After struggling to run the football for weeks, the Bucs’ 30th-ranked rushing attack exploded to life against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, propelling the team to a 46-23 victory and a 7-3 record.
How did it happen? Who deserves the credit for the sudden emergence of a Tampa Bay ground game that has averaged just over three yards per carry over the past three weeks of action before Sunday’s 210-yard performance against the Panthers?
Ronald Jones II will get most of the love, and he’s certainly deserving. The second-year running back made some great plays with the ball in his hands, just as it looked like he’d used up the last of his nine lives in a Bucs uniform after a fumble on the second play of the game. But a dominant performance by the Bucs offensive line and some wrinkles by the Tampa Bay coaching staff were key catalysts in opening things up for Jones’ big day.
One thing the Bucs consistently did was use motion in the run game, either to give them a play-side numbers advantage when the Panthers were in man coverage, or to force defenders to shift and still communicate and maintain proper gap assignments.
On this G/T Counter, the Bucs move tight end Rob Gronkowski across the formation to the backside, bringing the strong safety with him. Now they’ve got the numbers they want play-side to run this counter against the Panthers under front. Right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle Tristan Wirfs maul the 3-technique, with Wirfs quickly working down to the backside linebacker.
On the pull, left guard Ryan Jensen is the kick out man, popping Brian Burns out just enough despite a solid box technique from the second-year edge defender. Because Wirfs has created such exceptional movement on the 3-technique, left tackle Donovan Smith has the hole he wants to work through to get the play-side linebacker and give Jones clear sailing to the second level. Textbook stuff by the Bucs offensive line.
Sidebar: I love G/T counter and wish the Bucs ran it more often.
The play below is a second-and-10 run, which I hate because statistics show it is one of the lowest percentage plays you can run in football. But the Panthers are totally unprepared for the run, with Jeremy Chinn as the lone linebacker in the box behind Carolina’s over front. The Panthers are thinking pass all the way here, as linebacker Shaq Thompson begins to flare to the flat and the play-side defensive end flies way up the field off the snap.
Even nose tackle Derrick Brown is lost, going from the playside A-gap to the backside B-gap as the Bucs interior offensive line rolls over top of his position to get playside. Chinn never steps up, making it an easy block for Jensen at the second level. Check out the numbers game pre-snap though: from the center over, the Bucs have three blockers for three defenders, which quickly becomes three over two once Brown is scooped by the backside guard (Cappa).
Those are the kind of numbers you want to run to, and that’s hard to do when every other run is in the A-gap. You don’t have to be an outside running team to not run up the center’s back every play. Some lateral flow in your run concepts can go a long way when trying to get the ball in the B and C gaps. These huge, eight yards on second down set up third-and-short on the Bucs’ first touchdown drive of the game.
But if Tampa Bay wants to truly get outside outside with its run game, the Bucs’ best shot has been this crack toss play that they’ve worked into the offense sparingly over the past few weeks. Motion by Gronkowski pushes the Panthers to call the strength to the tight end, and adjust their front late. They slide to an over front once again, which gives the Bucs more favorable angles play-side to make all of their blocks, especially if their wide receivers can hold up on the edge.
Many things to note here:
• The late rotation of the defensive tackles makes it easy for Cappa to work down to the second level and cut off the backside linebacker.
• Center A.Q. Shipley does an outstanding job to scoop the 1-technique and stay on him.
• Again, because of the motion and the Panthers’ late adjustment to their front, Jensen now has an open play-side gap and a clear path to the second level, where he perfectly picks off Chinn in space.
• Excellent work by the receivers on their cracks. Not looking to ear hole anyone or over-commit and pick up a holding flag trying to hang on for dear life, but rather just push those guys down the line of scrimmage or run them up-field, as Tyler Johnson shows by sticking on his man.
• Donovan Smith! A tackle being able to crush a cornerback in space like that is not easy, but Smith’s power and athleticism are on full display on this rep. He obliterates Panthers cornerback Troy Pride Jr., paving the way for a big Leonard Fournette gain on third-and-short.
The use of motion was huge for the Bucs’ run game on Sunday, catching the Panthers in a late shift of their front on multiple occasions. In the play below, Carolina again wants to play from that over front, but Brown, the rookie tackle, gets caught unprepared as he slides over to the 3-technique, allowing Cappa to knock him over and roll him up out of the gap.
The result is a massive hole that could bust open big-time if Fournette hits it on time, especially with Jensen doing a great job working to the second level and Mike Evans working down on the safety with a good block.
But, alas, Fournette’s vision remains a befuddling mystery, as he diverts from the open hole to cut this run backside into the only unblocked defender for a one-yard gain. It’s plays like this that make us understand why Jones is still the starting running back in Tampa Bay.
On Jones’ 98-yard touchdown, motion again destroyed the integrity of the Panthers defense. As wide receiver Chris Godwin comes across the formation to add another gap that the Carolina defense has to account for to the boundary side of the field, linebacker Tahir Whitehead moves with him to the strength of the formation. The result is 4-on-4 in the box from the center over to the tight end on the left side of the Bucs offense, which is the numbers you want to run against offensively.
Someone definitely messed up for the Panthers, but I’m not totally sure who it was. Someone smarter than me could probably tell you, but the fact that they are in two-high safeties against 13 personnel with the Bucs backed up against their own goal line, even if both defenders are rolled up a bit, is pretty questionable. Carolina should have gone single high safety and loaded up the box with an extra defender.
Simply put, everyone on the offensive line does his job perfectly here. Smith cuts off the 5-technique, Jensen gets to the second level, has nobody to block at first, then manhandles the strong safety buzzing into the box and Shipley handles the nose well enough.
Jones does a terrific job seeing the nose shoot to the opposite A-gap, working right downhill at the defender before cutting at the last moment. The vision, timing and footwork to hit this run perfectly by Jones is simply outstanding. Then he shows off the balance to make the free safety miss in the open field, and then it’s off to the races. You can clearly see the outstanding talent that makes Jones so alluring as a runner if he can ever iron out the inconsistencies and develop the rest of his skill set.
As the game went on, Jones’ natural talent began to flash more and more. The Bucs ran a counter play in the second half that Panthers linebacker Tahir Whitehead sniffed out wonderfully, but Jones still found a way to create a big gain.
The left side of the Bucs offensive line demolishes the right side of the Panthers defensive line, but because of the pile up, no one is able to get to the second level to block Whitehead. With Cappa pulling across to kick out the force defender, safety Juston Burris, Jones obviously wants to cut this run right in behind his guard. Whitehead’s presence causes him to commit a huge no-no as a running back on counter, bouncing outside the kicked-out defender.
It works, however, due to Jones’ burst and the fact that the Panthers have a safety setting the edge, who gets totally overwhelmed by Cappa’s block and can’t disengage. These are the rules you can break when you have Jones’ talent as a runner, and when the defense, well, sucks.
More creating by Jones late in the game. The Bucs again dismantle the Panthers front line, with Cappa knocking Brown to his knees again. But the Panthers’ run blitz from the backside causes another pile-up in the A-gaps, and nobody can get free to work to Thompson at the second level.
Jones simply makes the defender miss in the hole, bouncing outside of some quality blocks by Wirfs and Antony Auclair. Godwin gets enough of the cornerback to allow Jones to slip upfield for a big gain. It’s a team effort, but Jones’ ability to create when things break down is one of the characteristics as a runner that sets him apart from Fournette, even if that trait isn’t always on display.
Running for over 200 yards on an opponent in the NFL is always a testament to more than one guy, as the Bucs’ big victory over the Panthers has shown. The revamped Tampa Bay offensive line, playing without its best player in left guard Ali Marpet, got the job done in a big way and on a variety of different run schemes. A lot of credit goes to the coaches, who implemented motion heavily to confuse and disorient the Panthers defensive fronts, allowing the Bucs to run to advantageous play-side numbers on a consistent basis.
But Jones deserves plenty of love, too. On a day where it seemed another mistake might finally cost him further opportunities to prove his worth, the third-year back rebounded from an early fumble to put forth one the best performance of his young career. Jones may always be a maddening player, but on Sunday he was our maddening player, helping carry the Bucs to a crucial victory.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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