Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs-Rams: What to watch for

TAMPA — It's a game almost more notable for who's missing — injured stars Doug Martin and Robert Ayers, the arrested/waived Austin Seferian-Jenkins — but there's plenty to keep an eye on in the Bucs' home opener against the Rams this afternoon. That includes the old-but-new pregame video of a Bucs pirate ship firing on and sinking a ship with the opponents' flag. This time, it should be like football IMAX, with cannonballs flying across the stadium on the new "ribbon" video boards along each side. On the field? Here are five things to watch:

1 Attack of the rookie defensive ends: Second-round pick Noah Spence likely gets his first NFL start with Robert Ayers out with an ankle injury. Can he hold up against the run as well as rush the passer? Three of the Bucs' five defensive ends will be rookies, including undrafted gems DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward.

Cool thing that Lambert, Ward and rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves have in common? All three tackled Rams RB Todd Gurley in college. Lambert dropped him for a 4-yard loss with Auburn in 2014, Ward tackled him on a 2-yard gain with Ole Miss in 2012 and Hargeaves got him twice with the Gators in 2013.

Motivation in this SEC reunion? None of the three has ever beaten Gurley. Hargreaves went 2-1 against Georgia in college, but Gurley was sidelined in the two wins.

2 Can Winston-Jackson get back on track? The big talk of the week — at least until, say, 3:42 Friday morning — was whether QB Jameis Winston and WR Vincent Jackson can get on the same page. The first two games saw six catches, but on 16 targets, with a wrong-route interception against the Falcons.

When does age catch up to a player? Jackson had 17 touchdowns in his first 36 games with the Bucs but has just three in 24 games since.

How many times has a Bucs player age 33 or older caught more than one touchdown in a season? It has happened only seven times in 40 seasons, and four were by Joey Galloway, from 2004-07. Since then, just once — TE Dallas Clark had four in 2012.

3 Will that elusive first takeaway arrive? The Bucs are one of three NFL teams without a takeaway in the first two weeks of the season. They're a league-worst minus-6 in turnover margin as a result. The Rams don't have an interception, either, which should be good news for Winston.

How often do the Bucs go three straight games without a takeaway? It happened last year in Weeks 14-16 as Tampa Bay dived from 6-6 to 6-9, and before that it hadn't happened in 26 years, since the 1989 season.

4 Will that elusive first Rams touchdown arrive? Los Angeles is 1-1 but has yet to reach the end zone, turning three field goals into a 9-3 win over Seattle last week. Should you be surprised? Last year, the Rams had an NFL-low 11 touchdown passes all season; 22 teams had double that number. They also had the NFL's worst pass offense (183 yards/game) and the NFL's worst third-down success rate (25.9 percent). Having established this, they'll now score a touchdown on the opening drive.

5 How will Charles Sims fare as a starting back? If he gets to 100 rushing yards for the first time in his career, it would bode well for the Bucs. In his college career — three years at Houston and one at West Virginia — his teams were 10-1 when he rushed for 100-plus yards. The loss was in his final college game, as West Virginia fell to Iowa State despite his 149 yards and two scores.

He has had the opposite luck in the NFL. His two best rushing games were 78 yards against the Giants last year and 69 against the Saints as a rookie, and the Bucs lost both games.

Contact Greg Auman at g[email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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