Behind Enemy Lines: 9 questions heading into Bucs vs. Rams

After three straight losses, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping to right the ship and get back into the win column when the Los Angeles Rams come to town Sunday.

To preview this Week 9 rematch of last year’s NFC divisional playoff game, Bucs Wire editor Luke Easterling and Rams Wire editor Cam DaSilva answered 10 questions about the game, including their predictions for Sunday’s winner:

CD: What’s been the biggest issue for the Buccaneers this season, outside of being unable to run the ball?

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LE: If I had to pick just one (a tough task), it would be the fact that they just can’t stop the run right now. The first few years under Todd Bowles, this defense was one of the best run defenses in the league. Now, they’ve given up more than 150 yards on the ground in each of their last four games, including 204 in the second half alone last week against the Ravens.

Vita Vea hasn’t been as effective this year against the run, Akiem Hicks has been out of the lineup (he’s questionable for Sunday), and Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul aren’t around this year. Lavonte David and Devin White haven’t been as effective because the defensive front isn’t playing as well as they have in recent years. The offense isn’t moving the ball, which is keeping the defense on the field longer, and making them more tired in the fourth quarter.

LE: Cooper Kupp obviously isn't missing this game, but he might be less than 100 percent with that ankle injury. Do you expect him to still have the kind of game we've come to expect from him, or is another receiver going to have to step up and play a much bigger role than usual in the passing game?

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CD: I still expect him to have his usual type of performance. Very rarely is he held under six catches and 75 yards, and the Buccaneers haven’t had the ability to keep him in check at all in the four games against him. Here are his yardage totals against Tampa Bay since 2019: 121, 145, 96 and 183, and he’s never had fewer than nine catches against them. For whatever reason, he likes facing Todd Bowles’ defense and even if his ankle isn’t 100% after needlessly catching a pass in a 17-point blowout, he should have a strong game.

CD: Has Tom Brady regressed, or is it more about everything around him?

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LE: There have definitely been moments where he’s looked every bit of 45 years old, but in terms of Tampa Bay’s biggest problems so far this season, he’s way down the list. He’s missed some throws, and there’s obviously not much mobility there at this point, but the Bucs’ offensive struggles are way more about injuries, inexperience, and lackluster scheme/play-calling than they are about anything Brady’s doing wrong.

LE: The Bucs and Rams have experienced some similar struggles and disappointments so far this season. What are the main things that have plagued the Rams through the first half of the season?

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CD: The biggest thing has been the offensive line. It’s been decimated by injuries, with all but one starter missing multiple games. The receiving corps outside of Kupp has also not been very good, and that includes free-agent signee, Allen Robinson. Defensively, the pass rush has been ineffective besides Aaron Donald, leading to the Rams ranking last in total pressures. In the secondary, Jalen Ramsey seems to be the only cornerback who can cover receivers consistently. Got all that?

CD: Are the Bucs still mostly the same team under Todd Bowles as they were under Bruce Arians or has there been a noticeable change?

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LE: I think the biggest difference right now is that it doesn’t feel like the team has a clearly defined identity under Bowles. Under Arians, it was “no risk-it, no biscuit” on offense, and Bowles was free to handle the defense. Now that Bowles is in the big chair, he’s still calling the plays on defense, but that unit has struggled with communication, missed assignments and consistency, while the offense has looked boring and predictable. I’m not saying that’s all on the coaching change, obviously, but it’s impossible to ignore those differences between this year and the previous two seasons.

LE: Which offseason departure do the Rams miss the most, and which new addition has made the biggest impact?

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CD: Von Miller was unquestionably the biggest departure. The pairing of him and Donald was phenomenal and I’m not sure the Rams win the Super Bowl if not for the Miller acquisition. They sorely miss having him on defense because prior to Week 9 when Leonard Floyd had two sacks, their edge rushers combined for two sacks in six games. What’s hard to believe is the Rams haven’t gotten any real meaningful contributions from newcomers. Robinson has been unimpressive, Troy Hill was injured for a while and their rookies are barely playing outside of Derion Kendrick. If I had to pick, I would say Kendrick has had the biggest impact merely out of positional need.

CD: The Rams offense has been terrible. If there’s one weakness of Tampa Bay’s defense, what is it?

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LE: As bad as the run defense has been over the last month, it’s still the secondary that concerns me most this week. Pro Bowl safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is out again this week, while two of their top three cornerbacks (Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting) missed last week, and are questionable for Sunday. Jamel Dean has been solid this year, but if the Bucs have trot out Dee Delaney and fifth-round rookie Zyon McCollum in the starting lineup again this week, it’s probably not gonna go well for a defense that’s also missing its top pass rusher in Pro Bowler Shaq Barrett for the rest of the season.

LE: If the Bucs are going to beat the Rams this weekend, how will it happen? Where are the weaknesses the Bucs might be able to expose?

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CD: The Bucs will just need to get the ball out quickly against the Rams’ soft zones, thus preventing Donald from having much of an impact. Creating yards after the catch will also be essential because the Rams do a good job of limiting explosive plays down the field. One weakness the Bucs should try to exploit is at guard with Bobby Evans and Oday Aboushi. Vita Vea should have a field day when matched up with either of those players, which can really disrupt the Rams offense.

Who wins, and why?

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CD: I actually think this is a game the Rams will win, which is getting hard to say these days. The offense looked better in the first half last week against the 49ers and the pass rush started to come alive a little bit. Plus, the Bucs’ run defense has dropped off in a big way so the Rams might actually have some success there. Rams 21, Buccaneers 20

LE: Both of these teams have disappointed through the first half of the season, and are hoping to get back on track with a win here. While they’ve both had their share of struggles on both sides of the ball, the Rams’ coaches seem to have a better handle on how to scheme their players into success when talent alone isn’t enough. Tampa Bay’s play-calling has been bland and predictable on offense, and the defense has been plagued by miscommunication and missed assignments all year. Don’t be surprised if that continues Sunday, and the Bucs drop their fourth straight. Rams 31, Bucs 20

Story originally appeared on Buccaneers Wire