3TFO: Rams @ Buccaneers, Week 16
It’ll be a couple of teams with dashed playoff hopes playing for pride in this one. The Rams had been holding on to an outside chance for weeks, but their most recent loss to the Vikings has pretty much sealed their fate. The Bucs have fallen out of the playoff hunt in more spectacular fashion, losing four straight. Neither team can be overly disappointed in their 2012 campaign though, as both teams have improved on their win total from a year ago. Still, it’s readily apparent that both need a bit more talent on the roster if they want to compete at the top levels of the NFL.
Regardless of the talent level, St. Louis and Tampa Bay will be fighting it out this Sunday, assuming the Buccaneers haven’t given up yet. That is a real concern considering the 41-point beatdown they received a week ago at the hands of the Saints. Both clubs have a large stable of rookies who’ve contributed this year and those players are likely to get better next year, so it’s not hard to see either team in the playoffs with just a few minor additions. At that, let’s look into some matchups that will help one team build momentum for 2013.
Josh Freeman vs. Rams Corners
Josh Freeman has been something of an enigma this year. While his overall grade of +0.5 would indicate mediocrity, that’s a bit misleading. Freeman has been either hot or cold all year, grading between -1.5 and +1.5 only twice. Never was that as apparent as during the Bucs’ current four-game losing streak, where Freeman has thrown only four touchdowns to five interceptions, and twice failed to complete more than half of his throws.
When Freeman looks left in this game, he’s likely to see a lot of rookie Janoris Jenkins. Like many first-year players who’ve been thrown into the fire, Jenkins has had his share of struggles. In full-time duty, he’s allowed five touchdowns and somehow managed to miss 14 tackles in the passing game. There is a bright spot though, as Jenkins has managed to reel in four interceptions and break up 10 passes while committing just a single penalty. On the opposite side, at least in base defense, Cortland Finnegan will attempt to shut down the right wide receiver. His play over the past few weeks hasn’t been quite as good as it was in the early portion of the season, but he still hasn’t allowed a touchdown this year on 540 coverage snaps.
The Other Dimension
If there’s anything that will take pressure off Freeman, it would be to have a solid run game bringing up short yardage situations. Rookie Doug Martin has taken the reins this year, as his 1,250 yards are over eight times higher than the next closest Buc. Martin has forced 48 missed tackles on rushes in his short career, more than all but two other halfbacks. The 877 yards after contact he’s racked up ranks second in the league, and all of that adds up to a stellar Elusive Rating of 62.0. It seems this was a well spent first-round pick.
Limiting the big runs of Martin will be the responsibility of James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Together, this duo has missed only 15 plays (all Dunbar) this season, so it’s likely they’ll have plenty of opportunities to take down Martin. Dunbar has proven just what he can do once he escaped the clutches of the Saints’ defensive scheme last April. He has so far recorded a stop in run defense on 9.8% of plays, a much higher mark than anything he achieved in years past, and his 35 stops also ranks comfortably near the top of the outside linebacker crop. Though he has the advantage of lining up more often in the middle, Laurinaitis’ Run Stop Percentage of 11.6 is equally impressive. The only knock on his run defense is his knack for taking himself out of plays. If he can avoid taking bad angles, Laurinaitis should be able to limit the damage Martin can do out of the backfield.
Battle in the Slot
Not unlike the Buccaneers, the Rams have had their share of struggles through the air this year. Most of them have come when Danny Amendola has been out injured, and, though he’s played in only nine games this season, he still leads all St. Louis receivers with both 634 yards and 57 catches. Sam Bradford is most accurate when targeting Amendola, completing 72.2% of those throws. Despite his limited playing time, Amendola has earned 2.36 Yards Per Route Run, a figure that bests receivers like A.J. Green and Wes Welker, and puts the rest of the Rams’ receiving corps to shame.
Earning his first significant playing time just two weeks ago, Anthony Gaitor will be forced to cover the shifty Amendola in the slot this week. In all, the sophomore seventh-rounder has played just 135 total snaps thus far in his career. Ninety-four of those came in the past two weeks, and it hasn’t turned out for the best for him. It may be a small sample size, but Gaitor has given up a QB rating of 120.2 on throws into his coverage, allowing a 76.5% completion rate, and missing five tackles in the process. He’ll have do better than that if he wants to slow down the quicksilver Amendola, and the Rams’ passing game might just live and die by the outcome of this matchup.