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The Bucs trailed from the start and their offense never got on track in a 34-24 loss to the Rams in a matchup of teams expected to be in the playoffs Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
Los Angeles’ defense set the tone, holding Tampa Bay without a first down until its third possession and limiting an offense that averaged a league-high 39.5 points in its first two games to a season-low 24, seven coming with just 1:10 remaining.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, acquired from the Lions in the offseason, completed 27 of 38 passes for 343 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
His favorite target was wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who caught nine passes for 96 yards and two scores. Ex-Buc DeSean Jackson made the most of his three receptions, covering 120 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown at the start of the third quarter that gave Los Angeles a two-touchdown lead that Tampa Bay spent the whole second half chasing.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady was 41-of-55 for 432 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown pass to running back Giovani Bernard in garbage time. Brady was sacked three times.
Rams inside linebacker Kenny Young was outstanding, accumulating a team-high 10 total tackles, including eight unassisted and three for loss, one a sack. Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd had the other sacks.
The loss hurt the Bucs in more ways than one.
Cornerback Jamel Dean left the game early with a knee injury. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was taken to the locker room for X-rays after a hard hit to the ribs in the third quarter (he later returned), and Bernard was down on the field and walked gingerly to the sideline following his late touchdown catch.
Here’s how it happened:
Turnover on downs
Trailing by 17 with just over seven minutes to play, the Bucs went for a first down on fourth and 2 from their 48. But Tom Brady’s pass was well over the head of running back Giovani Bernard, who didn’t seem to expect the pass.
The Rams gained possession at the Bucs 48, and Sony Michel ripped off a 15-yard run to the 33 on first down. Tampa Bay took back 12 of those yards back on the following play, as William Gholston sacked Matthew Stafford.
Tampa Bay’s defense held, and Los Angeles was forced to punt.
Leading by two touchdowns, the Rams drove to the Bucs’ 11 midway through the fourth quarter, where they faced third and four. Matthew Stafford found Cooper Kupp with a short pass to the left side of the field, but Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White pushed Kupp out of bounds a yard short of the first-down marker.
Los Angeles briefly considered going for a first down on fourth and 1 from the 8 before sending ex-Buc Matt Gay on to the field for a 26-yard field goal. Gay’s kick was true, extending the Rams’ lead to 34-17.
Wide receiver Tyler Johnson wasn’t targeted much in the first half, but Tom Brady found him twice for 54 yards on a late third-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal.
A 23-yard reception gave the Bucs a first down at their 48, and a 31-yard catch three plays later moved the ball to the Rams 8.
Brady again looked for Johnson in the end zone but threw incomplete. Two passes for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had returned to the game, also missed their mark, forcing Tampa Bay to settle for Ryan Succop’s 26-yard field goal and a 31-17 deficit.
When it rains ...
Things seemed to go from bad to worse for the Bucs during a four-play sequence in the third quarter.
With Tampa Bay facing second and six from its 40, quarterback Tom Brady was sacked by Los Angeles linebacker Kenny Young, who ran right through running back Giovani Bernard, resulting in a nine-yard loss.
After a false start penalty against Scotty Miller cost the Bucs five more yards, Bernard was dropped for a four-yard loss by Aaron Donald, after a reception, forcing a punt.
Worst of all? Bradley Pinion’s punt covered just 15 yards, giving the Rams possession at the Bucs 37.
If anything good came out of the exchange, it was that Tampa Bay’s defense held, forcing Los Angeles to settle for a 48-yard Matt Gay field goal and 31-14 lead.
Nothing but trouble
DeSean Jackson again got loose in the Bucs’ secondary midway through the third quarter, and Matthew Stafford found him for a 40-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 10.
Stafford threw a short pass out to Cooper Kupp near the right sideline on the next play, and the receiver took it into the end zone to restore the Rams’ two-touchdown lead.
In 2-1/2 quarters, Kupp has five catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
Gronk down, Brady goes to Brate
Rob Gronkowski was down on the field after a six-yard reception early in the third quarter.
The Bucs tight end appeared to take a hard hit to the ribs from Rams linebacker Terrell Lewis after a catch over the middle to the Los Angeles 25.
Quarterback Tom Brady hovered over Gronkowski until Gronkowski was taken to the medical tent to be evaluated. Gronkowski later went to the locker room for X-rays on his ribs or his back.
Brady quickly found Gronkowski’s replacement, Cameron Brate, for a 17-yard completion to the Rams 1. Brady sneaked the ball into the end zone on the next play to bring Tampa Bay back to within 21-14 with just under 10 minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Rams didn’t waste any time jumping on the Bucs at the start of the second half.
Former Tampa Bay receiver DeSean Jackson, who got behind the Bucs secondary twice in the first half, pulled in a deep pass from Matthew Stafford and took it into the end zone to complete a 75-yard scoring play, which gave Los Angeles a 21-7 lead.
The Bucs, rushing four men, didn’t get any pressure on Stafford, and safety Mike Edwards fell down on the play.
Halftime: Rams 14, Bucs 7
The Bucs held slight advantages over the Rams in total yards and time of possession in the first half but trailed 14-7 largely because they weren’t as disciplined or opportunistic.
Tampa Bay committed five penalties to Los Angeles’ one and converted just 51 percent of its third downs, compared to 71 percent for the Rams.
Los Angeles quarterback Matthew Stafford completed touchdown passes of six yards to Tyler Higbee and Cooper Kupp.
Chris Godwin scored the Bucs’ only touchdown on a two-yard run.
Tampa Bay had a few missed opportunities: Cornerback Jamel Dean dropped an interception, Tom Brady just missed connecting deep downfield with tight end Rob Gronkowski, and kicker Ryan Succop missed a 55-yard field goal as time expired in the half.
Brady finished 17-of-22 for 172 yards. Stafford was 15-of-22 for 148 yards and the two touchdowns. He connected on 14 of his final 16 attempts after a 1-of-6 start.
The Bucs drove to the Rams 37-yard line in the final minute of the first half, but Ryan Succop missed a 55-yard field goal and Tampa Bay went to the locker room trailing 14-7.
You could say Rams coach Sean McVay was a bit excited after the play.
The Rams got the ball back with just over four minutes left in the first half and made the most of the time remaining on the clock.
They drove 75 yards in 10 plays, taking a 14-7 lead on Matthew Stafford’s two-yard pass to a wide-open Cooper Kupp in the end zone.
Stafford and Kupp hooked up three times for 33 yards on the drive, including the go-ahead touchdown.
Stafford completed an 11-yard pass to Tyler Higbee to pick up a first down at the Bucs 45 on third and four. Two plays later, he found Van Jefferson over the middle for 21 yards and a first down at the 24.
The Bucs answered the Rams’ touchdown with a scoring drive of their own on their next possession.
Receiver Chris Godwin put Tampa Bay on the board, but it wasn’t with a pass reception. With tight ends Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard clearing the way in front of him, Godwin scored on a two-yard run.
The Bucs used a nice mix of run (six) and pass (nine) plays to drive 76 yards on 15 plays and tie the game at 7.
The big play was a 26-yard completion from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski to the Rams 5.
Tampa Bay converted four third downs on the drive, including the touchdown.
Matthew Stafford got into a rhythm on the Rams’ third possession.
He hit tight end Tyler Higbee for 12 yards on the right side, the first third-down conversion of the game for either team. No sooner had the crew reset the sticks than Stafford connected with receiver Cooper Kupp down the left side for 22 yards and a first down at the Rams 45.
Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean was down after the play. He went to the medical tent for evaluation and was replaced by rookie Dee Delaney.
Stafford targeted Delaney immediately, completing an 11-yard pass to receiver Van Jefferson. After a screen pass to Higbee went for no gain and a couple of Sony Michel four-yard runs, Stafford went back to Kupp, and Ross Cockrell was penalized for defensive holding, giving Los Angeles a first down at the Tampa Bay 26.
Three plays later, Stafford hit Robert Woods over the middle on third and 3 for six yards and a first down at the 13.
The Rams got on the board three plays after that, when Stafford completed a six-yard touchdown pass to Higbee for a 7-0 Los Angeles lead.
Stafford was 8-for-8 on the 95-yard drive, converting four third downs along the way.
Signs of life
The Bucs finally picked up a first down on their third possession. In fact, they got two.
Leonard Fournette gave Tampa Bay an extra set of downs for the first time in the game when he caught a short pass from Tom Brady, then broke a couple of tackles on his way to a 15-yard gain. Two plays later, receiver Chris Godwin took a Brady pass 17 yards to the Bucs 47 for another first down.
Brady had more on his mind, and nearly got it, but his deep throw for Rob Gronkowski down the left side was just out of the tight end’s reach, forcing the Bucs to punt for the third time.
The Bucs had a chance to get the ball back close to midfield, but cornerback Jamel Dean dropped a potential interception when a Matthew Stafford pass tipped off the hands of wide receiver Cooper Kupp right to him.
Defensive backfield mate Ross Cockrell bailed Dean out (or maybe himself) when he broke up a deep pass for DeSean Jackson that could have resulted in a Rams touchdown had the ball not hit the back of Cockrell’s arm.
The Bucs took over at their 15 after a Johnny Hekker punt and short Jaelon Darden return.
2-for-2? Or 0-for-2?
The Bucs fared failed to pick up a first down on their second possession, as well, despite two completions from Tom Brady on the drive.
After a thee-yard run from Leonard Fournette, Brady went back to tight end Cameron Brate for the second time in the game, picking up five yards on the left side. Brady threw to running back Giovani Bernard on third and 2, but Bernard was stopped after a one-yard gain, resulting in Bradley Pinion’s second punt.
Both teams went three-and-out on their opening possessions.
After a touchback on the opening kickoff gave the Bucs the ball at their 25-yard line, Leonard Fournette run up the middle for one yard and Tom Brady completed an eight-yard pass to tight end Cameron Brate to set up third and 1. It became third and six after false start penalty against tackle Josh Wells. Brady threw incomplete for Tyler Johnson, forcing a punt.
The Rams got the ball at their 42, but Matthew Stafford was unable to connect with Van Jefferson on third and 5, and Los Angeles had to punt the ball back.
Who’s up, who’s down
Biggest game of the season?
When the Bucs travel to Foxborough, Mass., next week to play the Patriots in Tom Brady’s first meeting against the team he quarterbacked for 20 seasons and led to six Super Bowl titles, it could be the biggest regular-season game in NFL history in terms of fan and media interest.
But in terms of the stakes involved, there might not be a more important game on the Bucs’ 2021 schedule than today’s against the Rams in Inglewood, Calif.
One of these teams very well could represent the NFC in Super Bowl 56.
The Rams appear to be following the blueprint the Bucs created on their way to last season’s title: shed a former first-round quarterback (Jared Goff) for a veteran with a proven track record (Matthew Stafford), add a seasoned deep threat (DeSean Jackson) to an already talented receiving core, pair it with one of the top defenses in the league and aim for a Super Bowl victory in your home stadium (February 13 at SoFi Stadium).
If these two teams do meet in the playoffs, today’s game could not only establish a tone, it could help determine homefield advantage.
It’s not altogether unlike last season’s game against the Packers. Though Tampa Bay had to travel to Green Bay for the conference title game due to a worse overall record, the Bucs carried the confidence from a 28-point victory earlier in the season into the game that would determine which team advanced to the Super Bowl.
The Bucs will have some key players out. Wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier in the week, reportedly did not make the trip. Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul is resting an injured shoulder. Kick returner/receiver Jaydon Mickens is out with an abdominal issue.
Fortunately, the Bucs have more than capable replacements. Receiver Scotty Miller was the unlikely star of the NFC Championship Game. First-round draft pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has shown the ability to be an explosive pass rusher. And fourth-round pick Jaelon Darden led the nation with 19 touchdowns last season.
Follow our live coverage, starting at 4:25 p.m., as the Bucs seek to improve their record to 3-0 in their first road game of the season.
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