LOS ANGELES (AP) — Although the Los Angeles Rams are 3-0, the defending NFC champions' offense clearly hasn't hit its stride.
The unit that tore up the NFL for the last two years sits squarely in the middle of the pack this season, with the Rams' excellent defense leading the way instead.
A visit from the rebuilding Buccaneers (1-2) on Sunday looks like an ideal chance for Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and their gifted receivers to find that groove again. But with former Rams lineman Ndamukong Suh out front, Tampa Bay's defense has enough talent to keep the Rams from predicting an easy afternoon at the Coliseum.
"He's a great player," Goff said of Suh, who started every game last year in his sole season with the Rams. "He's a pro, and he knows what he's doing. I'm sure he'll be wanting to get after us, as I expect he would. He's a friend of mine, and I wish him the best."
Suh knows plenty about the Rams' offensive line after going against all five linemen in practice last season, so he has given tips to his fellow Bucs. There's not much he can say about Gurley that isn't already known, even by an opponent that hasn't faced him since 2016.
But the Rams' judicious use of Gurley has caught the NFL's attention, the Bucs included. After Gurley was in the top five in the NFL in touches in each of the past three seasons, his snap counts and touches have been down sharply.
While McVay and the Rams still strenuously deny they're practicing load management with their high-priced running back and his balky left knee, even Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians can see what's up. It provides him no comfort, however.
"I think they're probably using him wisely and saving him," Arians said. "They've got young backs they like, but he can break out for 200 (yards) at any point in time. He's always dangerous in the passing game. I don't see any drop-off at all."
The Rams have already beaten two NFC South teams this season, and their defense will be primed to face Jameis Winston and a Tampa Bay offense that hasn't been terrible, but also hasn't dominated.
The Rams would dearly benefit from a blowout win and the chance to rest their starters at the beginning of two games in five days. Still, their attention appears to be focused solely on the Bucs, and not on their high-profile trip to Seattle the following Thursday.
Here are more things to know about the Buccaneers' first trip to Los Angeles since 1993:
Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett leads the NFL with eight sacks after only having 14 in four seasons with the Denver Broncos, where he primarily was a backup. Arians felt he had a chance to make a difference with the pass rush when Barrett signed a one-year deal in free agency. But no one envisioned him more than making up for the absence of Jason Pierre-Paul, who's expected to be sidelined at least half the season after injuring his neck in a car accident.
"I don't think anybody could totally realize it would happen, but you saw things on tape and he was going to get opportunities," Arians said. "He's made the best of them."
With another multi-sack game Sunday, he would have the NFL's most sacks through four games since 1982, when individual sacks became an official statistic.
"No one's done it - it's a first. To me, when you put that in the history of football, that's big," Arians said. "What he's done is big, and hopefully he can continue."
Winston has been sacked 10 times this season, tied for seventh most in the league. The Rams' defense has eight sacks, and 2018 NFL sacks leader Aaron Donald just got his first last week. Donald is still wrecking game plans, but his modest statistical start might have something to do with Suh's departure.
PACK YOUR BAGS
Tampa Bay is beginning a stretch in which it won't play another true home game until Nov. 12. After facing the Rams and Saints on the road, the Bucs will fly to London for a "home" date against the Panthers. Following a bye week, they'll play at Tennessee and Seattle before finally returning home to play Arizona.
Tampa Bay running back Ronald Jones II is back at the stadium where he played three mostly outstanding seasons for USC. He had more than 100 yards from scrimmage last week for the first time in his NFL career, and he might be ready for a bigger role in the offense.
"I think he has been working his tail off all offseason, and it's showing," Winston said. "All of our running backs have been running very efficient, but RoJo has been dominating. I'm proud of him, and I'm just going to keep on giving him the rock."
SAY WHAT YOU WANT
Despite missing a potential winning field goal and failing to convert two extra points (one blocked) last week, rookie kicker Matt Gay still has the support of Arians, who was asked what he would say to fans still angry about the poor performance.
"You paid your money, (so say) whatever you want to say," the coach said. "He isn't going anywhere."