For the third time in four games, the Rams on Sunday will face an opposing quarterback who was selected No. 1 in the NFL draft.
A foot injury slowed Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, and the Rams clamped down on Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns.
Now the Rams will try to neutralize the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Jameis Winston.
Winston was the first pick in 2015 NFL draft. Unlike Newton and Mayfield — and Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater of the New Orleans Saints — the Rams are facing a quarterback with a penchant for throwing longer passes.
“Big arm,” Rams safety John Johnson said. “Probably the biggest we’ve faced. ... A guy like him, you’ve got to get to him mentally because physically he can do it all.”
Winston starred at Florida State, won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to a national title.
But the Buccaneers, absent from the playoffs since 2007, have finished above .500 only once in Winston’s four seasons. They were 5-11 in 2017 and again in 2018 before Bruce Arians replaced the fired Dirk Koetter as coach. The Buccaneers are 1-2 this season.
The 6-foot-4, 231-pound Winston is completing 60% of his passes, five for touchdowns, with four interceptions. He has been sacked 10 times.
“He’s a big-bodied guy that’s not going to let you take him down easy,” Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “So he’s going to try and fight you off and make plays down the field.”
Winston most often looks for star wide receiver Mike Evans, who in March signed a five-year, $82.5-million extension. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans has 14 receptions, three for touchdowns.
Winston is “not really a scrambler,” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. But his presence and movement inside and out of the pocket enable Evans and others to get open.
“Sometimes the plays take a little longer because of that, but he finds the guy open or he just chucks it deep to Evans and he catches it,” Phillips said. “That’s a problem for you. He throws the quick pass too ... but he can extend plays long enough to try to bomb you.”
Winston has competed passes of 55, 44 and 41 yards to Evans.
“You could have a guy double-covered, and he’ll give Mike Evans a chance,” Rams cornerback Aqib Talib said.
Winston, however, has struggled at times.
He saw three of his passes get intercepted during a season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He was more efficient in a victory over the Panthers and in last week’s 32-31 loss to the New York Giants.
“The last two ball games, he has been really solid,” Arians said, adding, “Overall, I’m really pleased. He’s playing. It’s just getting the guys around him to play better.”
Like Evans, receiver Chris Godwin has 14 catches, two for touchdowns. Tight end O.J. Howard has seven receptions.
The group will be another challenge for a Rams secondary that performed well in victories over the Panthers, Saints and Browns.
The strong play was continuation of last season’s finish, when the secondary played well in playoff wins over the Dallas Cowboys and the Saints and in the 13-3 Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.
“It’s kind of carried over some,” Phillips said.
Talib and fellow cornerback Marcus Peters helped control Saints receiver Michael Thomas and Browns receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Phillips continues to place blame on himself for Peters’ struggles through much of the first nine games in 2018.
“We didn’t play to his strengths,” Phillips said.
Talib also sat out eight games last season because of an ankle injury and did not return until a December victory over the Detroit Lions.
But Talib and Peters, both acquired in trades before the 2018 season, have been in sync through the first three games this season.
Talib played under Phillips with the Denver Broncos. He has long known the intricacies of the veteran coach’s 3-4 system. Peters is in his second year, so the cornerbacks’ communication is improved, Talib said.
“We can say a lot less, because we know what each other’s going to do when we’re on the same side and things like that,” he said.
Said Peters: “It just comes from us being around each other for a year now. We know each other.”