TAMPA — When the stars of the Rams’ defense look across the line of scrimmage at Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday, most will find bad playoff memories staring back.
Aaron Donald never likes to talk about the Rams’ loss to Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl following the 2018 season. Jalen Ramsey tries not to think about when he and the Jaguars led but lost to Brady and the Patriots in the AFC championship game following the 2017 season. Eric Weddle can only hope time has eased the pain of his Chargers falling to Brady and the Pats in the AFC title game after the 2007 season.
But one Rams star has an uplifting memory to share.
Von Miller can tell teammates about 2015. That season, the outside linebacker and the Broncos beat Brady and the Patriots 20-18 in the AFC championship game, on the way to Miller being MVP of a Super Bowl victory. The Broncos had four sacks and 17 hits on Brady, and Miller was credited with 2-1/2 sacks and four hits.
A little of that would go a long way when the Rams face the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in the second round of the NFC playoffs.
“I pretty much remember every single sack that I’ve had on Tom Brady from my second year in the league all the way up,” Miller said Thursday. “Whenever he decides to retire, those are the sacks that you are going to remember.
The winner of this game between the second-seeded Bucs and the fourth-seeded Rams will advance to play in the NFC championship game against the winner of Saturday’s game between the top-seeded Packers and sixth-seeded 49ers.
Taking on the defending champions and their seven-time Super Bowl-winning leader, the Rams’ first job Sunday is to put pressure on Brady and throw the GOAT off his game.
“I think whenever you can sack the quarterback, that always rattles quarterbacks,” Miller said. “We got to find a way to get to the quarterback.”
Easier said than done against a prolific offense that allowed sacks on the lowest percentage of drop-backs in the NFL during the regular season.
But the Rams have reason for confidence they can do it.
Reason one: Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Kenny Young (since traded) had sacks against Brady when the Rams beat the Bucs 34-24 at SoFi Stadium in September. Part of that was because Brady threw a season-high 55 times, completing 41 for 432 yards and one touchdown, trying to catch up. The Rams had taken a first-half lead behind the first three of Matthew Stafford’s four touchdown passes.
Reason two: Since then, Miller joined the Rams in a November trade with the Broncos, bringing along the most career sacks (115-1/2) among active NFL players.
Miller had a bad ankle when he arrived, and his impact on opposing quarterbacks was delayed. He didn’t have a sack for four games, and it was natural to wonder what the 32-year-old had left. He has six sacks in the Rams’ last five games, and nine tackles for loss in the last three, answering that question.
“(He) did a great job of really pushing through kind of with some of those first few games,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “And now I think you’re seeing him play where he’s uninhibited, and he’s playing great football.
“He’s just brought such a good dynamic to our football team, and his perspective and experience are very valuable.”
The Bucs’ offensive line might be weakened by ankle injuries to right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen, both of whom were listed as questionable, and two of Brady’s top targets are gone with Chris Godwin hurt and Antonio Brown off the team.
But the Rams’ defense is dinged too, with starting safeties Jordan Fuller (ankle, injured reserve) and Taylor Rapp (concussion) out for the second straight game and un-retired Eric Weddle among those filling in.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey must play a big role, probably taking a hand in covering wide 1,000-yard receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski at times.
Ramsey points to Miller’s role, as a 6-foot-3, 250-pound physical presence and an emotional booster shot.
“He brings a lot of positive energy,” Ramsey said. “He tries to make sure we maintain positive and optimistic about what lies ahead of us.”
The Rams’ running game is invigorated by Cam Akers’ return to a fuller load of carries in the 34-11 victory over the Cardinals last Monday night at SoFi Stadium, and the Bucs’ ground game could have team-leading rusher Leonard Fournette back from IR.
But the game between the NFC West and NFC South champions is a battle between high-ranked passing attacks and pass defenses.
Stafford, whose Lions and Rams teams have gone 2-2 against Brady’s Pats and Bucs in regular-season meetings, knows he’ll have to throw more than the 17 passes he had in the Cardinals game.
Brady, a rare quarterback who’s as successful in the postseason (76.1% wins) as the regular season (76.9%), hopes he won’t have to throw 55 times as he did when the teams met in Week 3.
“Any time you know your opponent, I think that gives you a little bit of understanding of kind of what they do well, things you wish you would’ve done,” Brady said. “But it’s a very talented football team (and) one of the great teams in the NFL — really good offense, tremendous defense, really well-coached, great specialists. It’s going to be a very, very difficult game for us.”
Von Miller hopes to prove Brady right.
He said sacks of great quarterbacks like Brady are the ones “I will tell my son about.”
“We got a hell of an opportunity,” Miller said. “It’s a blessing to be here. You just want go out there and play well for your team, your family and fans. It’s just one of those games.”