On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the St. Louis Rams. Once upon a time, when the skies were still blue and the world was as it should be (that is, the Bucs were good), this would have been a top notch matchup. Rams vs. Bucs is an old rivalry, generally forgotten in time, but it has led to some amazing games: the 1979 and 1999 NFC championship games, the 2000 Monday Night game with that ridiculous Warrick Dunn touchdown, the 2002 pounding the Bucs delivered on the Rams -- all memorable affairs.
Tomorrow's game is less likely to be remembered as momentous, but it's going to be very important for at least one person: Greg Schiano. A win would go a long way toward securing his position as head coach for 2014, while a loss (especially a blowout loss) could all but guarantee his firing.
This is also a matchup between two very similar teams: struggling offenses with good if not dominant defenses. This is likely to be a low-scoring but tight and hard-fought affair. A 1999 NFC Championship redux -- with significantly worse play.
Tampa Bay running game vs. St. Louis run defense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now once again incapable of running the football. After a brief flare-up during the middle of this season, they've gone back to being largely incompetent -- one 80-yard run against the Buffalo Bills being the only evidence to counter that observation. That's an issue
It becomes a bigger issue when facing good run defenses, which is exactly what the St. Louis Rams have. They're ranked fifth against the run, per Football Outsiders' metrics. Led by a dominant defensive line and a fast and disruptive (if at times undisciplined) linebacking corps, teams have had little success on the ground against St. Louis. There's little reason to think things will be any different for the struggling Buccaneers tomorrow.
Tampa Bay passing game vs. St Louis pass defense
Good news: the Rams do not have a dominant pass defense.
Bad news: they have the best defensive ends in the NFL, Mike Glennon has held on to the ball far too long in recent games, and Donald Penn struggled against Aldon Smith last week.
This, sadly, sounds like a recipe for disaster for the Bucs. That said, there are some areas where the Bucs could win, but they'll need Mike Glennon to be on his game. Specifically, they need him to be willing to throw contested balls to Vincent Jackson. He'll come down with them, as the Rams are one of the worst teams in the NFL against true #1 receivers. And Mike Glennon likes to target Vincent Jackson. Who wouldn't?
Still, for Glennon to target Jackson he needs time, and he needs to pull the trigger. With Robert Quinn terrorizing Donald Penn the former will be an issue, while the latter has been a problem all year long. To make matters a little worse, St. Louis has been outstanding defending tight ends, which means Glennon likely won't get a lot out of his second-best receiver Tim Wright.
St. Louis passing game vs. Tampa Bay pass defense
Kellen Clemens is not a good quarterback. The Rams' offensive line is awful. Their receiving corps is a minor disaster, and their leading receiver is a tight end who can't block.
Meanwhile, the Bucs' pass defense has improved significantly over the past month as Gerald McCoy has been allowed to straight rush more (and has become the NFL's dominant defensive tackle doing so), while Darrelle Revis and company have done a good job limiting if not shutting down receivers.
One issue may be Mark Barron's injury, who is struggling with a hamstring problem and may miss Sunday's game. Even if he suits up he's unlikely to be 100% and with Jared Cook being the Rams' top receiver, that could lead to a big day for the tight end. Still, overall the Bucs should be able to should down Clemens and co.
St. Louis running game vs. Tampa Bay run defense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been awful tacklers this season, which usually leads to a terrible run defense. Not so for Tampa Bay, however, who have been relatively efficient stopping the run, even though they're not the dominant force they were last season.
And fortunately for Tampa Bay, the St. Louis Rams have been pretty bad at running the ball, even though Zac Stacy got a lot of hype. They just haven't been able to be consistent or efficient about it. Then again, they did manage over 100 rushing yards for seven straight games, so it's not like we can write them off, either. Still, this should be a matchup favorable to the Bucs.
Final score prediction: Bucs 10, Rams 13