It’s been a rough few weeks for the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The losses of Chris Godwin to injury and Antonio Brown to his own ego were a massive blow to this Bucs offense. On top of that, key defenders like Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett went on injured reserve for the final few weeks of the season. Even in an otherwise excellent playoff win vs. the Philadelphia Eagles the Bucs saw pro bowl offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and Tristian Wirfs go down with injury.
Despite all these bumps and bruises down the stretch the Bucs find themselves right where everyone expected them to be; on the verge of defending their NFC crown. The only thing that stands between them and consecutive conference championship game appearances is the Los Angeles Rams. And make no mistake, this will Bucs biggest obstacle in the Tom Brady era.
These two teams played each other earlier in the season resulting in a 34-24 Buccaneers loss. Now the shorthanded Bucs will have to play their best game to overcome this very dangerous opponent. This means that some players will have to go above and beyond normal expectations. Here are my three players who must step up for a Bucs victory over the Rams
There are several big names and future hall of fame players on this Bucs defense. However, perhaps the most infamous and accomplished of them all is defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh was well established in the league even before winning a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay. He was the star of one of the greatest run defenses in NFL history with the Lions and went to a Super Bowl with this Rams team a few years ago.
Hopefully the old saying proves true for Suh; familiarity breeds content. Having gone to the playoffs with guys like Matthew Stafford in Detroit and Aaron Donald in Los Angeles, Suh is more than familiar with most of his opponents this weekend.
What does this mean for the game on Sunday? Potentially some insight to tendencies, specifically those of Stafford. Having practiced against him for several years, Suh knows the opposing quarterback and how he wants to operate as well as anyone. What’s more is he knows this Sean McVay offense and what they want to do.
Using this knowledge could lead to anticipated snap counts, identifying plays and playing on the weaknesses of his opponent. If Suh can do this and be the disruptive force we’ve seen in the past then the Buccaneers could really control the trenches on defense and create chaos in the backfield. This will be key if Stafford and the Rams offense is going to be slowed down on Sunday.
Any Speedy Receiver Opposite Mike Evans
There’s no secret that Mike Evans is the star of the Buccaneers wide receiver room. Even when Godwin and Brown were on the field Evans was still considered the best of the bunch by many. Now with those two gone everyone knows who the focal point of the Bucs passing attack will be, including the Rams.
With Los Angeles’ star corner Jalen Ramsey potentially shadowing Evans in an attempt to neutralize him it will be up to one of the other receivers to step in and pick up the slack. Who will that guy be? Honestly, I have no idea.
Despite that, I do know that whoever it is will have a valuable skill set that can make all the difference. Pure unfiltered speed. Whether it be Scotty Miller, Cyril Grayson, Breshad Perriman, or even newly signed John Brown; each of these guys have blazing speed that I’m not convinced the Rams can counter.
If there was ever a game for one of these players to make big season defining plays then it would be this one. Specifically because the back end of the Rams defense is dealing with injuries of their own. Safety Jordan Fuller was put on injured reserve last week which forced the Rams to sign retired safety Eric Weddle before their wildcard match up with the Arizona Cardinals.
This group of complimentary receivers may not be much, but I will take 4.3 speed against a retired safety any day. If one of these supporting cast members can make a splash play or two then it could make all the difference in the game.
In the biggest games you have to expect the biggest stars to shine the brightest. And while I won’t call this the biggest game of Lavonte David’s career, it could be one of the defining games of what has been a hall of fame worthy career. The type of game that a player can be remembered for through the ages if they dominate.
David will have to play on that level to help the Buccaneers move on. Between defending Tyler Higbee, who is one of the better pass catching tight ends in football, to stopping Cam Akers (who looked great last week after tearing his Achilles earlier this season) it will be up to David on both fronts.
What he means to this defense is immeasurable. His speed and intelligence are critical to the Bucs run defense and he makes everyone around him better. David is also the Bucs best coverage linebacker. As a player he does so many different things for the defense and can’t afford to be average on this type of stage.
Having seen what this defense looked like down the stretch without David is just a testament to his value. After being questionable all week leading up to the wildcard game David returned to the defense against the Eagles. And although he wasn’t 100% and he didn’t play his best game the entire defense looked better than it had in weeks with him on the field.
We can hope David is at full speed this week. If he can lock down the middle of the field vs the run and pass it will make everyone’s job easier. And if he can add some splash plays that swing the game in the Bucs favor then it will be the cherry on top of his Canton resume.