It wasn’t pretty on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Rams’ defense was gashed by Bobby Rainey for 144 yards and despite not having Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn for most or all of the game, the Bucs managed to sack Austin Davis twice and hold Zac Stacy to 3.7 yards per carry on 19 totes for 71 yards.
But all things considered, Davis was perfect in the Rams’ 19-17 victory. While he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, he also didn’t turn the ball over. Largely expected to manage the game and get out of the way while the team’s running game and defense dictated the action, Austin instead won the game for the Rams in the fourth quarter by making several clutch throws. He was 4-of-7 on third downs in the second half, which included a spectacular throw to Austin Pettis on a third-and-9 play from the Rams’ 48-yard-line that helped set up the eventual game-winning field goal.
Davis received plenty of help from his offensive line, as well as from guys like Pettis, Brian Quick and T.J. McDonald (who was the underlying hero after blocking a punt, a field goal and delivering the game-saving hit on Mike Evans in the waning seconds). But Davis nevertheless exceeded expectations in his first career NFL start.
The game wasn’t pretty, sure. But winning remains the ultimate trump card in sports.
Below are three plays that helped define the Rams’ 19-17 victory.
Play 1: Pressure leads to McLeod’s one-handed pick.
With the game tied at 7-7 early in the second quarter, the Bucs drove inside the Rams’ 10 following a Rainey 19-yard run on third-and-2. Facing a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, the Bucs lined up in an Offset I and went with a double-tight formation with Brandon Myers going in motion from left to right. At the snap, the lone receiver on the play, Vincent Jackson, ran a shallow crossing route while fullback Jorvorskie Lane released into the flat, Myers ran a corner route and fellow tight end Luke Stocker ran up the seam. McCown took the snap from center, gave a slight play-fake to Rainey and went to his first read, which appeared to be the corner route to Myers.
But the play broke down virtually from the start. At the snap, right guard Patrick Omameh helped center Evan Dietrich-Smith by blocking down on defensive tackle Alex Carrington, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar wound up shooting through the B-gap untouched. All Omameh could do was flail at Dunbar on his way into the backfield, and because Rainey was out of position to pick up the blitz, McCown was forced to roll right and to the boundary side of the field. The Rams were in man-to-man coverage and, with Rainey turning sideways to block Dunbar, James Laurinaitis angled toward the sidelines to cut off McCown, who was now hemmed in.
Seeing the crossing route in front of him, Rodney McLeod went to cut off Jackson, who stopped his route and proceeded to get depth into the end zone. Instead of throwing the ball away, McCown threw back across his body with both Dunbar and Laurinaitis closing in on him. That’s when McLeod made an incredible one-handed interception to halt the drive and keep Tampa from scoring. The Rams eventually would take a 10-7 lead heading into halftime.
Play 2: Donald puts Mankins on skates.
With the Rams leading 16-14 and time running down in the fourth quarter, the Bucs faced a second-and-2 from the Rams’ 16-yard line following a 31-yard run by Rainey on a second-and-3 and an 8-yard run by Mike James on first-and-10.
On second down, the Bucs tried to run James off-tackle to the boundary side, but Aaron Donald put Logan Mankins on skates and walked the guard into the backfield. The right side of the Rams’ defensive line also got push, and Eugene Sims managed to stop James for no gain. On the very next play, Donald again got great push on Mankins, and James was stopped by Sims for a two-yard loss on virtually the same play to force the Bucs to settle for a field goal with just over five minutes remaining in the game.
Donald has turned heads since OTAs, but it’s one thing to flash in practice and preseason games. It’s quite another to do it in the fourth quarter of a regular-season contest when your defense needs a huge stop.
While Sims earned both tackles on those back-to-back plays, it was Donald who got the initial push to help seal in James.
Play 3: The eventual game-winner.
With the Bucs clinging to a 17-16 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Rams faced a third-and-9 from their own 48-yard line needing at least a field goal to re-take the lead.
On the play, the Rams come out in a 3×1 Formation with Davis in the shotgun and Benny Cunningham as the lone back. The Bucs show blitz pre-snap and then send linebackers Lavonte David and Dane Fletcher through the A-gaps while the defensive backs play press on the two outside receivers, as well as on Pettis in the slot.
Cornerback Leonard Johnson gives Pettis an inside release off the snap as Davis takes a five-step drop. In the face of immense pressure from Da’Quan Bowers (who beat guard Davin Joseph on the play), Davis lofts a perfect pass to Pettis down the seam as Johnson trails slightly in coverage. Pettis then high-points the pass while plucking the ball out of the air just over the outstretched arms of Johnson and holds on as safety Dashon Goldson delivers a crushing hit.
The timing on that play had to be perfect. If Davis holds onto the ball for a split second longer (which was a possibility considering Kenny Britt and not Pettis was his first read on the play), then Bowers has a relatively easy sack. If the ball isn’t placed perfectly to Pettis’ back shoulder and at just the right height, then Johnson may break up the pass. And if Goldson delivers the hit a split second earlier, then maybe he would have timed it perfectly to pop the ball loose.
Without that reception, the rest of the plays that I highlighted, as well as some great individual efforts by McDonald and Greg Zuerlein (who was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, including the eventual game-winner), would have been rendered moot as far as the win-loss column is concerned.