Clash of the early season NFL Titans at SoFi

Sunday is Showdown at SoFi Stadium. The much-anticipated early season matchup between the undefeated Los Angeles Rams and the undefeated defending NFL Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will finally become a reality this Sunday afternoon in Inglewood. The NFL heavyweight bout will feature Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (aka The GOAT) in his first appearance ever in Los Angeles versus quarterback Matthew Stafford, already paying dividends in just two games with the Rams.

"I feel like we know it's a great challenge just from playing them last year," said Rams head coach Sean Mcvay, putting a positive preemptive slant on the game, realizing that his team went into Tampa Bay last season as the underdog. The Rams dominated most of that game, holding the Bucs to their second-lowest offensive output of the season, but had to rely on their defense to get the save, 27-24. The Rams are also the underdog in this year's game.

McVay reiterated the challenge in facing Brady and Bucs: "There's a great understanding. He's playing fast, he's decisive, he's throwing the ball as well as he's ever thrown it. He's obviously one of the best of all-time, if not the best of all-time. He's got great skill players. He knows how to distribute the ball. You can see they're really firing on all cylinders in all three phases. And that's why they played so well."

Of course, the Rams traded for Stafford in the off-season for the very purpose of contending and beating teams like the Buccaneers. Opening the season with two wins has only added to the confidence the Rams players have shown in Stafford. After decisively handling the Chicago Bears in the season opener at SoFi, they found themselves in a dogfight at Indianapolis last Sunday. It was the type of game the Rams found themselves too many times on the losing end in the previous four seasons.

Unexpectedly losing 20-17 to the Colts early in the fourth quarter due to a self-inflicted blunder by the punting squad, Stafford urgently righted the ship in a mere two minutes and three seconds. He completed a four-play, 70-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Cooper Kupp to retake the lead. The Colts tied it with a field goal on the following drive before Rams kicker Matt Gay converted a 38-yard field goal with 2:23 on the clock to clinch the game.

Stafford completed 19 of 30 passes for 278 yards and two touchdown throws, both to Kupp, but also threw his first interception with the Rams. Tampa Bay safety Khari Willis intercepted a midfield pass intended for Kupp at the Rams 42-yard line during their second possession early in the second quarter. Kupp ended up catching nine passes out of 11 targets for 163 yards and had a pair of long receptions, 43 and 44 yards respectively.

Unfortunately for the Rams, they took another big hit at the running back position when Darrell Henderson suffered a rib cartilage injury in the fourth quarter. There's a slight chance Henderson will be ready to go on Sunday if the pain subsides. If not, Sony Michel will be the starter according to McVay. "It was a good, positive reflection that Sony got into the rhythm of a game. Got a handful of carries. That was good for me to see. That was good for our players to see. I thought he did a nice job closing it out."

Michel was a workhorse in the fourth quarter against the Colts, running for 46 yards on 10 carries, including an 11-yard jaunt. Henderson ended with 13 rushes for 53 yards and one touchdown, a two-yard punch in the end zone that gave the Rams a 17-6 lead beginning the third quarter. For the season, Henderson has rushed for a touchdown in both games and has 123 yards on 29 carries. He has also caught four passes for 46 yards, good for a couple of first down conversions.

One phase that has not been playing up to par is the Rams special teams. Their most egregious error occurred three plays into the fourth quarter while attempting to punt from their own 11-yard line. Center Matthew Orzech's snap to punter Johnny Hekker hit the right arm of backfield protector Nick Scott, who didn't position himself enough to the left. Hekker attempted to grab the deflected ball but fumbled when hit by linebacker E.J. Speed. It was recovered in the endzone by Ashton Dulin for the Colts only lead of the game.

McVay addressed the issue: "We make a mistake where we can slide over a little bit more when we shifted for protection purposes. The snap hits them and it results in a touchdown, which feels like a terrible thing, but I think it is something that we can correct. So, in a long-winded way, I'm not concerned, but there has got to be a sense of urgency that has consistently existed."

Defense in the red zone will figure prominently in Sunday's fight with Tampa Bay. Brady and the Bucs are tied for the most red zone appearances so far this season with 10 and have successfully scored seven touchdowns and one field goal. Defensively, the Rams are ranked eighth, allowing only three touchdowns in seven attempts by opponents. Offensively, the Rams have converted five touchdowns and three field goals in nine red zone appearances. The Bucs red zone defense has allowed four touchdowns in eight attempts by opponents.

McVay responded when asked about Buccaneers defense and their coordinator, Todd Bowles: "He's always applying pressure to you. He doesn't let the offense dictate the terms. Their physical outfit, they will challenge you. He's got a variety of blitzes... I have a ton of respect for the multiplicity of looks that he can present, the aggressiveness at which he calls a game, but also is able to adjust and adapt within the course of a game or based on that game plan.


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