St. Louis Rams Todd Gurley puts the football down into the endzone for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on December 13, 2015. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Buccaneers-Rams showdown at the Edward Jones Dome on Thursday night shapes up as a possible battle for Rookie of the Year between Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston and St. Louis running back Todd Gurley.
Both are having outstanding seasons. Gurley is the NFL's fourth-leading rusher and is on the verge of becoming the first Rams first rookie to rush for 1,000 yards since Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.
Winston has led his team back to relevance, and at 6-7, the Bucs remain in the hunt for a playoff spot. Winston already has passed for 3,059 yards with 18 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions while rushing for five scores.
A year ago, the Bucs' only primetime game resulted in a 56-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on a Thursday night.
"I just want to show the world how good this team really is," Winston said. "This is our chance, and we have to take advantage of it."
Stopping Gurley will be the Bucs' focus. The former Georgia star is coming off a 140-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win over the Detroit Lions.
"It's just a combination of the size, the speed, the quickness that he has -- 16 carries for 140 yards against a pretty good defense," Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "He's a guy who you obviously have to pay a lot of attention to. That size-speed combination is rare and ability to make people miss and then he can run over you as well, so he has all the ingredients to be a very good back in our league for a while."
Gurley recovered from a torn ACL to become dominant this season.
"We drafted him to be the running back of our future," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "We took him, we were patient with him, we waited until Week 3, got him a few carries and then he really came on in Week 4 at Arizona. We're trying to get the ball to him as often as we can, being mindful of we don't want to wear him out. He's in great shape right now. I can't wait until he has a full offseason where he can put the offseason between the injury and playing. He's just special; he's got special skills. And he's a better person than he is player."
Winston says he is not be focused on winning Rookie of the Year.
"No, it would be awesome to achieve that goal, but that wasn't on my goal list at the beginning of the year," Winston said. "My goal was to have more wins than last year. We did that, so that's an important goal for us, not only just for me, but this organization. Definitely our team is way more important than my individual success with goals. I don't focus on that type of stuff, but Todd (Gurley) is having an amazing year and deserves all the credit he is getting."
SERIES HISTORY: 21st meeting. Rams lead regular-season series, 12-8. The Rams won the past three meetings. The Bucs came back from an 11-point deficit and won 18-17 in 2010, their last victory in the series. The Bucs and Rams have met twice in the NFC Championship Game, with the Rams winning each time. In the 1979 postseason meeting, the Rams were in Los Angeles.
--The Bucs would like to get in a ground war with the Rams, pitting running back Doug Martin against Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley.
Martin had only had 25 carries total in losses to the Colts and Saints, yet he remains the league's second-leading rusher.
The Rams' defensive line is a problem, especially with defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the middle. St. Louis defensive coordinator Greg Williams has no problem bringing exotic blitzes to confuse rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. The best way to protect Winston is to stay on the ground.
The Bucs also are short-handed at the receiver position, with Vincent Jackson out with a sprained MCL. That means Tampa Bay will have to rely on rookie free agents Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries, making it easy for the Rams to double-team Mike Evans the way they did the Lions' Calvin Johnson.
On defense, the Bucs' injuries are starting to pile up. Danny Lansanah will be the third middle linebacker in the past three games. The Bucs also will be without defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who left Sunday's game with an ankle sprain.
Look for the Bucs to load up on the run to force the Rams into a passing game. St. Louis ranks last in the league in third-down conversions. Coach Jeff Fisher obviously wants to pound Gurley all night.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Rams DT Aaron Donald vs. Bucs G Ali Marpet.
Donald leads all defensive tackles with 11 sacks, and he can disrupt any offense. The Bucs will use more the one player to block Donald, but much of the responsibility could fall on Marpet, an outstanding rookie from Hobart.
--Rams RB Todd Gurley vs. Bucs LB Lavonte David.
Gurley needs only 25 yards to become the first Rams rookie to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark since Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis in 1993.