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If the Bucs can keep Tom Brady upright, he can beat the Rams

John Romano | Tampa Bay’s season may come down to whether a banged-up offensive line can perform Sunday.
Even at 44, Tom Brady still has the fire of an underrated draft pick in the NFL. It didn't work out so well the last time the Bucs played the Rams, when this picture was taken in Inglewood, Ca., in September, but Brady can get the final word on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Even at 44, Tom Brady still has the fire of an underrated draft pick in the NFL. It didn't work out so well the last time the Bucs played the Rams, when this picture was taken in Inglewood, Ca., in September, but Brady can get the final word on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published Jan. 22

TAMPA — You look at the man and wonder what is so special about him.

It’s not the speed, it’s not the arm. It’s not the footwork, it’s not the size. Maybe, after all these years, it is more about the people surrounding him.

I mean, take away Bill Belichick and who is Tom Brady?

(The Super Bowl 55 champion and MVP.)

Take away two of his top receivers and both of his running backs and what kind of performance will you get out of Brady in the postseason?

(A 78.3 completion percentage, 271 yards and two touchdown passes against the Eagles.)

Stomp on the ankles of two of his offensive linemen, then put him on the field against Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles pass rush and what will you get?

(Funny you should ask.)

Related: Thanks to Bruce Arians, the Bucs stayed upbeat despite being beat up

All these playoff games later, it is still possible to marvel at Brady’s unprecedented ability to remain standing long after most of the NFL is relaxing on the couch.

Beating the Rams in the division round on Sunday with a battered offensive line, no Chris Godwin and no Antonio Brown would not be the most remarkable thing Brady has ever done in the postseason but, holy crap, this stuff cannot be as easy as he makes it look.

“It’s Tom Brady. He does everything well,” said Rams linebacker Von Miller, who was 1-1 with the Broncos against Brady in the playoffs.

“Everybody knows the way he throws the ball, the decisions he makes, how he plays up for big-time games. The thing that stands out to me is the way he elevates the play of his teammates. He somehow is able to elevate the play of his teammates to a level they wouldn’t normally play at.”

Technically, the Bucs and Brady are three-point favorites against the Rams, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. For much of the season, you’ve had the sense that the Bucs have been constantly bailing water from the deck of the Raymond James pirate ship.

The game against the Rams will be no different. Facing what may be the most impressive defensive front in the league, the Bucs have right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen on wobbly ankles.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the way to beat Brady is to knock him down early and knock him off his game. Most teams are reluctant to challenge him with a blitz, so that means a fierce rush from down linemen. And few are more fierce than Donald.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates a sack on Tom Brady during last season's game at Raymond James Stadium.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates a sack on Tom Brady during last season's game at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2020) ]

“Find ways to keep him bottled up, keep the pressure in front of him as far as collapsing the pocket so he can’t step up to make some of those throws,” Donald said, explaining the line’s responsibility. “You do that with any quarterback, (and) you can affect him and get him a little rattled. When you’re playing against a guy like Tom Brady, that’s a must to have success.

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“We know what to expect, we know what we’ve got to do.”

Given the depleted state of Tampa Bay’s receiving corps and the Rams’ knack of getting to the quarterback, it would not be surprising to see Brady relying heavily on running backs Leonard Fournette and Gio Bernard in the passing game. He did that last week against the Eagles — even with Fournette out of the lineup with a hamstring pull — while keeping his average time in the pocket at a season-low 2.17 seconds.

In recent weeks, the Bucs have kept defenses off-balance with a hurry-up attack early in games that focused on short passes underneath coverage, then taking their shots downfield later on.

Related: Bucs’ sprawling supporting cast has rescued this 2021 sequel

“Tom Brady has seen it all. He’s seen the interior blitzes, he’s seen the max (coverage) where you drop everybody back. He’s played against Aaron Donald and big-time D-tackles throughout his career,” Miller said. “We just have to find a way to rattle him, we have to find a way to get to the quarterback. Whether it’s interior pressure, corners blitzing, outside linebackers, everybody’s name is going to be called.

“Tom Brady is going to make plays, we have to make plays as well. When the time is up, we have to make sure we’re the ones dancing.”

That sounds like a proper plan for the Rams, but the conventional narrative about Brady under pressure isn’t necessarily foolproof. In playoff games when he is sacked one time or less, Brady is 19-5. When he is sacked two times or more, he’s 16-6. There’s a gap, but it’s not terribly wide.

The bottom line is the Bucs have been consistently effective at putting points on the board in the postseason with Brady. They have scored 31, 30, 31, 31 and 31 points in five playoff games the past two seasons. In two of those games, he was sacked three or more times.

Can he pull it off against the Rams after losing to them in each of the past two regular seasons?

We’ll see who is still standing Sunday night.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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