Thursday Night Football Preview: A Tale of Two Rookies
This week's Thursday Night Football game pits one team that has found their quarterback of the future against a franchise still in search of theirs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent their first round pick this year on the talented but polarizing Jameis Winston, and the overall results so far have been positive. On the other side of the field, the St. Louis Rams flipped their former first round pick, Sam Bradford, for Nick Foles with far less impressive results. Now with Foles on the bench for the foreseeable future, the Rams have gone back to basics and kickstarted their team by relying on their talented rookie tailback, Todd Gurley, and the ground game.
So what can we expect when these two teams meet for Thursday Night Football?
The Pre-Game Rundown
After five straight losses dropped the St. Louis Rams to a distant third in the NFC West standings, the organization decided something needed to be done to end their downward spiral.
The first order of business: Fire offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and promote Rob Boras to take over play calling duties.
The team then moved quickly to right the ship, ending the Foles experiment by naming game-managing Case Keenum the new starter and vowing to get the ball into the hands of their best playmaker, Gurley.
The Rams pulled off their first win in six weeks, defeating a hot Detroit Lions team coming off a narrow loss against the Packers by a score of 21-14. With Gurley amassing 140 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground on just 16 touches to contribute an impressive 8.13 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) on the day, the Rams' first round draft pick showed that he could shoulder the load and carry this team to victory.
For the Bucs, Winston has had quite an inaugural season. The rookie signal caller has grown quite a bit since being blown out by fellow rookie Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans in Week 1. Not only has he improved on his turnovers -- he threw for seven interceptions over his first four games as a pro, but has only thrown four picks in nine games since then -- but just this past week became the youngest ever to throw for 3,000 yards.
His play in his rookie year has helped the Bucs to a respectable 6-7 record and second place in the NFC South. Perhaps what is most impressive is that he's done this without much help from his pass catchers outside of Mike Evans. With Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins sidelined for multiple contests due to various injuries, Winston has had to rely on his second-year wideout to move the chains through the air.
Alongside their heralded first-round draft pick, the second biggest story for the Bucs has been the resurgence of tailback Doug Martin. Nearly certain to be on his way out of Tampa Bay by the end of last season, incoming offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter fought to keep him on the team, and it's paid off. Martin's 0.02 Rushing NEP per attempt -- which ranks him as the 10th most efficient tailback in the league with at least 100 carries -- has helped turn the Bucs into the seventh-best rushing unit in the league according to our advanced metrics.
But will all of this be enough when the Bucs face off against a surging Rams squad?
The Rams' Game Script
Though the Rams are taking on a Buccaneers passing defense that ranks just 24th against the pass according to our Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP metrics, don't expect Keenum to light it up on Thursday.
With Keenum under center to limit turnovers and make a few timely throws, the team will almost assuredly stick to a winning formula of feeding Gurley the rock.
Gurley, however, faces a tough task in the running game. While the Bucs have been quite bad against the pass, they have been surprisingly efficient against the run, ranking as number eight defense in this department according to our metrics.
But with Gurley owning a stellar 0.04 Rushing NEP per attempt that ranks him as the seventh most efficient tailback with at least 100 carries this season, Tampa Bay will have their hands full trying to contain the Rams' dynamic rookie.
The Buccaneers' Game Script
The Bucs have quite the challenge ahead of them against the stingy Rams defense.
Winston and Evans will have to pull off a flawless performance if they hope to move the ball on a defense that ranks third against the pass and just held the Lions to 14 points, including a 1-catch, 16-yard performance from Calvin Johnson.
And despite Martin's strong play this season, he and fellow tailback Charles Sims will have just as difficult a time running on a Rams unit that ranks ninth against the rush. All in all, the Bucs will more than likely have to grind out every yard and point they get against St. Louis this Thursday night.
Fantasy Football Implications
Gurley is the only must start on the offensive side of the ball for the Rams. And while the Bucs give up the ninth fewest points to running backs in standard-scoring leagues this year, Gurley's efficiency on his carries along with the high volume of work he's likely to see makes him a fine start this week.
If you're desperate at wide receiver, a sneaky dart throw may be Tavon Austin. Not only do the Bucs give up the 11th most points to wide receivers on the season, but also the Rams have shown they're willing to get the ball into his hands in a variety of ways with him getting four carries against Detroit last week. Plus, he is always a threat to take it to the house on special teams.
On the Bucs side of the ball it's going to be difficult to start anyone, as Winston and Evans take on a Rams defense giving up the eighth and third fewest points to the quarterback and wide receiver position, respectively.
It doesn't get any prettier for the ground game, as Martin and Sims must contend with a run defense that ranks in the top 10 in efficiency. Surprisingly -- likely due to negative game scripts that have allowed opposing teams to sit on leads and run the ball for most of the game -- the Rams are allowing the ninth most points to running backs, so there is some glimmer of hope if you're forced to start someone from the Bucs backfield this Thursday.
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