-changing takeaways for the Rams’ defense. The Rams only have eight takeaways this season, which ranked 23rd in the league heading into Thursday.
Rams win if: … They put together quick drives that end with touchdowns. Stafford received quality protection from his offensive line last week against the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive front, but that didn’t lead to enough downfield completions even with speedy wide receiver Van Jefferson back on the field. If Stafford is able to stretch the field with Jefferson and wide receiver Allen Robinson, their odds of scoring touchdowns will drastically improve. They can’t keep relying on star receiver Cooper Kupp to turn quick throws into long gains, especially on an injured right ankle. Establishing the run would also help Stafford with downfield throws out of play-action. The Buccaneers’ defense allowed the Baltimore Ravens to run for 231 yards last week and the Carolina Panthers rolled up 173 rushing yards on them the previous week.
Fantasy sleeper: After listing how bad the Buccaneers’ run defense has been, perhaps plugging one of the Rams’ running backs into your fantasy lineups might be wise, but which one? It’s tough seeing Rams coach Sean McVay making Cam Akers his lead back after their dispute. Also, McVay said Friday that he hadn’t made a decision as to whether Akers will play. A safer option is Darrell Henderson, but even that doesn’t feel safe with how erratic the Rams’ running back committee has been this season. Go with Henderson or avoid the committee headache and give Jefferson another chance. Stafford might look to force feed him after not targeting him last week.
Prediction: The Buccaneers’ defense has plenty of issues, but the Rams haven’t shown signs of being close to breaking out of their offensive funk. They’re missing an offensive identity and they won’t find it in Tampa Bay with a motivated Brady in need of a win. The Buccaneers end their three-game losing streak and beat the Rams, 27-23. Beat reporter’s record: 5-2 for the season; 4-3 against the spread.
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