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Cosell: How Tampa Bay Can Overcome Their Injury Woes in the Divisional Round

Cosell: How Tampa Bay Can Overcome Their Injury Woes in the Divisional Round

Just eight teams have a chance at the Lombardi Trophy as we head into the Divisional Round of the playoffs. After a Wild Card round that saw five of six games end in blowouts, this week features games that promise to be more competitive. The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Rams in a rematch of their Week 3 matchup that saw the Rams emerge victorious, 34-24. In the opening round of the playoffs, Tampa Bay cruised to a 31-0 lead against an overpowered Philadelphia Eagles team that managed two late touchdowns yet still lost by multiple possessions while the Rams rolled to a 34-11 rout over the Arizona Cardinals. 

Despite their resounding victory last week, Tampa Bay still suffered a loss that will impact them moving forward. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs exited with an ankle injury as he missed the first snaps of his career. Wirfs came back in the game but was soon ruled out as he was unable to perform as his usual level and partially responsible for an Eagles sack of Brady. He is one of the best one-on-one pass protectors in the NFL, and his desirable combination of quick feet, strength, leverage, balance, and technique allow him to play at a high level and rarely leave him out of phase. Tackle Josh Wells replaced Wirfs and is a clear drop-off in talent for Tampa Bay.

Against Los Angeles, the Buccaneers will have to contend with three major pass rushers in defensive tackle Aaron Donald and outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Von Miller. Donald and Floyd have 23 sacks and 78 pressures between them, while Miller has generated five sacks in his eight games with the Rams and added another against Arizona. In their first matchup, Los Angeles was able to sack Brady three times and limit him to just one passing touchdown. Wirfs has yet to participate in practice this week and is a likely game-time decision; if unable to play, an offensive line that has had issues at times with communication and interior rushers will have a monumental task ahead of them. 

Last week, the Cardinals used a tactic that you don’t normally see in an effort to slow down Donald, as they used running back Chase Edmonds to chip on the inside when Donald was lined up as a defensive tackle. As can be seen here, this helped minimize Donald as an inside pass rusher but created a one-on-one for Von Miller versus LT D.J. Humphries, and Miller beat Humphries for a sack of Kyler Murray. Running backs regularly chip wide rushers but rarely, if ever, chip inside – this tactic is something the Buccaneers may look to utilize, particularly in third and long yardage situations when Brady takes deeper drops into the pocket.

The Buccaneers have been down two of their primary pass catchers after losing wide receiver Chris Godwin to a torn ACL and MCL in Week 15 and cutting receiver Antonio Brown after his Week 17 charade against the New York Jets. Mike Evans has remained Brady’s primary target and wideouts Breshad Perriman and Tyler Johnson have received the most playing time in three wide receiver sets. One of Johnson’s best weeks of the season was Tampa Bay’s first showdown with the Rams, when he caught three passes for 63 yards and he will look to replicate that success this week. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has remained an integral part of the offense with at least five receptions in each of his past three games for a total of 273 yards.

In the backfield, running back Leonard Fournette remains on short-term IR with a hamstring injury though he has returned to practice in some capacity. The Bucs have featured him on perimeter runs with pulling OL to play to Fournette’s strengths as a runner, giving him space and room to generate speed and velocity. Fournette is not a strong inside runner with his choppy steps and his glaring tendency to brace and prepare for contact in confined space. The biggest loss if Fournette cannot go is pass protection. He is an outstanding pass protector, and that trait would be particularly important in this matchup versus the Rams. Fellow running back Ronald Jones is dealing with an injury of his own, and there is a chance that Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard once again lead the Buccaneers backfield. Bernard gives the Bucs a more dynamic receiver out of the backfield, but that raises the question of the balance between pass protection and getting 5 receivers out in routes. That will be something to look for this week. 

Led by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay’s defensive identity is clear. They have the highest five man (or more) pressure percentage in the league, play among the lowest percentage of Cover 1, and feature a good percentage of two shell coverages. Pressure fronts have been a staple for Bowles throughout his coaching career and he utilizes a variety of personnel. Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White along with safeties Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. have all been used as rushers in Bowles pressure schemes. Whitehead has consistently flashed as a multi-dimensional player who is a talented blitzer and very effective in the run game. With slot cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting out for Wild Card Weekend, Winfield Jr. moved from his normal safety position and operated as Tampa Bay’s primary slot corner. He was a significant part of their pressure concepts, especially on 3rd down, and generated a drive-killing sack on a third-and-five to end Philadelphia’s third possession.

Bowles’ defense produced the most pressures and seventh-most sacks in the league this season as six players had at least six sacks with outside linebacker Shaquill Barrett leading the way with 10. In their Week 3 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, rookie outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka received the most attention and was the edge rusher that was most consistently chipped as he displayed his length and explosiveness. His velocity and power as an edge rusher were clear, and he flashed strong hands. But what was fascinating was Bowles only blitzed one time when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was aligned in empty sets and managed just one sack the whole game. Stafford and the Rams passing game had outstanding success out of empty, with Stafford completing 10 of 13 attempts for 129 yards and a touchdown. Keep in mind that Stafford was in empty sets more than any quarterback in the NFL this season, by a wide margin; it is a foundational staple of the Rams passing game. It will be interesting to see if Bowles stays with that coverage approach versus empty, or if he will look to pressure more when Los Angeles has an empty backfield. The Buccaneers were multiple with their coverage concepts against the Rams, playing both single high and split safety coverages as well as featuring dropping defensive linemen at times.

Tampa Bay ranked fourth in the league with 29 takeaways, contributing to a sixth-ranked turnover differential. Week 3 against Los Angeles was just the third game all season in which the Buccaneers failed to force at least one turnover, with the other two being their divisional games against the New Orleans Saints. With their season on the line, the defending champions will have to step up defensively after allowing 34 points to the Rams the first time around. Pressure on Stafford and generating turnovers will be key, as will a Bucs offense that could be weakened on the offensive line. I look forward to seeing how this rematch plays out, and if Stafford will gain his second playoff victory or if Brady will proceed in his journey for an eighth Super Bowl victory.

Aadit Mehta contributed to this story