Rams seek pass rush to avoid Tom Brady, Buccaneers getting comfortable

TAMPA, Fla. — Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford won’t be thinking about his heroic throws from last year’s thrilling postseason win when he returns to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday to face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers again.

“I’ve played that one in my head enough, I know that one,” Stafford said. “I’ll just be ready to go play the game.”

It’s not the appropriate time for Stafford to appreciate his dazzling throws, including the ones from last week’s well-executed first half against the San Francisco 49ers before things fell apart in the final two quarters.

Lately, Stafford has been focused on fixing the negatives because the Rams’ offense has been among the worst in the NFL through the first two months of the season. The Rams had decent protection for Stafford last week, but they still had another lackluster offensive performance for a team that’s averaging 16.9 points per game, which ranked 28th in the NFL heading into Week 9.

“I mean, it was still difficult, those are long drives,” Stafford said after being asked what clicked for the offense during the first half last week.

Just like Stafford, Brady didn’t get asked about his past accomplishments until the end of his weekly news conference because the majority of his time with reporters was spent discussing the stagnant offense.

Brady will enter Sunday 164 yards away from becoming the first player in NFL history to record 100,000 career passing yards (regular season and postseason combined), a once unreachable feat that might never happen again. But Brady likely hasn’t spent too much time thinking about the milestone and he’s probably not dwelling on last January’s divisional playoff loss to the Rams, when the Buccaneers erased a 27-3 deficit in the final minute before Stafford’s heroics.

The narrative of this being a playoff rematch never materialized because both teams have failed to meet their Super Bowl expectations through the first half of the season. But there might still be a playoff-like intensity on the field with the Rams (3-4) and the Buccaneers (3-5) in desperate need of a win. The Buccaneers have a three-game losing streak and the Rams have lost three of their past four games.

The two teams have disappointed, but all they need is a wild-card spot into the NFC postseason to possibly face the Philadelphia Eagles (8-0), Minnesota Vikings (6-1), Seattle Seahawks (5-3) or Atlanta Falcons (4-4), the current division leaders and top four seeds in the conference standings. Those unproven squads with unproven quarterbacks would be at a disadvantage when it comes to postseason experience if come January they face the Rams, the reigning Super Bowl champions, or the Buccaneers, the 2020 champions led by the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

The Rams and the Buccaneers are nowhere near to being out of the postseason race, but the loser will be left with only three wins heading into Week 10 and a considerable hole to climb out of.

“Yeah, technically it’s a long season, we’ve got like 10 games left or whatever the case may be, but I want to win every game,” Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey said. “I don’t want to keep waiting and saying, ‘We’ve got more time.’ I don’t like that.”

Ramsey joked in the offseason that he was glad that Brady, 45, ended his retirement because he’s no longer the cornerback who allowed Brady’s final career touchdown. Brady launched a 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Evans with Ramsey in coverage to ignite the Buccaneers’ rally during the final four minutes of the memorable playoff game.

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald recalled how comfortable Brady was in the pocket while orchestrating his stunning comeback. Creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been an issue for the Rams this season, and they’ll need to find ways to apply it on a quarterback known for releasing the ball quickly.

“You know that’s the only thing you can do as a defense, as a defensive front, when they want to drop back and pass, trying to put pressure on him, trying to get close to him, make him feel uncomfortable,” Donald said. “Make him feel you, so he ain’t back there and able to pick you apart. So, obviously, his career speaks for itself, the things he’s able to do. So as a defensive front, for us to help the secondary, we got to find ways to affect him.”

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The Rams’ defense allowed 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to be comfortable last week by having their secondary drop back in coverage with hopes of baiting Garoppolo into taking the five- to 10-yard completions instead of utilizing the running game and taking shots downfield. Garoppolo took the yards and the 49ers still produced explosive plays and had a productive running game.

“I think going into that game versus Niners, you’re saying, no disrespect to Jimmy, but you’ve got to make Jimmy beat you and he absolutely did,” Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “Credit to him.”

Morris likely won’t take that approach against Brady, especially with the Buccaneers ranking last in the NFL with an average of 61.9 rushing yards per game. The Rams will need outside linebackers Leonard Floyd, Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis to assist Donald and create pressure on the quarterback, something that hasn’t happened enough this season, which is why the Rams were reportedly searching for a star edge rusher before the trade deadline arrived.

A Von Miller-like player isn’t coming this season to elevate the Rams’ defense. They’re going to have to make it work with what they have and against the most accomplished quarterback of all time on Sunday.

“It’s our job not to allow them to get comfortable,” Morris said. “But if you keep giving the best player in the world, the ‘G.O.A.T,’ that many opportunities, he’s going to get comfortable.”

The Rams and the rest of the NFL know what a comfortable Brady looks like.

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