The quarterback play was below-average. The offensive line didn't win the battle at the line of scrimmage. They didn't stretch the field with their receivers. They used a committee of running backs.
This could describe the Buccaneers' performance Sunday against the Panthers, but the same could be said of the Buccaneers' opponent this weekend – the St. Louis Rams.
After Sam Bradford again tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the preseason, the Rams' hope was that backup Shaun Hill could play competent quarterback and that an elite defensive line anchored by Pro Bowler Robert Quinn could help the team contend in the stacked NFC West.
In a 34-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, however, the Rams were forced to turn to their third-string quarterback Austin Davis after the first half when Hill exited the game because of a left quadriceps strain. But even before the injury, Hill — who will start against the Bucs if he is healthy — was not effective.
Hill started the game by completing his first five passes for 50 yards, which included strikes to Brian Quick for gains of 23 yards and 19 yards. After that, he was 3-for-8 for 31 yards and an interception of a ball thrown into double coverage.
The interception was extremely costly. The Rams were down 6-0 with just over a minute left in the first half and were set to get the ball to open the second half. Instead, the Vikings took advantage of the short field and marched 35 yards for the first touchdown of the game and a 13-0 lead.
The previous play, in which Hill fumbled when defensive tackle Tom Johnson knocked the ball out of his hand, might have set the stage for the turnover.
Let's look at the coaches film:
The Rams, at left, line up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), and the Vikings counter with a nickel (five defensive backs) package and play zone. As they did often Sunday, the Vikings rush only four defenders and seem content to let the Rams try to complete a pass underneath.
The Rams' play call seems designed to attack the middle of the field and should allow them to pick up at least a chunk of yards. Receiver Austin Pettis lines up in the slot to the left of the offensive line and tight end Jared Cook lines up to the right. Cook runs a route behind Vikings middle linebacker Chad Greenway, and Pettis runs a shallow route (more on this later) in front of him. Greenway will have to choose whether to follow Cook or Pettis.
In this view, we see the field from behind the defense. The play fails when Johnson beats right guard and former Buccaneer Davin Joseph to break up the pass attempt and force a fumble.
This time, Hill didn't hold on to the ball too long; from snap to fumble, Johnson got to the quarterback in about 2.2 seconds. To Johnson's credit, it was an excellent play. As broadcast analyst Kirk Morrison pointed out, Johnson was unlikely to get the sack, so he did his best to disrupt the pass and get a hand on the football.
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On the next play — which resulted in an interception — Hill was again under pressure. This time, he bailed from the pocket with defensive end Brian Robison in his face.
The Rams' offensive line allowed 18 pressures (sacks, hits and hurries combined), the third-most of Week 1, according to Pro Football Focus (the Bucs, by comparison, allowed 11, ninth-most). That's a lot of pressure considering the Vikings rushed more than four defenders only 10 times out of 41 passing plays.
That's a formula the Buccaneers would like to follow, but their line failed to generate much of a pass rush against a retooled Panthers offensive line. The Buccaneers managed only four pressures on backup quarterback Derek Anderson, tied for third-fewest. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded the lone sack, but it took three-and-a-half quarters.
• • •
The Rams' offensive strategy of playing not to lose didn't change when Austin Davis took over. Sixteen of Davis' 21 throws traveled nine or fewer yards. He threw deep (20 or more yards) four times, but three of those throws came on the Rams' final possession when the Vikings were ahead 34-3 and had removed several starters.
Were the Rams conservative because their third-string quarterback was in the game? Was the game plan to attack the Vikings defense with short and intermediate passes? Will they take more shots downfield against the Buccaneers?
All of these are possible. But there are signs that the Rams' strategy against the Vikings is more trend than anomaly. This is an offense that is heavy on short passes, and you're likely to see more of them Sunday.
During the Rams' first possession of the second half, we saw three shallow crossing route calls in four plays.
Here, on 2nd-and-7 from the St. Louis 47-yard line, Brian Quick is lined up wide right and crosses over the middle. Cook appears to be the preferred option, however, as Davis never looks for Quick. The pass is complete for 26 yards.
And on the next play, on 1st-and-15 from the Minnesota 36-yard line:
Quick runs another shallow cross, and so does Cook. Cook is again the target, but Davis overthrows him badly on what could have been a big gain.
And two plays later — 3rd-and-7 from the 28-yard line:
Chris Givens runs the shallow cross. On this play, the Vikings pack eight defenders in the box and dial up a rare blitz. The Vikings send seven, but the Rams only have six to block, so even though Givens is open, Davis doesn't hit him in time. Safety Harrison Smith closes in for the second of Minnesota's five sacks.
Under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, whom the Rams hired in 2012, Sam Bradford has not finished above 26th in yards per passing attempt. Before he suffered his first ACL tear last season, Bradford's yards per passing attempt had declined from 6.7 in 2012 to 6.4, 37th in the NFL. Kellen Clemens replaced Bradford after his injury but only threw 6.9 yards per attempt, 23rd in the league.
If we go back to Schottenheimer's stint with the New York Jets, we see that no matter the quarterback – even gunslinger Brett Favre! – the deep ball is not a staple of his offense.
|Kellen Clemens (2013)||6.9||23rd|
|Sam Bradford (2013)||6.4||37th|
|Mark Sanchez (2011)||6.4||29th|
|Brett Favre (2008)||6.7||25th|
|Chad Pennington (2007)||6.8||22nd|
|Qualification: Quarterbacks who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. Statistics from profootballfocus.com.|
• • •
After rushing for nearly 1,000 yards in 14 games in 2013, Zac Stacy came into the season as the Rams' no. 1 running back. But against the Vikings, he and backup Benny Cunningham were on the field for nearly the same number of plays – 31 and 33, respectively. Even receiver Tavon Austin saw some time in the backfield, rushing for 5 yards on three carries.
Stacy rushed for 43 yards on 11 carries and Cunningham rushed for 21 yards on five carries, but Cunningham saw more action in the passing game, catching four passes for 30 yards. Stacy was targeted on a screen pass late in first quarter but dropped the ball. He wasn't targeted again until the fourth quarter when, on 3rd-and-20, he caught a short pass for an 8-yard gain.
Short passes on 3rd-and-long like the one to Stacy were a theme. The Rams faced a 3rd-and-long 10 times and checked down five times and were sacked once. They converted only one of those 3rd-and-longs into a first down.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tbassfootball.