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(s) of the Week
You know, it wasn’t too long ago – okay, maybe it was a long time ago – that the game of football didn’t even have passing attacks.
Back in the late 1800’s, Yale and Princeton would be rebels and “illegally” run forward pass plays before it was even instituted into the game’s official rules – those darn nerds. In 1905, The Chicago Tribune reported that 159 players had been seriously injured because of the game of football, and 18 people had even been killed. Because of this, schools participating in the game at the “highest level” formed a Rules Committee that tried to make the game more safe. So, if you want to blame us no longer knowing what a catch is on someone, this is where it starts – kidding, mostly. One of the rules that they implemented was the forward pass, which helped balance out the game. It was then that the game became complimentary.
I say all that to digress a bit and remind you that running the football is quite literally football at its core. Nothing is more football that handing the ball off and running it forward. At that point, it’s just strength versus strength and who can push a pile more. When the game introduced the forward pass that meant that there was a new kind of balance that could exists and that different types of skill sets could not thrive within the game, even if they weren’t the kind that contained the most brute force.
Now we’re in an age where the air raid is all the rage. We’re starting to see teams at both the college and pro level go more four-wide, five-wide, hell, even have linemen and tight ends off the line and be eligible to bring deception and thin out a defense. The top teams in terms of passing yards this season were the Patriots, Steelers, Saints, Rams and Chiefs. Those were teams that averaged the five most passing yards per game, and it’s no coincidence that each of those teams were also in the Top 8 of the NFL in terms of total points score, as well.
So, what does any of that have to do with running the ball? Each of those five teams has quarterbacks who can get it done, and most of which have gotten it done for a long time, Jared Goff of L.A. being the exception. But, though the game of football has gone through its phases, and we are entering into a phase where aerial attacks are the preferred method of scoring, complimentary football still holds its value.
That’s where the run game comes in and remains.
Of those five teams, only one of them was in the Top 10 of rushing attempts per game as well. Expanding it even further, only two of them were in the Top 10 in total rushing yards per game. Does that mean the running game really doesn’t matter that much to have a Top 10 offense? No, and this is why of those five teams, though the majority of them were not in the Top 10 in rushing attempts or even rushing yards, four out of the five teams listed were in the Top 10 in rushing yard efficiency statistics and the one that wasn’t (Pittsburgh) has arguably the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell, whom it used in different ways. The common denominator with the Top 5 offenses in the NFL is that not only were they all Top 10 in passing yards, but they were also Top 10 in running back efficiency.
Let’s bring in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were fourth in the NFL in passing yards per game. They were higher than the Saints, the Steelers and the Chiefs. But, the Bucs were also 27th in the league in rushing efficiency. That’s why instead of seeing the Buccaneers passing attack be rewarded with a Top 5 or even Top 10 scoring offense, instead they were ranked No. 18.
You can throw out whatever scenarios you want and they will all likely be valid, in some degrees. Jameis Winston’s injury, Winston’s garbage time, a bad defense, an inconsistent offensive line, a failing kicking game. All of those things did play a role into filling that No. 18 scoring offense, but I believe the lack of a complimentary rushing attack is what hurt this team the most when it came to closing games out and getting into the end zone.
Let’s examine the cast of characters. Doug Martin is toast in Tampa Bay. I don’t even think he’s that bad of running back, even at his age (29), but for the contract the Bucs gave him and how ineffective he was behind the offensive line, his 2.9 yards per carry average can’t be counted on.
Then there’s Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers, who will be 28 in 2018, had a 3.8 yards per carry average, but was used more on special teams than in the run game. When he came in on offense it was either because of injury or fatigue.
Charles Sims is the team’s all-time third-down back, which I sort of have a problem with. I don’t blame Sims as much I do the role he’s being put in. Sims is always the running back on third down, it doesn’t matter the down and distance. Because Sims rarely ever gets the ball in a hand off, that takes away from any play-action disguise or even run in a short-yardage situation. That’s not complimentary football; that’s predictable football. Finally we have Peyton Barber, Barber came in and brought a spark to this offense with a 3.9 yards per carry average. I thought he was the Bucs’ most efficient back to end the year, though his workload continued to be cluttered with the other three backs.
Right now, the Bucs have running back talent, but I don’t think it’s in any way complimentary. I think they’re predictable in how they choose to use each, and the fact that they have a four-deep rotation tips teams off to how they’re going to play with each in the game. My suggestion: simplify the running back depth chart and use the guys who are at the top. Don’t play all four running backs just because you have them. Have a plan that can be effective and efficient on the ground on first-and-10, second-and-6, third-and-2 any anything in between anywhere on the field. If you have an efficient run game, sometimes you don’t even have to run the ball for them to make an impact. Just asked the top scoring teams in the NFL.
Martin is due $7 million dollars in 2018, but if he’s cut before June 1st, the team saves all that cap space. The same can be said with Rodgers, who has one year left on his deal, but would save the team $1.6 million in cap if cut before June 1st. Barber is an exclusive right free agent, so he isn’t going anywhere, and Sims is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so he is free to sign wherever he pleases, perhaps back in Tampa Bay.
You have to think the team going to move on from Martin. Right now he’s the fourth highest paid running back in the NFL, and that just does not add up to his production. If the team committed the running game to Martin totally, that’s one thing, but it doesn’t. I can understand the points of bringing back Sims and/or Rodgers for special teams and just because they’re familiar with the depth chart, but as stated before, if they do that, I think they’re bringing back a predictable rotation and an unhealthy running game overall.
So what if the only running back Tampa Bay choses to keep on the roster for 2018 is Barber? They’ll need to find one or two backs elsewhere.
Here are the top 20 free agent running backs for 2018, via OTC.
|Player||Pos.||2017 Team||2018 Team||Type||Current APY ▾||Guarantees|
Let’s go into this thinking that there is the top running back spot to fill, or, at the very least, someone who can play with Barber in a two-man rotation.
Le’Veon Bell is obviously the main target for any team looking to upgrade its rushing attack, but with Mike Evans’ contract looming and Winston’s coming the year after, the Bucs likely can’t afford him.
My personal favorite target on this list is Dion Lewis. I have no idea why the Patriots went away from Lewis once he got back from his injury, and he’s proven that decision to be silly, as he’s coming on strong over the last half of the season. Lewis would be a perfect replacement for Sims, if the Bucs were to move on, and would be a good compliment to Barber. Lewis is not only a third-down back who can be a difference maker in the passing game, but can also get it done on the ground with a very healthy 5.0 yards per carry average in 2017 and a 4.8 yards per carry average throughout his career – and that’s not even to mention how good he is in the passing game.
If you ask me, Lewis could be a huge boost to what the Buccaneers should be trying to do with their rushing attack, and would be a starter who could play in any situation on any down, leaving Barber to be a great compliment to him (like LeGarrette Blount was) and a great compliment to the passing game overall.
If they can’t snag Lewis and are still looking to get themselves a feature rusher, this running back would be my top target for the Buccaneers in the 2018 NFL Draft…