Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
SIKKEMA’S STAT OF THE WEEK
Pound the rock.
It’s one of the most iconic phrases in football. It’s what “getting back to the basics” is all about. It’s what makes people on Twitter posts that meme of Sandra Bullock yelling “Run the dang ball!” from the movie The Blindside when their NFL team’s passing offense isn’t connecting. It’s how football began.
But how important is it now?
Of the four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs, only one of them finished the regular season in the top 5 of total rushing yards per game, the Atlanta Falcons. The New England Patriots were next at No. 7, the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t even in the top 10, and the Green Bay Packers weren’t even in the top half of the league in terms of rushing totals. Hey, the NFL is still a quarterback-driven league.
RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Each of these four teams were all over the statistical map when it came to their rushing attacks, yet here they all are in the championship round of the playoffs. So, with that known, it’s safe to say that the “just run the ball” strategies that may have worked even five years ago are no long necessary or even efficient enough to be successful. It’s not about how much you run the ball, but rather, how you do it.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the season 24th in the NFL in total rushing yards per game with barely over 100. But what was even more troubling was that they finished even worse in their yards per carry average, 3.6, which ranked 28th in the league.
This left a lot of fans asking questions like, who’s to blame for this? Was it injury-prone Doug Martin? Perhaps it was the rest of the running back committee after he went down – after all, the Patriots and Packers are in their championship games with the most non-traditional running backs you can have. Or maybe it was on the offensive line?
The answer to those questions is a bit complex. It’s not about who failed. It’s about who’s not there (and I don’t mean injuries). It’s not about just running the ball better, it’s about marrying a running game to a passing game, which doesn’t always mean running the ball 30-35 times per game.
It’s not about controlling the clock, it’s about controlling the scoreboard. It’s about having a game plan in place and the players to execute it that allow a team to do whatever they need to do at any point in the game because they’ve kept the defense honest and guessing the whole time. It’s about running to set up the pass, and passing to set up a run. This is what allows for an offense to be dynamic.
So what does that look like for the Bucs, or, perhaps more of an accurate question would be: Why didn’t that happen for the Bucs in 2016? To answer that, let’s take a look at their usage and effectiveness in the run game from last season broken up by position.
|Type||Attempts||Yards||Average||% of Plays
The table above shows the position and success rate the Bucs had while running the ball in 2016. The glaring number of percentages and total plays in that chart come from the center position. That isn’t too uncommon. Most teams in the NFL use the A gap (going either right at or right next to the center) as their primary target when running the ball. It’s the shortest path to the line for scrimmage, so that certainly makes sense.
All that is fine for that phrases we talked about in the first paragraph when establishing the run, but after the run is established, is having that high of a percentage of plays toward the middle of the trench still the most effective way to compliment a passing attack? When comparing these advance statistics with some of the more successful teams in the league, the answer is: no.
Though the Packers and Patriots both finished outside of the top 10 in total rushing yards per game, when you re-sort that statistic to how many rushing yards per attempt they had, the Patriots were the only current playoff team that did not have a carry average above 4.3.
So now that we know those team, though their total rushing yards per game were lower than most, are still in the top half and even in the elite category when it comes to rushing efficiency, let’s see how they ran the ball compared to how the Bucs did so in 2016.
So what numbers stick out there the most? If you ask me, New England’s numbers make sense because their chart is very similar to that of the Buccaneers is which explains their low efficiency. However, when you give them one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game along with the best coach to ever coach the game – with a relatively easy schedule – that explains why they’re still in the final four.
Pittsburgh is also a bit of anomaly, to me, since the Steelers have Le’Veon Bell. In the 14 weeks Bell played this season, no running back had more yards than he did. He truly is one of the best, if not the best, running back in the league right now, and to try to emulate what that team is doing around a talent like Bell just isn’t plausible.
So that leaves us with Green Bay and Atlanta. These are two teams that have very good quarterbacks, yes, but, that kind of quarterback is who Jameis Winston was drafted to be. So when we talk about building an offense towards its optimum success with the quarterback that’s in place, those are two teams at the top of the league the Bucs should try to be like in terms of their run-to-pass compliment.
With that in mind, the category in their charts that sticks out when matched up with what the Bucs are doing is not only how often they’re running the ball towards the outside, but how affected they remain in doing it.
When you look at Atlanta and Green Bay’s runs-by-position columns, both teams have runs at or around the left and right ends in their top three most used category. The Bucs, on the other hand, have both of those categories in the bottom three of their chart. The reason both of those playoff teams are running to the outside so much because of it’s big-play potential. When running the ball to either the end or the tackle positions, Atlanta and Green Bay have a yards per carry average of 5.21 and 4.85 respectively, which is very high.
Now, that’s to be expected, right? If you constantly run the ball to the center or guard, you’re capping your big play potential. If you have a ball carrier who can kick it to the outside effectively and regularly, there are going to be less defenders to make tackles, and therefore, more yards to eat up – more of a chance for big plays.
But that’s just it. The Packers have a converted deep threat receiver, Ty Montgomery, as their main running back and he knows how to get into open space. The Falcons have two of the more explosive running backs in the NFL in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
This is the next step towards a dynamic offense for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This offseason it’s Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter’s jobs to find a ball carrier who knows how to take the rock to the outside and then head north and south with it. If you ask me, this is just as important as adding another receiving weapon for Winston.
Bucs RB Jacquizz Rodgers – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
Such a running back in the game plan would make the box thinner, would render power lineman useless, would spread the middle of the field, and might even open up the deep ball if a safety is needed to cover such a running back. This type of game plan also boosts receiving tight end play as we’ve seen from the rise of Levine Toilolo in Atlanta and Jared Cook in Green Bay. We know the Bucs like the production they got from tight end Cameron Brate this season. Finding a dynamic, outside runner would allow them to get even more creative with tight end mismatches.
Both the Falcons and the Packers have two of the best offenses in the NFL, and while Winston is not yet Ryan or Rodgers yet, this team should be building as if he is going to be in the conversation with those guys soon. If he’s not, none of this matters anyway.
Koetter talks about explosive plays a lot when making emphasis points for this offense. Jacquizz Rodgers is a nice back, and I like the idea of bringing him back at the right price because he’s always fighting for – and getting – those extra yards on runs to the center and guard (which are still needed). But he’s not a bounce-to-the-outside-and-make-something-happen back; neither is Charles Sims; and neither is Martin on a regular basis.
So who can be?
Well, if the Bucs chose to find that solution in the draft, here’s a prospect who fits that criteria.