When head coach Lovie Smith came to Tampa Bay earlier this year, a style of football he described as “Buc Ball” was coming to town with him.
That entailed the usual, boilerplate hype of playing hard and fast and physical, but it specifically meant running the football often and with success.
Through 10 games, that hasn’t exactly materialized.
Tampa Bay’s currently 28th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, averaging 85.8 on 21.7 carries. The Bucs as a team have topped 100 yards rushing three times, against Carolina, St. Louis and Cleveland, and failed to reach at least 70 five times, against Atlanta in Week 3, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Minnesota and Washington.
Despite the struggles on the ground, the coaching staff and players say there is still a commitment to getting on track during the season’s final six games.
“We’re not going to stop trying to build that foundation, we’re going to continue to try and do it,” said quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, the team’s acting offensive coordinator. “You can’t stop doing it, we’re not going to stop doing it or stop trying to find a way to get the crew in the back there with the crew in the front within the scheme and do things that are going to help evolve our run game. Because being one-dimensional is not going to be what we’re interested in.”
Injuries and inconsistent playing time can be pointed to as reasons for the Bucs’ rushing statistics hovering near the bottom of the league. Bobby Rainey is the lone running back to appear in all 10 games this season and leads Tampa Bay in carries (92), yardage (392) and rushing average per attempt for backs with at least 20 (4.3).
“Running backs usually like getting in more of a rhythm,” Rainey said earlier this week about the challenges of being the featured back one week and in more of a backup role the next. “Sometimes it takes a few more carries to get in that rhythm, but if not you have to take what you’re given and make the best of it.”
Tampa Bay’s been coy about dinged-up running back Doug Martin’s availability this Sunday, but his addition to the backfield mix of Rainey, rookie Charles Sims and Mike James means an extra set of arms for handoffs looking for touches.
“Four guys available, it’s pretty hard to dress four running backs [and] three tight ends as you look across the board, but we like having those decisions,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s tough in a way, but in a way it’s really not. That’s why practice is so important. And we knew that we should have everybody back this week, so we’ve been paying close attention and have a plan we feel comfortable with.”
Rainey doesn’t mask his belief that he can carry the primary rushing load every week, but he’s ready and willing to fill whatever role the team needs if it leads to success.
“We’ve got a three-headed monster now,” Rainey said. “Doug’s back and we’ve got Charles and myself. So that limits the reps more now, but you’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given.
“You’ve got to look at other spots that you can help out as well, whether they be on offense or special teams,” he continued. “If you’re not getting a lot of offense then you try to get a lot on special teams and find a way to help the team as much as possible. That’s what I look forward to. I don’t know how this week’s going to go, but if not I’ll do more on special teams.
Rainey’s made the most of his sporadic usage in the run game. He’s registered double-digit carries three times this season and is averaging 90.7 yards in those contests and 5.2 yards per attempt. Bucs quarterbacks have also looked to Rainey as a reliable target out of the backfield, leading the third-year pro to become the team’s third-leading receiver, with 27 receptions for 256 yards.
Sims was forced to sit out the first half of the season because of a broken bone in his foot and has yet to make an impact the past two weeks. The rookie out of West Virginia has picked up just 2.8 yards per carry for a total of 59 yards on 21 attempts.
Martin hasn’t fared much better than Sims while battling through various injuries all year. His 166 yards on 58 carries is good for just a 2.9-yard average and questions about his future with the team have been slowly growing louder as the season progresses.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith spoke about needing to get the run game going early so the backs can establish that rhythm Rainey referred to, and to inspire confidence in the coaching staff to stick with the ground game.
“I think it’s a feel thing,” Dietrich-Smith said. “Just like anybody else, if you get out there and start shooting 3’s and they’re not really working for you, you’re going to shy away from it in basketball. But it’s one of those deals when we’re able to get the backs in an early rhythm you’re going to have a lot more success.
“From what I see in the league, sometimes you see a lot of people where maybe it’s not working right off the bat but then in the second quarter they find a run that starts hitting real good for them and then all of a sudden it starts resurgence. So it’s kind of a feel thing, but as an offensive line you want to give the play caller confidence right off the bat that he can pretty much dial up whatever he wants and you can go with it.”
The Bucs are taking on a Chicago team ranked 15th in the league against the run (110.9 yards per game) and 19th in total defense (367.3 yards per game). Six of the Bears’ 10 opponents have eclipsed the century mark rushing this season, including three of the past four.
When asked about a Buccaneer tailback emerging this season as a clear-cut featured back, Smith said he’s waiting for someone to do so with a breakout game. Rainey’s the only player to have that type of day this year when he gashed St. Louis for 144 yards on 22 carries.
“I think they will but you just have to look at how it’s all played out,” Smith said. “Charles Sims, out to start the season. Doug’s fought through injuries. So to me right now if you continue to play guys they’ll tell you all that. Bobby’s had his moments. Mike James has kind of moved into his role.
“But yes, we would like to see one of our running backs rush for about 200 yards and he becomes the bell-cow. Doug is back this week and that’s a good thing. He’s looked pretty good in practice and we feel good about that group, whichever three or four we go with.”