An intriguing fight is shaping up along the line of scrimmage Sunday when the Bucs' offense takes the field at Raymond James Stadium.
The Rams lead the NFC with 41 sacks, but Tampa Bay's revamped offensive line has been stout this season in protecting Josh Freeman.
Despite losing Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph (knee) and Carl Nicks (toe) to season-ending injuries, the Bucs have yielded only 21 sacks and rookie RB Doug Martin needs 295 yards in the final two games to break James Wilder's single-season franchise record of 1,544 rushing yards.
"I think we're holding up well," said RT Demar Dotson, who faces a tough challenge Sunday against DE Chris Long, who has 7.5 sacks and 40 QB pressures. "We've got two Pro Bowlers who aren't here and nobody gave us a shot. I think we did all right."
In the absence of Nicks and Joseph, veterans Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah have stepped up their leadership roles.
"You have two guys that are the rocks of the line after we lost Davin and Carl," head coach Greg Schiano said. "We've rolled some different guys through. Donald will be the first one to tell you Davin Joseph was our heart and soul on the offensive line. We lose him in the New England preseason game and you have to adjust. You have two choices — you can either lay down or you can grow."
Hear no evil, read no evil
Freeman's ability to one day lead the Bucs back to the Super Bowl or even just the playoffs has become a hotly debated topic in Tampa, but Freeman says he has barely heard a whisper of it.
"It's funny because one of my friends asked me about an article he read or something, but to be honest with you, I'm completely disconnected from it," Freeman said of the chatter.
Freeman said he tries not to be swayed by "opinions that don't matter," because they tend to become distractions and he can't afford to let them alter his focus or preparation.
"I'm not saying the fans don't matter because you want to go out and put a great product on the field for them," Freeman said. "But there is nothing they can say or do that will affect me in a positive way or help me in my preparation. You see a lot of guys who get caught up in that and maybe they lose confidence in what got them (here) in the first place. So I'm working, I'm battling. You guys can argue it up, but I have one focus."
DE Aaron Morgan (shoulder) is the only Bucs player who may be unavailable for Sunday's matchup. … During the past six weeks, Tampa Bay opponents have converted 42 of 85 (49.4 percent) of their third-down situations. … Sam Bradford of the Rams has thrown only three of his 18 TD passes on third down.
Ira Kaufman, Roy Cummings