NFL

TNF Takeaways: Rams Playmakers Come Up Big Over Bucs

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If Thursday night’s game was the last in St. Louis for the Rams, they went out with a bang.

On the strength of an offense that finally seems to be clicking, St. Louis built a 28-6 lead on Thursday night, then held off a fourth quarter rally from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to secure their sixth win of the season, a 31-23 victory that was never really that close.

The Rams got contributions from all over, but at the center of their scoring were two players expected to play key roles in the future of the franchise, be that back in St. Louis or in Los Angeles, where many believe they are headed for next season. Wide receiver Tavon Austin scored twice and continues to finally show, in his third NFL season, the type of playmaking ability the Rams anticipated when they drafted him eighth overall out of West Virginia in 2013.

There was no finally for rookie running back Todd Gurley, who became just the third NFL running back to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing this season, further bolstering his case for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. It’s been a truly impressive season for the rookie out of Georgia, who didn’t play his first game until Week 3, when he had six carries for nine years. Since then he’s racked up five 100-yard games, and he’s done it as the focal point of an offense with a passing game that has been in flux all season, allowing defenses to key on Gurley every week.

“Everybody knows we’re going to run it and he still got 1,000. That speaks volumes for him,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “He pass protects, he gets out and catches the football and keeps drives alive as well. As we said way back in April, we’re drafting Todd to be our future. I didn’t anticipate he was going to play as early as he did, but knew once he got going, he’d be productive. We got two weeks left.”

Gurley actually had a modest night on Thursday night, as the stingy Bucs defense kept him below 50 yards rushing (48) on 21 carries, one of his lowest yards per carry outputs of the season. But he did find the end zone for the ninth time this season, capping St. Louis’ best drive of the night late in the first half to make it 21-3.

The Rams began building that lead on the first drive of the game, after an excellent kickoff return by Bennie Cunningham set them up near midfield. The drive when 57 yards in six plays, highlighted by Gurley and Austin. The running back got St. Louis in the red zone when he took a screen pass from quarterback Case Keenum 19 yards to the 18. Two plays later, Austin finished the drive when he took another short pass from Keenum the distance, bobbing and weaving through the Bucs defense for the first score of the night.

Tampa cut into the lead with a Connor Barth field goal midway through the first, but on the ensuing drive, St. Louis seized control of the contest. Two plays after and end around by Austin gained 15 and set the stage for another big drive, Keenum took the top off the defense with a perfectly placed deep ball to Kenny Britt up the left sideline. Britt caught the pass in stride and took it 60 yards for a score to make it 14-3.

Keenum has been much maligned since entering the league after shattering college passing records in a system designed to do so at the University of Houston. He memorably went 0-for-8 in his first eight career NFL starts with the 2013 Texans, but he’s been better the last two season and though he’ll never be the franchise quarterback teams like the Rams seek, he’s proving he might be an adequate placeholder who could carve out a long career as a backup in the quarterback-drive league.

“Credit to Case. He made a lot of great plays and great throws early and got us some points,” Fisher said. “He’s done a good job. Today, he was on time. He was reading well…I thought he did a nice job managing the game. He made some really good throws and we caught the football today. We made tough catches. We had some runs after catches, which were good. We needed to do that.”

The Rams defense also came up big in the first half, limiting the Tampa Bay offense to just 130 yards on 30 plays through the first 30 minutes of the game. Their biggest stop came midway through the second quarter, with the Bucs driving inside St. Louis territory for just the second time all game. After Tampa broke through to their side of the field with a series of chunk plays, the Rams defense stiffened and stopped the Bucs four straight times, including a 4th-and-1 run by Doug Martin that went for a two-yard loss, handing the ball back to the St. Louis offense.

The Rams cashed in the ensuing drive with a nine-play, 75-yard trip down the field, finished off with Gurley’s three-yard touchdown plunge, which put the rookie over the century mark in yardage for the season. He joined Eric Dickerson and Jerome Bettis as the only backs to eclipse 1,000 yards as Rams rookies.

“It means a lot, but at the end of the day, credit to the O-line, to the receivers, tight ends, for blocking for me,” Gurley said. “It feels good. It’s a big accomplishment. But it’ll be something you look back at down the road.”

The Rams defense wasn’t as strong in the second half, but St. Louis got just enough on offense to hold off the Bucs. The final touchdown of the night for the home team came on their first drive of the second half, after Tampa Bay had used another Barth field goal to cut into the lead.

On the drive that followed, Keenum hit a couple big plays to Jared Cook, then leaned on Austin and Gurley to take them home. Austin gained 11 on another short pass to move the ball to the 24, and Gurley followed with a three-yard run to put the Rams on the doorstep of the red zone, but they would never actually snap the ball from inside the red zone. That’s because, on 2nd-and-7 from the 21, Austin took another end around, cut through the Bucs defense, made a few men miss, and galloped into the end zone to make it 28-6 with his 10th TD of the year.

From there, the Rams held tight, despite a fourth quarter surge from Tampa Bay to get back into the game. St. Louis still has a lot of work to do to get back to contention, particularly with a defense that was expected to be among the league’s best this season and was instead one of its worst. The holes on that side of the ball were visible late Thursday night as Jameis Winston carved up the defense to nearly bring the Bucs back.

But the Rams have building blocks on that side of the ball, and for the first time in a long time it seems like they have them on offense too, with Gurley and Austin leading the way. That’s enough to create some optimism for the future, though it remains to be seen where that future will take these Rams. St. Louis fans showed up in droves Thursday night, but it may have been too little too late to save their team.

“I don’t know what the fans are thinking, but obviously, the fans tonight were incredible – chanting and yelling and being loud when the defense needed them to be loud. It was a great atmosphere tonight,” Keenum said. “I think it was a great atmosphere for the nation to watch and see. I think it was a good football game. Those guys played hard. They fought to the end and our crowd was in it till the end. It was a lot of fun out there. Tonight, I think it was a great football game.”

If Thursday was the franchise’s final game in St. Louis, it was almost a cruel tease. A franchise that has been steeped in futility for more than a decade might finally be ready to emerge from it just as they depart the city. In a lot of ways, that just seems wrong.

BUCS UP ON OFFENSE

Like the Rams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showcased some of their building blocks on Thursday night, as well as some of the things that they need to improve on to make a playoff run in the future.

Tampa had their hopes at that future coming early — and an unlikely 2015 playoff run — dashed when they failed to show up for the first half of Thursday’s game. St. Louis took it to their defense early and the Bucs had no answers on either side of the ball. By the time they finally woke up in the fourth quarter, it was too late, their hole too deep to dig out of.

“I thought we would play better from start to finish,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We had opportunities and we did a few good things along the way. Offense had a lot of yards, but not enough points. Defensively, you have to be able to not give up big touchdowns passes and not big, long trick plays. You have to be able to play it better. This was a disappointing loss for us, we made a lot of progress throughout but tonight, of course, we didn’t see a whole lot to be excited about.”

While it’s easy to take that away from a loss, it’s not exactly true. You never want to fall into a 22-point hole in the third quarter, but the fact that these Bucs didn’t roll over, as so many Tampa teams have before them, and instead fought to within a successful onside kick of a chance to tie the game, speaks volumes about how far the franchise has come over a short period of time under Smith. So too did Winston’s post-game comments taking the onus on himself for the offense poor performance over the first three quarters.

“In the first half, I didn’t play well enough for us to win,” he said. “They were throwing a lot of different things at us. We protected well enough. I’ve just got to make throws. The first two third downs we had, that was pitch-and-catch. We had seen everything they threw at us. The o-line, they did their part. The first half and the interception late hurt us.”

But after completing just 6-of-12 for 49 yards in the first half, Winston went gangbusters in the final two frames to finish 29-of-50 for 363 yards his biggest statistical game, in terms of yards, of the season. That contributed strongly to the Bucs finishing the game with over 500 yards of total offense for just the second time all season.

Also contributing to that was Doug Martin, who at least temporarily retook the rushing lead from Adrian Peterson with an 18-carry, 91-yard evening. Martin has re-established himself as one of the league’s premier running backs this season, and with Martin, Winston, Mike Evans, and some of their strong complementary pieces, the Bucs have the potential to be an offense that puts up those kind of big numbers on a weekly basis. It comes down to developing consistency, something all young teams are seeking on a week-to-week basis.

“Tonight is a disappointment for this game, but overall we are headed in the right direction,” Smith said. “We have a couple of spots where we are short-handed and we are not playing as well as we need to and that can affect a lot of things. The big picture is what you have to look towards. Disappointing tonight, but we are still headed in the right direction.”

Winston echoed that sentiment, and seems to have wholeheartedly bought into the approach, which is half the battle with a young quarterback.

“Just like our mentality at the start of the season, every game matters. We’ve just got to play. We’ve got to show up and that starts with me,” he said. “You’ve just got to learn a lesson and move forward. The season’s not over yet. What we wanted, our playoff hopes, they’re probably done, but the season isn’t over yet. We’re still going to compete. We’re still going to go out there and fight and try to go 8-8.”

NFL NAILS BURFICT WITH BIG FINES

Last Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was particularly costly for Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Burfict’s agent revealed on Thursday that his client was fined nearly $70,000 by the league for three different players during Cincinnati’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday. Among those plays was a low hit on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Burfict claimed afterward that he was pushed on the play, but Roethlisberger wasn’t buying it and believes Burfict was targeting his legs, attempting to injure him.

“I don’t buy he was pushed,” Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “I think he was definitely diving low for my legs.”

The play did not draw a flag, but Burfict was also assessed fines for two unnecessary roughness penalties he did incur during the same game. He is appealing all three fines.

Burfict is, of course, no stranger to controversy and costing himself money. He forfeited millions by no-showing and/or mailing in the pre-draft process, dropping from projected first round pick to undrafted free agent. He’s built a strong start to his NFL career anyway, but has repeatedly drawn the ire of the league for disciplinary reasons, piling up $77,000 in fines before this latest set of incidents.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys