NFL Preview - St. Louis (3-3) at Tampa Bay (3-2)




By Michael Rushton, Sports Network

The Sports Network

The St. Louis Rams have lost five straight on the road and were embarrassed by 38 points the last time they played as the guest. Both of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' losses this year have come at home by a combined 50- point margin.
This could get interesting.
Having already put together a winning streak at home, the Rams will look to reestablish themselves on the road this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against a Bucs squad trying to avoid a third loss in four games.
The Rams picked up a third straight home victory with a surprising 20-17 win over San Diego last weekend, also marking the club's third triumph in its last four games. At 3-3, St. Louis is right behind NFC West co-leaders Arizona and Seattle, which are both 3-2 on the young season.
Getting on track on the road will be key if the Rams hope to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2004, as they haven't won away from the Gateway City since Nov. 1 of last year at Detroit. Coincidentally, St. Louis' most recent road game also took place in Motown on Oct. 10, but the end result was a 44-6 rout at the hands of the Lions. That marked St. Louis' 14th setback in its last 15 road contests.
St. Louis rookie quarterback Sam Bradford may be new to the NFL, but he knows how important it is to win on the road.
"I think that's one of the steps from being an average team to being a good team is being able to play well on the road," said Bradford. "If we do want to become a good team, we're going to have to learn to play well on the road."
Duplicating last weekend's home victory would be a great start. St. Louis notched seven sacks versus the Chargers, getting two each from James Hall, Chris Long and Larry Grant. It marked the first time the Rams had three different players notch at least two sacks in the same game since Sept. 20, 1998.
Offensively, Bradford posted a 38-yard touchdown pass and didn't turn the ball over, while running back Steven Jackson ran for 109 yards and a touchdown. Jackson also gained some key first downs late in the game to help the Rams run out the clock.
Tampa Bay opened its 2010 home schedule with a victory over Cleveland -- part of a season-opening two-game win streak -- but has lost two of its last three since and both defeats have come at home. The Buccaneers have been outscored 69-19 in those two setbacks after dropping a 31-6 decision to the visiting New Orleans Saints this past weekend.
The loss dropped the Bucs to 3-2 on the season, putting them right behind New Orleans and Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. Both the Saints and Falcons are 4-2.
Tampa Bay's other loss came to AFC North leader Pittsburgh, while the club has recorded victories over Carolina and Cincinnati in addition to its Week 1 triumph versus Cleveland.
Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris is hoping his team can learn from losses to contenders such as the Saints.
"These types of games are the ones that you go back and you learn from," the coach said. "You play heavyweights, you go out there and compete and you find out where you are. Right now it humbles you, it gets you back where you are in the right state of mind. It gets you back and gets your guys back into the laboratory, and gets some of the focus a little bit more."
Tampa Bay was limited to just 42 yards rushing by New Orleans and lost running back Kareem Huggins for the season due to a torn ACL.

SERIES HISTORY


The Rams have a 9-7 lead in their regular-season series with Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers have won five of the six last non-playoff matchups between the teams and delivered a 24-3 victory in Tampa in the most recent encounter, which took place in Week 3 of the 2007 campaign. The Rams have lost four straight as the visitor to the Bucs since a 31-27 triumph at Tampa Stadium in 1992, when the franchise was still based in Los Angeles.
The clubs have also squared off in two memorable playoff contests, both won by the Rams. St. Louis prevailed by an 11-6 score at home in the 1999 NFC Championship, and the then-L.A. Rams pitched a 9-0 shutout in the 1979 NFC Championship.
Both St. Louis's Steve Spagnuolo and Tampa Bay's Morris will be going head-to- head, as well as facing one another's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
The Rams built up an early lead over the Chargers thanks to Bradford's long touchdown pass to Danario Alexander in the first quarter, as well as a 39-yard field goal by Josh Brown and a seven-yard touchdown run from Jackson. However, the club struggled to point up points in the second half, managing only a 48- yard boot from Brown. Jackson (507 rushing yards) is showing no signs of a sore groin that hampered him earlier in the year, and the Pro Bowl back managed just his second touchdown run in his last 10 games dating back to last season. He also turned in a second straight 100-yard rushing game to pace a Rams ground attack that ranks 17th in the NFL at 104.3 yards per game. Bradford (1357 passing yards, 7 TD, 8 INT) played mistake-free on Sunday as he continues to show maturity. The Oklahoma product completed 18-of-31 pass attempts and was sacked three times, turning in a personal-best 87.8 quarterback rating. Alexander led the team with four catches and 72 yards in his NFL debut after he earned a promotion from the practice squad because of Mark Clayton's season-ending knee injury. Tight end Billy Bajema and receivers Brandon Gibson (11 receptions, 1 TD) and Danny Amendola (36 receptions) all finished with three catches last week. St. Louis still needs to score more, as it ranks 28th in the league with an average of 17.2 points per game.
The Buccaneers rank 31st in the league in rushing defense (157.0 ypg) and 21st in points allowed (22.2 ppg), and both of those weaknesses were exposed last weekend by the Saints. New Orleans posted 475 yards of offense, including 212 on the ground, while Saints quarterback Drew Brees saw two of this three touchdown passes go for longer than 40 yards. Safety Cody Grimm (24 tackles, 2 INT) did record an interception for a second straight game, but little else went right for the secondary. Tampa Bay's defensive line, led by ends Kyle Moore (12 tackles) and Stylez G. White (15 tackles, 1 sack), will need to clog the running lanes for Jackson, while middle linebacker and leading tackler Barrett Ruud (36 tackles) will aim to prevent the Rams back from breaking a big run. Pressure up front on the rookie Bradford could benefit the secondary and allow corners Aqib Talib (12 tackles, 3 INT) and Ronde Barber (31 tackles, 2 INT) to make some plays. Barber and safety Sean Jones (22 tackles) had eight tackles each last week, but the Bucs failed to record a sack and have just four quarterback takedowns on the season. Grimm and linebacker Quincy Black both forced fumbles, but the Saints recovered both.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Tampa Bay's run game could get nothing going last weekend and ended up with just 18 attempts due to the rout. Carnell Williams (190 rushing yards, 15 receptions) paced the unit with 10 carries for just 18 yards. With Huggins now out, rookie LeGarrette Blount (30 rushing yards, 1 TD) could be in line for more carries as the club looks to jump-start a run game that is averaging just 91.2 yards per game. Quarterback Josh Freeman (1043 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) also did not turn the ball over last week, while completing 25-of-43 passes for 219 yards. That included a two-yard touchdown to wide receiver Michael Spurlock (8 receptions, 2 TD) in the fourth quarter. Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow (24 receptions) led the Bucs with seven catches each for a combined 106 yards against the Saints, with Williams matching a career high for most catches in a game. Rookie Mike Williams (23 receptions, 3 TD) added four receptions for 45 yards, and the wideout leads all NFL rookies in receiving touchdowns. Like the Rams, points have been hard to come by for the Bucs, who rank 29th in the NFL with an average of just 16 points per game. While the offensive line hasn't made much room for the ground game, it has allowed just 11 sacks this year to rank tied for 12th in the league.
The Rams limited the Chargers to just 287 yards of offense a week ago, including 79 on the ground, and rank 17th in total defense (332.8 ypg) as well as 11th in points allowed (18.8 ppg). St. Louis had notched 10 sacks over its first five games before its outburst a weekend ago, but the club did force just one turnover, an interception by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (30 tackles, 1 INT). Hall (19 tackles, 6 sacks) has been playing like one of the top defensive ends in the conference and is tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks. He notched a career-high 3 1/2 sacks the last time he faced the Bucs. Tackle Fred Robbins (14 tackles, 2 sacks) also had a sack last weekend. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher (31 tackles, 2 INT) led the Rams with seven tackles a week ago, while Grant (17 tackles, 2 sacks) posted five tackles as part of his two- sack game. If Hall and Long (12 tackles, 3 sacks) can generate the same kind of pressure this weekend, Freeman could be in for a long day. Fletcher and fellow corner Ron Bartell (19 tackles) will be busy if the Bucs can't get their ground game going and have to resort to throwing the ball at a heavy pace.
FANTASY FOCUS
With the Rams struggling to score points, they don't offer too many options on offense. Jackson is a must-start due to his heavy workload, and owners hope his scoring pace will pick up as the season progresses. Bradford is still too raw to trust as a fantasy option, however, and the lack of a true No. 1 receiver limits the pass-catching group. Brown is hitting on 80.6 percent of his field goals, but has yet to make one from 50 yards or longer. The St. Louis defense could be a good play this weekend, given the matchup and its heavy sack total from a week ago.
The Buccaneers are in the same boat as the Rams and offer little help to owners this weekend. Freeman could be considered a sleeper pick with bye weeks still going on, but could be pressured a lot and make mistakes in this one . Mike Williams is the team's best option at wide receiver, but all Tampa running backs should be avoided. Kicker Connor Barth has only attempted eight field goals this year and the defense has struggled.
OVERALL ANALYSIS
While the Buccaneers haven't been able to compete against the big boys this year, they have been able to handle teams closer to their skill level. That fact, as well as having home-field advantage, should give them the edge in this one. Though the Rams are coming off a big home victory, they haven't been able to put things together on the road. A huge game from Jackson could tilt things in the Rams' favor, but we like the home team to come out here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 17, Rams 14