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Buccaneers vs. Rams Scouting Report, Week 15: What to expect from the St. Louis offense

St. Louis Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley has rushed for more than 125 yards in five games this season. The last rookie to do that? Doug Martin for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. [Getty Images]

St. Louis Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley has rushed for more than 125 yards in five games this season. The last rookie to do that? Doug Martin for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. [Getty Images]

When the NFL and Nike unveiled the Buccaneers' and Rams' condiment-inspired "Color Rush" uniforms a week ago, their Thursday Night Football matchup instantly was billed "Ketchup vs. Mustard."

The consensus is that the Bucs will hold an appreciable aesthetic advantage tonight, but can they bottle up the Rams and squeeze out a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive? Here are some things to expect from the struggling St. Louis offense.

Case Keenum

After Nick Foles spent 11 games validating Chip Kelly's decision to trade him to St. Louis, the Rams have turned to backup Case Keenum. He isn't so much the quarterback as he is "the man who gives the ball to Todd Gurley and sometimes Tavon Austin."

You can understand why the Rams want to put the ball in the hands of Gurley and Austin — they're dynamic playmakers. But the Rams also want to avoid third-and-long situations at all costs.

They struggle in any third-down situation — they've converted the lowest percentage (25.3) in the league — but on third-and-7-9, their quarterback play has been extraordinarily abysmal. They've completed just 38.7 percent of their passes, averaged 2.7 yards per attempt, and thrown zero touchdowns and four interceptions. It all adds up to an unsightly 7.3 rating.

They're better, but still bad, on third-and-10-plus. In those situations, they've completed 53.2 percent of their passes, averaged 4.9 yards per attempt, and thrown zero touchdowns and one interception for a 57.9 rating.

So expect a heavy dose of Gurley and Austin tonight. When the Rams ask Keenum to throw, they'll ask him to throw it short and quickly. Against the Lions on Sunday, he completed 63.6 percent of his passes but averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt.

Clearly, this is not a team capable of consistently pushing the ball down the field, and when it tries to, bad things happen, as was the case when Keenum tried to hit Kenny Britt about 15 yards down the right sideline on a first-and-10 at the end of the second quarter. Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, blitzing off the left edge, struck Keenum as he was throwing, and the pass hung in the air. Cornerback Darius Slay picked it off easily to end the Rams' bid for a field goal before the end of the half.

On downs in which the Rams have had more than 7 yards to go to reach a first down, they've thrown 10 interceptions; the league average is 8.5. They've thrown just one touchdown pass in those situations; the league average is 10.9.

Todd Gurley

From Week 4 to Week 8, Gurley rushed for more than 125 yards in four consecutive games and averaged 6.4 yards a carry. In the five games after that, however, he failed to rush for more than 89 yards and averaged 3.3 yards a carry.

Heading into the game against the Lions, it seemed as though he had hit a wall and was no longer able to overcome the Rams' run blocking deficiencies. While he started slow again — gaining 13 yards on his first seven carries — he wasn't getting much help from his linemen, whom the Lions beat repeatedly in the first half.

On this run early in the first quarter, the right guard and receiver both try to block the safety, and the left guard can't get over to block linebacker Josh Bynes, who penetrates and tackles Gurley for a 1-yard loss.

And on this run midway through the second quarter, count the Rams who fail to stop defensive tackle Khyri Thornton. He shoves aside the right guard, runs by the center and fends off the tight end's chip block. The end result is a 2-yard loss and 315 pounds falling on top of Gurley.

The next time the Rams have Gurley run in that direction, they double team Thornton and the rookie picks up 25 yards. Of his 140 rushing yards against the Lions, 110 of them came on four carries.

If Gurley isn't breaking off big gains, the Rams' running game isn't going to work. He is third among running backs in most yards after contact per carry (2.4). Doug Martin is tied for fourth with 2.3.

Tavon Austin

The Rams are the only team in the NFL that doesn't have a 500-yard receiver. But they do have a versatile weapon in Tavon Austin.

Austin, the eighth overall pick in 2013, has nearly as many rushing yards (358) as he does receiving yards (386). In fact, he is the third receiver in NFL history to record 350 receiving yards, gain 350 rushing yards, catch three touchdowns and rush for three touchdowns in a single season.

He leads all receivers in rushing attempts (39) and rushing yards (358). He has just as many runs of 20 or more yards (five) as Atlanta's Devonta Freeman, Dallas' Darren McFadden and Pittsburgh's DeAngelo Williams and as many rushing touchdowns (three) as McFadden, Buffalo's LeSean McCoy and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy.

The Rams will look to get him the ball in a variety of ways. He'll line up in the backfield like a running back, he'll line up as a receiver and take the handoff on a jet sweep, and he'll return punts.

Thursday games: Do they favor the home team or the road team?

Former Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson once described playing on a Thursday after a Sunday like this: "Go get in a car accident and then try to play two days later. That's how it feels."

While players would like more time to rest their bodies between games and coaches would like more time to install a game plan, the short weeks do not seem to be as harmful in terms of wins and losses as they once did.

From 2006 — when the NFL added a handful of Thursday games to its late-season schedule — to 2011, road teams were 19-30 (0.388) on Thursdays, well below the 0.438 overall winning rate for road teams during that span. Since 2012 — when the NFL expanded its Thursday slate to a full season — they are 31-33 (0.484), well above the 0.430 overall winning rate for road teams. (These figures exclude season openers because they're not played on short weeks.)

Road teams performed the worst in 2011, losing seven of nine games. In three of those games, the road team had to travel an absurd distance. The Eagles traveled about 2,800 miles to Seattle, the 49ers traveled about 2,800 miles to Baltimore and the Jets traveled about 1,800 miles to Denver. They all lost.

The NFL reduced the frequency of those long road trips the next season, and the majority of games since have been intradivisional. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they're not catching much of a break. St. Louis is 1,000 miles away.

Prediction: The Bucs have bounced back to win after a loss five times this season. I expect them to do so a sixth time.

My record: 7-5

Thomas Bassinger can be reached at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

Buccaneers vs. Rams Scouting Report, Week 15: What to expect from the St. Louis offense 12/17/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2015 7:35pm]
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