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.

TypeAttemptsYardsAverage% of Plays
Center1424733.3334.05%
Left Guard653295.0615.59%
Right Guard551893.4413.19%
Right Tackle511563.0612.23%
Left End371343.628.87%
Left Tackle361133.148.63%
Right End311163.747.43%

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.

Pittsburgh

Green Bay

Atlanta

New England

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.

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: [email protected]
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nitey
nitey
5 years ago

I’m interested in keeping Martin but only on a revised contract. It’s pretty clear that he has the ability to be a elite running back in the NFL, but he’s clearly a Jeckle and Hyde type of running back and I’d rather see him in a complimentary role. If he’s not open to taking a pay cut, then I’d say we just go with Rodgers and Sims. We are going to draft a running back anyway.

I really like your breakdown on Hunt and wouldn’t mind the Bucs taking him with a 2nd or 3rd round choice.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan
5 years ago

Another excellent edition of your Cover 3 feature, Trevor. The running efficiency by which position or gap is attacked is an interesting analytical tool. I think that among other things, this tool shows that it’s really important to have multiple running styles, if not multiple running backs … hitting one gap too often is simply too easy to defend in the NFL where there’s simply too much talent on both the line and the linebackers and safeties to not present a multi-gap threat When he was healthy, Doug Martin could attack multiple gaps, but when injured such as this year… Read more »

EastEndBoy
EastEndBoy
5 years ago

I am all for upgrading the offense. I think we have potential (clearly in Winston and Evans) to create a real strength of our team on offense – whether it be the run-first mentality and use play-action as a weapon; or the pass-first approach with the ability to use a back for screen plays and draw plays. We are a bit of neither at the moment for many legitimate reasons. Whichever approach we choose, I still hold to a need to upgrade the Oline to match…doesn’t matter how good the Rocket from Toledo is, if he’s running into our A-gaps… Read more »

Destino102
Destino102
5 years ago

From Licht’s previous drafts, it seems he like to pair picks together. Evans and ASJ. Winston, Smith, and Marpet. Hargreaves and Spence. What I am hoping this year, is we get RB and Center. I like Hawley and the energy that he brings, but he is just too small and gets manhandled too many times. Let’s draft a Center and a RB in the later rounds, and have the Center develope before taking over maybe in 2018. As for your 2 options, T-Sikk, since I own a Doug Martin jersey, I would be happy if he stays, but as a… Read more »

Naplesfan
Naplesfan
Reply to  Destino102
5 years ago

Good point, Destino … me likey!

scubog
scubog
Reply to  Destino102
5 years ago

My Doug Martin #22 is currently in the closet “limbo” section.

Iowabucfan
Iowabucfan
5 years ago

I say let Martin walk. The Bucs are needing to find a running back anyway, since he is not available the first 3 games of the season.
Go Bucs!

Horse
Horse
5 years ago

I love your stats Trevor because it supports what I have been saying all season that we need another Center! Okay Scubog here it comes? If we don’t want to draft a Center in the high rounds then I am suggesting giving Gottschalk a shot because he did good in the preaseason games and two games he played in the regular season.

bEubanks11
bEubanks11
Reply to  Horse
5 years ago

Count me in on the belief that the addition of a great center will make all the difference in our o line play. WR, C, DT, and SPEED! Resign Gholston and get Evans long term done.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan
Reply to  Horse
5 years ago

Oh, no! The dreaded G-word!

bEubanks11
bEubanks11
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
5 years ago

No on C Pat Elfein from Ohio state?

scubog
scubog
Reply to  Horse
5 years ago

I must have missed seeing this domination by Gottschalk (who weighs less than 300#) in the pre-season games against other guys trying to make their team’s 53 but failing to do so. However, you’ve got me rooting for the kid Horse. I too would love to see an upgrade at center since, according to Trevor’s stats, we didn’t fare so well.

Horse
Horse
Reply to  scubog
5 years ago

That’s all I have been trying to say Scubog. He’s the only Center on this team I would keep; I bet he has gained already weight to meet your 300 lb requirement. I’m for signing a free agent if possible who could be a starter; if not, then we really need to draft one in rounds 2-3. Just my opinion.

bEubanks11
bEubanks11
5 years ago

I feel as though when I’m reading your articles Trevor that I’m truly getting inside info. The insight and the tools you use to get your point across are truly informative. Writing and sports are obviously 2 things you just get. You’re segments are quickly becoming my favorite and most anticipated on PR. I hope you have the stamina to keep it going at this pace! As for Martin, I have mixed feeling on him. He has talent and tenacity and ability. He’s made himself into a much better blocker and pass catcher. When I think about this team in… Read more »

Buc 1976
Buc 1976
5 years ago

Have we just given UP on Payton Barber?

Buc 1976
Buc 1976
5 years ago

Douge Martin’s MO every other year lo

chetthevette
chetthevette
5 years ago

Good stuff TS #1 that’s was a lot of technical graphs and too much math, whew. And in nut shell I took you to mean that we need some speed and some brawn in our backfield. You seem to be describing WD 40. Now the WD part is a little easier to find than the 40 part. Myself I’ve always enjoyed watching bowling ball type RB’s. Even though he played for the Aint’s on of my favorites was Iron Head Hayward. Great football name too. #2 Kid looks slippery as hell. The only problem is the hamstring injury. Seems to… Read more »

chetthevette
chetthevette
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
5 years ago

After more research ( really just goofing off ) Hunt looks pretty attractive. But I still have a man crush on Mike Williams. GRRRR
GO BUCS

SaskBucs
SaskBucs
5 years ago

Who the hell is 92 from Toledo? Let’s put that dude at RB ! Not sure what GIF that was on page 2 but wow… big boy was flying! What an effort. If the Bucs are addressing WR early, I hope they focus next on the lines maybe RB pick 4th or 5th round unless a RB is just to good to pass up I would rather shore up the fronts and go with Rodgers, Sims and Martin another year.

bEubanks11
bEubanks11
5 years ago

Is Carnell “Cadillac” Williams rehabbed from the knee yet? Loved that dude. So fun to watch, so much heart.

chetthevette
chetthevette
Reply to  bEubanks11
5 years ago

Cadillac was a really cool dude. You just could not help rooting for him. Last I heard he is really gimpy still.
GO BUCS

GoldsonAges
GoldsonAges
5 years ago

I was in full support of re-signing Martin last year but I have changed course 180. I would simply let him walk after the last season disaster. Hunt looks like a good prospect. Great combination Of power, speed, balance and agility. RB is a position like OL that is a very good use of draft resources. Every year there are starting caliber RB’s available in round 3 and beyond. Finally, Trevor I would like to welcome you to the PR World that so many of us escape to. I appreciate your writing style, in fact I am finding myself looking… Read more »

scubog
scubog
5 years ago

You are doing an outstanding job Trevor. Especially during our off-season. Looks like Scott is relying on you a lot. You’re the “Golden Boy” . As for Doug Martin, Since we still own his rights, are in a position to renegotiate his contract, probably have difficulty trading him, will have the entire off-season and Training Camp to assess the situation, will owe him nothing the first three games of 2017; I see no risk for the Bucs to at least keep him for depth if he can make the team. I do think the Bucs need to draft a feature… Read more »

Buc 1976
Buc 1976
5 years ago

Trevor I like you’re article.
Let me try to make my case for P Barber if he had stayed in College another year and increased his production 15-20 percent we probably would be talking about him in these articles with one year of NFL experience even limited as it was we do know he can play in the NFL.
I would like your take on him. GO BUCS

pinkstob
pinkstob
5 years ago

I say keep D. Martin. I’m not sure he ever regained full confidence in that hamstring after he re-injured it attempting to come back earlier in the season. I believe we’ll get a healthy, confident and hungry Martin next year and one of those is worth keeping on the team, even at $7 million in 2017. It’s not like we don’t have the cap space.

GoldsonAges
GoldsonAges
5 years ago

Martin or Adrian Peterson for $7 million?

Cody
Cody
4 years ago

Dang Trevor. What could have been.