The Week 11 edition of "Monday Night Football" is a battle between two of the top teams in the NFC. The 7-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, looking to keep pace with the first-place New Orleans Saints, play host to the 6-3 Los Angeles Rams. The Rams come in riding high off a fantastic victory against the division rival Seahawks, while the Bucs bounced back last week with a blowout victory over the Panthers after getting demolished by the Saints the week before.
If the Bucs secure a win, they'll remain the fifth seed in the NFC, but the Rams would fall from the sixth to the seventh seed. If the Rams win, they would jump over the Seahawks for the third seed in the NFC. OK, let's break it down.
How to watch
When the Rams have the ball
By now, most are familiar with the style of offense the Rams run under Sean McVay. Everything they do is based off their outside zone running game, and they make an effort to ensure that nearly every play looks exactly the same right up until the moment it turns into something different. The Rams are heavy users of play action, motion, jet sweeps, and tight, bunch formations that pack defenders close to the line of scrimmage so that their assignments can get confused or someone can get picked while the receivers run their various crossing routes.
Their style of offense makes for a fascinating matchup with Todd Bowles' defense. The Bucs can bring pressure from all different angles, and they have gotten a ridiculous amount of pressure on play action dropbacks: per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, opposing passers have been pressured 51.1 percent of the time they have faked a run before looking to throw against Tampa Bay. For perspective, consider that the league average pressure rate on such throws is around 35 percent.
The Bucs being able to get so much pressure is notable because Jared Goff essentially collapses if you get defenders in his face. Per PFF and Tru Media, he has completed just 30 of 78 passes (39.5 percent) for 291 yards (3.7 per attempt), two touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 36.9 passer rating when under pressure. No, that is not a typo.
The Rams will have to strike a delicate balance between what works best for their passing game (play action) and what might put Goff in position to fail (being heavily pressured). Goff -- like most quarterbacks -- does not find as much success when throwing from a straight dropback as he does when faking a run before delivering the ball. His passer rating plummets from 112.8 on play action throws to just 84.2 on regular dropbacks, per PFF and Tru Media.
Tampa's pass rushers (Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on the edge, Ndamukong Suh up the middle) are simply better players than their counterparts on the Los Angeles offensive line. The loss of Andrew Whitworth should also knock the Rams' line down a peg, with Joseph Noteboom (a former guard who lost his starting spot) stepping in at the position.
On the outside, the matchups should be more even. Cooper Kupp will see a lot of Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot, and he likely has the biggest advantage of any Rams wideout. Robert Woods may see shadow coverage from Carlton Davis, leaving Jamel Dean against the less dangerous Josh Reynolds. Reynolds, though, has taken on a larger role in the offense over the past few weeks, actually out-targeting Woods in the team's last three games. Dean has been susceptible to double moves throughout the season, and it would be a massive upset if we did not see the Rams try to target him with one at some point on Monday evening.
L.A. will presumably try to get its ground game going early in order to get the Bucs flowing toward the ball and then hit them with bootleg action, but Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers, and Malcolm Brown figure to find tough sledding. Even without Vita Vea in the middle of the defense, the Bucs have been quite difficult to run against. Tampa ranks second in the NFL in rush defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and seventh in the percentage of opponent rushing attempts stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
When the Buccaneers have the ball
Tampa's defense has gotten a lot of attention this season for its excellence, but did you know that the Rams defense actually leads the NFL in yards allowed per play? Aaron Donald is balling as usual, with nine sacks, seven tackles for loss, 17 quarterback hits, and 37 total pressures, per PFF. Jalen Ramsey is being used far more creatively than he ever was either in Jacksonville or last season with the Rams. Playing in the slot and closer to the line of scrimmage has given him more of an opportunity to make plays, and he's taken advantage of the chances he's been afforded.
The Buccaneers offense, meanwhile, has been extremely inconsistent this season and often seemed subject to the whims of the opposing defense. In seven games against the the Panthers, Broncos, Chargers, Packers, Raiders, and Giants, the offense has done well, averaging 35.8 points per game. In three games against the Saints and Bears, though, the Bucs have totaled just 45 points. So, how will they fare against the Rams?
It's not a particularly good matchup for Tampa -- especially with star guard Ali Marpet likely to miss his third consecutive game. Not having Marpet on the inside has forced the Bucs to shuffle the line a bit, and his absence should mean more opportunities for Donald and Michael Brockers to wreck things on the interior. The Bucs' offensive line is much more solid at the tackle spots, where Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs are playing quite well, but edge rushing isn't the strength of this L.A. defense anyway. How well Tampa manages to protect Tom Brady will be something to watch.
Another question is how the Rams will utilize Ramsey. The Bucs realistically have four different players who could justify necessitating his coverage in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and even Rob Gronkowski. The Rams seem unlikely to use him as a strict shadow due to the volume of different passing options, but we should learn early on which player defensive coordinator Brandon Staley wants to take away from Brady. He has flashed far better chemistry with Godwin, Brown, and Gronkowski than with Evans throughout the season, so the bet here is that he ends up spending more time on that trio than Evans. The Rams can perhaps use corner Darious Williams on Evans. He's having a strong season and is coming off his best game of the year, picking off Russell Wilson two times in Week 10.
The only other intrigue when it comes to the Tampa offense concerns how Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich will divvy up the touches between their running backs. Ronald Jones seemingly has the first shot at carries and Leonard Fournette at passing downs, but they've also been willing to make one or the other the true lead guy for the entire contest, depending on game-flow. L.A.'s run defense is not quite as excellent as its pass defense, but it's still a good one, and it could be tough sledding for Jones and/or Fournette throughout the evening.
Prediction: Rams 20, Bucs 17