LOS ANGELES (WFLA) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin an extended stretch of games away from Raymond James Stadium Sunday against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams at 4:05 pm.
The Bucs road trip will span seven weeks, five games and two continents. Following today’s game, the Bucs will prepare for a trip to New Orleans, then a (home) game against the Carolina Panthers in London, England. After a much needed bye week, the Bucs are right back on the road for back to back games against Tennessee and Seattle.
The Bucs were stunned at home a week ago, blowing an 18-point halftime lead to the New York Giants and rookie quarterback Daniel Jones. After surrendering the lead, the Bucs drove to set up a potential game-winning field goal. Matt Gay’s 34-yard attempt sailed wide and the Giants prevailed 32-31.
Today’s game is one of the toughest tests on the schedule. The Rams have picked up where they left off in 2018 with a 3-0 start with victories against Carolina, New Orleans and Cleveland. Historically, the Tampa Bay franchise has not faired well in Los Angeles. More important, it is games against the Rams that have stumped a Bucs team that once lost two years in a row to then Rams quarterback Case Keenum.
Here are three keys to watch for today when the game begins at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
1. Can the Bucs stay balanced?
One of the noticeable differences in the new offensive scheme put in by head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is a balance between running and passing that the Bucs have not enjoyed in years. Fans are finally enjoying holes for running backs Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. The two runners have alternated dominating the run attack, with Jones accounting for 90 yards against the Giants. As an offense, the Bucs are currently 8th in the NFL in rushing, one spot behind the Rams.
The run game has opened the passing game where Leftwich insists he will not force quarterback Jameis Winston to take too many risks. The passing game finally found wide receiver Mike Evans last week, with 190 receiving yards and three touchdown catches. Tight end O.J. Howard continues to search for his breakout performance but his presence and downfield blocking is helping others succeed.
2. Insert running back here.
The top priority for the Bucs defense remains the same for the fourth consecutive week, stop the opponent’s run game. The Rams, 7th in the NFL in rushing, feature one of the game’s best backs, Todd Gurley, who can control a game when healthy.
The Bucs have done a marvelous job containing the big names so far, limiting Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey to just 37 yards rushing in week two. Last Sunday, Giants running back Saquon Barkley had a tough time getting established before an ankle injury ended his day.
Breakdowns in roles and poor tackling cost the Bucs defense last week, however, as the quarterback (Jones) burned the Bucs by his own running. Jones scored two rushing touchdowns when assignments were missed, the second one, a wide open lane for ten yards to the end zone. Rams quarterback Jared Goff is not known as an elite runner but the Giants showed the way to attack the Bucs 3-4 scheme if the quarterback’s escapability is not accounted for every on every play.
3. Facing the demons again.
Here we go again. Every time the Bucs line up for a point after attempt or a field goal, fans will be glued to their televisions, taking nothing for granted. Neither will Bucs kicker Matt Gay, who answered every question thrown at him after missing a potential game-wining field goal from 34 yards out a week ago. Gay also missed an extra point attempt and had another blocked, on a nightmare day of five points left on the field.
Head coach Bruce Arians did not bite on questions regarding a kicking change earlier in the week, noting that Gay is a young kicker. Arians is banking on a better performance from the rookie that won the Bucs kicking competition in camp, partly by winning a pair of games with long field goals at the end. Arians said on Monday that he is more confident in Gay kicking from a longer distance, blaming the misses on Gay trying to place the ball to a spot rather than letting his powerful leg simply drive the ball. Gay was 4 for 5 on field goal attempts against the Giants and has made seven kicks this season. The Bucs just needed that number to be eight to snatch a victory.