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Rams vs. Buccaneers matchups: Matthew Stafford looks to extend impressive start

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Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (10) and quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrate a touchdown at Indianapolis on Sept. 19, 2021.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) and wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) will seek to continue their strong starts to the season against Tampa Bay on Sunday. (Zach Bolinger / Associated Press)

Breaking down how the Rams (2-0) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) match up heading into their game at 1:25 p.m. Pacific time Sunday at SoFi Stadium. The game will be carried on Fox (Channel 11).

When Rams have the ball: Quarterback Matthew Stafford aims to continue his impressive start after leading the Rams to a rout over the Chicago Bears and engineering a game-winning field-goal drive against the Indianapolis Colts. Stafford has connected on long, mid-range and short passes for five touchdowns. Receiver Cooper Kupp has had more than 100 yards receiving in each game. Look for Stafford to continue going to Kupp, Robert Woods and Van Jefferson — and whether coach Sean McVay makes good on his proclamation to get DeSean Jackson more involved. Running back Darrell Henderson is nursing a rib injury, and McVay has said that he would be a game-time decision. Henderson did not practice this week, however, so Sony Michel almost certainly will start for the first time, with rookie Jake Funk serving as the backup. The Buccaneers’ front features linemen Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and William Gholston and linebackers Lavonte David, Devin White and Shaquil Barrett. Linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul is out because of hand and shoulder injuries. The Buccaneers rank near the bottom of the NFL in pass defense, but that’s partly because other teams can’t keep pace with the league’s highest-scoring offense.

When Buccaneers have the ball: Tom Brady, at 44 and in his 22nd NFL season, has passed for nine touchdowns in an offense that so far has pretty much shied from running the football in favor of letting Brady dissect opponents with his arm. Receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans have been Brady’s top targets along with tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has four touchdown catches. Receiver Antonio Brown is out because of COVID-19, but Brady does not lack for more weapons, including running back Leonard Fournette, who has nine catches. Fournette and former USC running back Ronald Jones II are capable of giving the Buccaneers a rushing presence if coordinator Byron Leftwich opts to test the Rams’ front. Aaron Donald did not have a sack against the Colts, but he, as always, will command the most attention. The Buccaneers’ firepower presents defensive coordinator Raheem Morris with an early challenge in how he deploys cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Will he expand Ramsey’s role even further or pull him back into a more traditional role? Ramsey sealed the victory over the Colts with an interception. Last season, safety Jordan Fuller intercepted two passes against the Buccaneers, one that clinched a 27-24 victory at Tampa.

When they kick: Other than placekicker Matt Gay, the Rams' special teams have struggled — sometimes embarrassingly so. The Rams gave up long returns on the opening kickoff in each of the first two games. Against Indianapolis, a botched snap ricocheted off the punt protector and the Colts recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.

Gary Klein’s prediction: Stafford and Brady will put on a show in what could be a precursor of an NFC playoff game. The Rams have an advantage playing at home against a team that had to make a cross-country flight the day before.

RAMS 34, BUCCANEERS 31

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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