Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the NFC’s divisional round games will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida as the Los Angeles Rams will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 09: Jalen Ramsey #5 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates his interception with Von Miller #40 during a 27-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

RAMS’ DEFENSE IS GIFTED AND OVERLOOKED

Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit between 2017-19 was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who kept the system in place. That led to him getting the Los Angeles Chargers’ coaching job and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris now runs this side of the ball.

Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, run-stuffer A’Shawn Robinson, former Bear Leonard Floyd and seven-time All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven. Nevertheless, the team finished the 2021 regular season third in interceptions and sacks and sixth against the run – however they were just 15th in points surrendered and 22nd against the pass.

Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last three years out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions (and sometimes got burned in the process). In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage, and former backup Darious Williams. Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller are normally the team’s primary safeties, but with both of them nursing injuries head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead have coaxed five-time All-Pro safety Eric Weddle out of a two-year retirement to rejoin the team he suited up for in 2019.

This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald and Miller into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness. Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations and the Rams mainly use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Morris mix it up more against Tampa Bay?

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 17: Cooper Kupp #10 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball in the first quarter of the game against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at SoFi Stadium on January 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO

Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago, the team didn’t field a good offense again for a long time. That changed when McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.

Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.

The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – from Todd Gurley years ago to a combination currently made up of Darrell Henderson, Sony Michel and Cam Akers. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, David Edwards, Brian Allen, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).

One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.

Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays.

Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. These are mostly executed out of “empty” shotgun formations with “bunch” and “stack” alignments by their receivers, with many of their run-action plays performed under center.

Due to inconsistencies in his game, former first overall draft pick Jared Goff was shipped to the Detroit Lions last winter in exchange for ex-Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford, who remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous passers. Possessing one of pro football’s strongest arms, in recent years he has also developed a mind and accuracy to match. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made – he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover Two…. His bold throws are now also good decisions.”

The weapons that Stafford has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Van Jefferson, Robert Woods (out for the season with a knee injury) and tight end Tyler Higbee. Woods is a solid possession receiver and Jefferson brings speed to the table. Beckham isn’t as explosive as he once was but is still an effective route runner, gets yards after the catch and remains a red zone threat. Higbee has been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).

Kupp in particular is great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet and elite separation skills at the top of his pass patterns help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and company in what are known as “high/low” concepts – with one receiver being the low man on short routes to influence safeties to cheat down low and take him away while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.

TAMPA, FLORIDA – JANUARY 16: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers talks with head coach Bruce Arians prior to the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT

Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in many types of offenses in his career. From operating on a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to being the quarterback of a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and orchestrating an attack that revolved around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

For 20 years the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed last year to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has adjusted to head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 44, has shown little signs of slowing down – in 2020 he accumulated 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007, and led the Bucs to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

2021 has been more of the same for Brady as he paces the NFL in passing attempts, completions (where he set a new single-season record), passing yards and passing touchdowns. He still has zip and velocity in his throws and is exceptional on intermediate throws.

Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive, but it seemed as if they had potential to do more damage in the NFL than they had shown with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Evans responded with a career-high 13 touchdowns last year and has double-digit scores this year, while Godwin was on pace to tie his career-bests in receptions and touchdowns despite playing in only 12 games in 2020. Godwin set a career-high in catches in 2021 with 98.

Evans and Godwin are used in multiple ways by Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, but especially in three-by-one trips formations (with Evans the backside receiver) and in bunch with Godwin as the point man. Tampa likes to use these to defeat split-safety zone coverage – which the Eagles employ on many of their defensive snaps – along with high-low pass concepts out of play-action and will also attack the void in between those split safeties with Godwin on a vertical route down the seam and a combination of shorter routes to attract the middle defenders and deep pass patterns on the outside to widen the other safety. They also like play-action out of the shotgun in the red zone to influence linebackers’ run-pass keys, but Godwin won’t be able to execute these concepts in this year’s playoffs after suffering a major knee injury.

Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense besides deep threats Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard were a pair of veteran imports in 2020 – Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Brown, the enigmatic former All-Pro, is still as dangerous of a route-runner as ever when playing (he has missed time this season due to injury and suspensions) but was released after a disagreement over an ankle injury, leading to more playing time for Cyril Grayson Jr. and Tyler Johnson.

Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can execute almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries, forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots, but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns and has been his usual productive self this year when healthy.

The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Leonard Fournette has enjoyed a career rebirth in the Bay while showing off his power and improved receiving skills. He is backed up by Ronald Jones, who had a career-high 1,143 yards from scrimmage in 2020, former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell and ex-Bengal Giovani Bernard. They run behind an underrated offensive line composed of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs.

Tampa Bay’s offense led the league in passing and finished second in total yards and scoring with 511 points.

TAMPA, FL – JANUARY 9: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles talks with Linebacker Devin White (45) during the regular season game between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on January 9, 2022 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX

Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.

Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Vita Vea and Steve McClendon are the team’s main defensive linemen. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football (David is the better of the two in pass coverage though).

Beyond promising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell – leave a bit to be desired, hence Arians and general manager Jason Licht signing veteran Pierre Desir and 33-year-old five-time All-Pro Richard Sherman, whose leadership, intelligence, length and ability to excel in press coverage has made him the prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years. But Sherman was recently placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

While the Bucs were the best defense in the league against the run and fourth in sacks in 2020, they were just 21st against the pass. It’s been more of the same this year as they were third in rushing yards allowed and seventh in sacks but 21st against the pass again.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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