With two games to go in the season and the longest of long shots to make the NFC playoffs hanging by the barest of threads, the Rams believe there is plenty on the line when they head to Tampa Bay this weekend.
So when the Rams and Bucs kick it off at noon Sunday, there will be no need to dig desperately for motivation. The incentive to play this week is no different than it was in any of the previous 14 games according to coach Jeff Fisher.
“Winning this next game is what’s simply motivating us right now,” Fisher said. “We’re not looking ahead. Everybody’s in the building walking around with the attitude not, as I mentioned, not that we lost the game to Minnesota, but rather we’ve won three out of the last four, so let’s go win the next one.”
Using that world view, Raymond James Stadium for Sunday’s game carrying a 6-7-1 record. They are coming off a loss against the Vikings that snapped their three game win streak and made a slim playoff chance almost non-existent.
Going by the facts, though, the Rams have indeed won three of their past four and have a chance to cobble together two more wins that would give them wins in five of their final six games as well as winning record for the first time since 2003 and an undefeated mark in the division.
But for any of that to happen, it starts in the sunshine this weekend and the week to week mentality that’s been in place all season must stay that way.
“No, there’s no doubt,” running back
For the record, the Rams playoff chances have a couple of different permutations but the easiest way to put it is the Rams need to win their final two games then hope that the New York Giants, Minnesota, Chicago and one of Washington or Dallas also loses its final two games.
It’s a chance so slim that Fisher threw out a callback to the movie ‘Dumb and Dumber’ earlier this week but it’s still better than not having a chance at all.
Beyond the aforementioned team accomplishments, the Rams also have some other history they can make this weekend, particularly for Jackson.
Entering Sunday’s game, Jackson is 91 yards short of reaching 1,000 rushing yards for an eighth consecutive season. That would make him just the sixth player in league history to reach that mark.
It would be somewhat fitting for Jackson to reach that mark in Tampa on the same field in which he set the franchise rushing record in 2010.
“It was something… I didn’t think about eight years, but I thought year-in and year-out, as long as I was a starter, I wanted to be a 1,000-yard rusher,” Jackson said. “I didn’t realize that so few have accomplished what I have the possibility of accomplishing. It just means that I’ve been consistent over that time and been durable, which is hard to do in this league.”
For Jackson to get the needed yards this weekend, he’ll have to do it against the league’s top-ranked run defense. The Bucs are allowing just 83.3 yards per game and have a reputation for using stunts, twists, slants and every kind of movement imaginable to clog run lanes.
“The scheme is really good,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “They have a ton of movement. They’re always slanting and are angling in their alignment and they’re going one way or the other. Going sideways they create kind of piles for people to get through. Linebackers are downhill. They’re fitting well on the runs and they’re playing hard. They’re playing hard. They’re committed to the run. You’re just not seeing a lot of guys break explosives runs. It’s quite a challenge in the run game.”
One way to potentially open some holes is to attack Tampa Bay’s secondary. In one of the league’s quirkier statistical discrepancies, the Bucs are last in the league in pass defense, giving up 310.6 yards per game.
Some of those struggles can be attributed to playing so many pass heavy teams within the NFC South Division but it’s also a function of the Bucs ability to shut down the run.
“I think that’s where you just see some explosives plays,” Schottenheimer said. “Some people have gotten behind them. They’ve missed a few guys here and there in coverage. Some people have gotten behind them for explosive plays. When you’re committed to stopping the run like they are, sometimes you’re sending your guys up on the outside and people have made some plays out there. It’s a good defense. They play hard, like I said, they play really well down there, so it’ll be a quite a challenge for us.”
On the other side, of the ball the Bucs offense has no such chasm between the run and the pass, they do both equally well and present a variety of problems.
Tampa’s offense is led by quarterback Josh Freeman who loves to throw vertically to big, physical wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams and a rookie running back who has drawn comparisons to Baltimore’s Ray Rice in Doug Martin.
While teams aren’t likely to shut down the Bucs potent offense entirely, the goal for the Rams is to at least attempt to make them one-dimensional.
“You always do,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “That’s what this league is about. If people in this league have a two-way go on you defensively, no matter who you’re playing, you’ve got a problem. The issue with these people is they’ve already proven… when you give a back over 300 touches after having played 14 games in this league, you’re saying that you trust him to do it. Plus, the fact if they can throw so deep to those big, big receivers, it’s going to be really important. It’s going to be important for us to be able to separate the score, keep the ball away from them some, because they’re a dangerous group on offense.”
Of course the Rams would prefer to be in control of their own destiny with playoff visions still alive and well but that’s not their reality right now.
Still, there’s little doubt that the stimulus to win remains strong with the Rams as they head to Tampa.
“Motivation should never be an issue,” McGinnis said. “There’s so much on the line for you, professionally, as a player and as a coach. You only get 16 chances at it in this league. The years fly by. I can attest to that, that after 27 years it’s so fast. You know how fast this year has gone. It just seems like yesterday that we were just starting this thing out. You can’t afford to waste any chances. If there’s any twitch towards a lack of motivation, then you’ve got the wrong person and you’re in the wrong business.”