FAB 3. Winston Still Needs A Strong Ground Game
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston had a forgettable performance in the team’s 34-17 loss at Minnesota last week with two touchdowns and three interceptions in the losing effort.
Actually, come to think of it, the performance was quite memorable indeed – as it brought up some bad memories of Winston throwing multiple interceptions in four games last year. Winston tossed four interceptions in a loss at Arizona, two picks in a loss to Denver, had three INTs in a loss at Dallas and two interceptions in a loss at New Orleans.
The absence of an effective running game in all four of those Bucs losses led to more pressure falling on the shoulders of a second-year quarterback to have to win the game. Tampa Bay didn’t rush for any more than 89 yards in any of the games in which Winston threw multiple interceptions and averaged just 74.5 yards rushing in those four contests.
The Bucs certainly didn’t have any running game at all in Minnesota with just 26 yards on nine carries, which was the fewest number of carries in a game in Tampa Bay history.
So what’s the big takeaway from this regarding Winston?
Despite being the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and despite being the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards or more in his first two seasons, Winston is not ready to carry the offense on his shoulders.
He’s not a pass-happy quarterback like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan or Philip Rivers.
Winston is becoming a great play-action passer before our eyes, but in order for play-action to work effectively the Bucs have to be able to run the football. Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter is a run-first coach that likes his quarterback to take big shots down field to accumulate explosive plays in the passing game. That plays to Winston’s strengths and makes him an ideal fit in Tampa Bay.
For Winston to be most effective the Bucs have to be able to run the ball, and this is nothing new.
What made Winston so special at Florida State – special enough to win the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman en route to winning the BCS National Championship in 2013?
Having a wide receiver who would become a first-round pick in Kelvin Benjamin helped, as did having another former NFL receiver in Rashad Greene, who finished his Seminoles career as the school’s all-time leading receiver before becoming Jacksonville’s fifth-round pick in 2015. Also having All-American tight end and John Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary, who was drafted in the sixth round by Buffalo, helped Winston move the chains and rack up touchdowns.
But what propelled Florida State’s offense to prolific heights was its ground game, especially in 2013. The Seminoles had three runners with more than 500 yards. Devonta Freeman, who was selected in the fourth round by Atlanta in 2014, led the rushing attack with 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns on 173 carries. Karlos Williams added 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 carries, while James Wilder, Jr. rushed for 563 yards and eight scores on 81 carries.
Collectively, the Seminoles rushed for 2,844 yards and 42 touchdowns on 505 yards (5.6) in their championship season. The next year after Freeman and Wilder moved on to the NFL, Florida State rushed for only 1,933 yards and 27 scores on 451 carries (4.3 avg.). While those stats would qualify for a quality running game for any major college, the Seminoles rushed for 911 less yards and 15 less touchdowns in 2014 than they did in 2013, while averaging 1.3 fewer yards per carry in the process.
Florida State was still undefeated in Winston’s second season until the Seminoles lost to Oregon in the College Football Playoff semifinal game, but Winston was called on to do more as the team broke in redshirt freshman running back Dalvin Cook, who finished his first season in Tallahassee with 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns on 170 carries.
With more of the offensive burden on his shoulders during his sophomore season with the decrease in production in the Seminoles’ ground game, Winston’s statistics fell. His QB rating slipped from 184.8 to 145.5 thanks to 150 less passing yards. Winston threw 15 less touchdowns – from 40 in 2013 to just 25 in 2014 – and saw a rise in interceptions from 10 in 2013 to 18 in his final season at Florida State.
While the number of Winston’s touchdowns increased in his second year in Tampa Bay from 22 to 28, so did the number of his interceptions. After tossing 15 interceptions as a rookie, Winston threw a league-high 18 interceptions last season – undoubtedly because of the reduced effectiveness of the Bucs’ ground game in 2016.
In 2015 the Bucs ran the ball for 2,162 yards on 455 carries, an average of 4.8 yards with 12 touchdowns. The team had 20 runs of 20 yards or more in Winston’s rookie season.
In 2016, Tampa Bay rushed for 1,616 yards on 453 carries, an average of 3.6 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. The Bucs only had five runs of 20 yards or more last year.
“When Doug is running the ball that helps Jameis,” Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson said. “When you’ve got a good running game and you’re running the football it’s going to open up stuff. It’s going to make those passing lanes look a whole lot bigger because those linebackers are going to be coming up expecting the run. The cornerbacks are going to be pressing. You’re going to have an opportunity.
“When you aren’t running the ball well those linebackers can drop deep and cornerbacks and safeties not playing the run. That makes everything tight. That’s what was bad about our last game. From the second quarter on they knew we weren’t going to be running the football. They knew it was going to be all pass. That made it a little bit harder on Jameis. That’s not his fault. That’s a team thing.”
While conventional wisdom said that the key to an improved Winston would be giving him weapons in the passing game, the real key – based on his two years in the NFL and his two years at Florida State – was actually to improve the running game.
Yet despite possessing an underachieving running game in 2016 the Bucs did little to address it in 2017 outside of anticipating the return to health for right guard J.R. Sweezy and re-signing Jacquizz Rodgers.
Instead, Tampa Bay loaded up on weapons for Winston, signing free agent DeSean Jackson to a lucrative contract and drafting tight end O.J. Howard in the first round and wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third round to complement Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate.
The thinking was that with all of those weapons it would be difficult for a team to load the box to try to stuff the run without Winston taking advantage of one-on-one coverage. That strategy may prove to be a sound one later this season as Winston continues to gain experience and grow as a passer.
But the easiest thing for a young quarterback to do is turn around and hand the ball off. A good running game sets up more manageable third downs rather than third-and-long situations. That’s what Winston really needs as he continues to develop, evidenced by what we saw in Minnesota last week.
I have a great deal of respect for Bucs general manager Jason Licht and I’m probably his more vocal supporter in the media. But I have to wonder if he isn’t secretly second-guessing some of his picks in this year’s draft when it comes to helping Tampa Bay’s struggling ground game.
Coming off a 9-7 season in 2016, it’s almost as if Licht and the Bucs assumed they would automatically be 10-6 (or better) this year with the same roster, Sweezy’s return, moving Ali Marpet to center and the additions of Jackson and defensive tackle Chris Baker in free agency.
The reason I say that is because the Bucs’ 2017 draft looks a little more curious in hindsight. Selecting Howard at No. 19 was a no-brainer – even with Cook available. I applaud Licht’s attempt at trying to trade up in the second round to acquire Cook, but his selections of safety Justin Evans in the second round and wide receiver Chris Godwin aren’t helping the team much right now and may not this season.
Evans logged just seven snaps on defense this year with those coming in mop-up duty against Chicago in a Week 1 blowout win. He had just one defensive snap in last week’s 34-17 loss at Minnesota and seems relegated for special teams duty.
Through two games Godwin has just three catches for 44 yards and is only sixth on the team in passes thrown his way.
Bucs’ Passing Game Targets In 2017
WR Mike Evans – 21
WR DeSean Jackson – 14
WR Adam Humphries – 13
TE Cameron Brate – 7
TE O.J. Howard – 4
WR Chris Godwin – 3
Meanwhile, rookie running back Kareem Hunt, Kansas City’s third-round pick this year, has taken the league by storm and leads the NFL in rushing with 401 yards, four touchdowns and an amazing 8.5 yards per carry average, in addition to nine catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Hunt, who was a PewterReport.com Bucs’ Best Bet at running back, was drafted two spots after Tampa Bay drafted Godwin.
You have to think that Licht (and every other NFL G.M. to be fair) is kicking himself for not drafting Hunt. Tampa Bay had a very high grade on Hunt, too, interviewing him at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine and then working him out privately at Toledo.
If Hunt was a Buccaneer there’s no doubt that he would be the starter over Jacquizz Rodgers right now. The Senior Bowl MVP is a special talent that seems destined for the Pro Bowl as a rookie in Kansas City.
It’s not like the former Toledo star was some hidden gem in the scouting world. The Bucs loved Hunt and didn’t pull the trigger in the second or third round. They blew it.
In hindsight, rookie running back Tarik Cohen, a fourth-round pick by Chicago, would have been a solid pick in the third round as he has 157 yards rushing and 126 yards receiving and a touchdown through three games. And Chris Carson, a seventh-round pick by Seattle, has 166 yards rushing in three games, which is more than Tampa Bay’s entire team has in two.
As of right now it looks like Licht used Tampa Bay’s second- and third-round picks to draft the fourth safety on the depth chart and the fourth receiver, too, instead of using a premium pick on a running back that could have had an opportunity for more of an impact as a rookie.
The damning thing about the Bucs waiting until the fifth round to draft Jeremy McNichols, a running back out of Boise State, isn’t just the fact that he didn’t pan out. It’s that Tampa Bay waited until the fifth round to address the running back in the draft.
That’s a curious approach because the Bucs knew that Doug Martin would miss the first three games of the season. Instead of making some wholesale changes as I suggested in the last SR’s Fab 5 of 2016 (It’s Time For Bucs To Start Over At RB), Tampa Bay stood pat and re-signed Rodgers to pair with Sims, who is in a contract year, and Peyton Barber while waiting until the fourth game of the season for Martin’s return.
“I think that we’re okay at that position,” Koetter said. “I think they’re talented players, there’s no question. Chuck [Charles Sims] is a guy that we’ve used on third downs to get the ball in space, that’s obvious, and we’ve used him in other situations running the ball. Quizz is multi-purpose and Peyton is still a young player. They’re all good players. Obviously, we don’t have Doug. Doug’s a fantastic football player; we look forward to getting him back. But we’ve got to do a great job of balancing the carries maybe a little bit more, and we’ve got to do it better all around. We’ve got to block better on the perimeter, we’ve got to block better up front, but I think we’re fine at running back.”
We’ll fully know the results of Tampa Bay’s decision to stand pat at running back around 7:00 p.m. on Sunday at the conclusion of the Bucs vs. Giants game. Now if Rodgers comes out and rushes for 100 yards against New York on Sunday, and if he and Martin team up for 100 yards versus New England on Thursday night, then this point may be moot.
But if Tampa Bay’s ground game doesn’t improve and continues to struggle, that could be an indication that Licht very well might blow up the Bucs’ backfield in 2018 and use an early pick on a running back.
Like he should have done this year.