As passer-friendly as the NFL’s become over the years, running the football is a frequent topic among coaches and players around One Buccaneer Place: establishing it on offense and stopping it on defense.
Tampa Bay heads to Washington this weekend where they’ll face a Redskins team with a similar focus when the ball’s in its hands.
“We’re two teams that say we need to run, we want to run, we want to have balance,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said. “When we talk about balance you know you are going to have to throw the ball, but it’s the ones that are committed to the run. They’re committed to the run. I know when things don’t go the way you want them to, that’s the easiest thing to do is try to establish that run. We realize that. We cannot let any team run the football against us.”
And while the effectiveness of lead back Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones has been uneven through six games, the duo seems to play its best on the grass of FedEx Field.
All three of Washington’s most-productive days toting the rock came at home, going for 161 against Miami, 182 against St. Louis and 127 against Philadelphia. That’s an average of 156.7 yards per home game. The New York Jets – leading the NFL on the ground overall – are picking up 146.0 a game. The Redskins are also 2-1 during those home games, as opposed to 0-3 away from Landover when they’ve failed to crack 100 yards rushing each time.
“Coach [Jay] Gruden said in their two wins they ran the ball,” said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, making reference to Washington’s head coach. “I think they were averaging like 150 yards in those two wins. We definitely have to be on it.”
Bottling up the run hasn’t been a strength of this year’s Tampa Bay defense, though that unit is coming off its best performance of the season against Jacksonville before the bye. Opponents combined to gash the Bucs for 136.8 yards a game before they limited the Jaguars to just 55.
Sunday will be Washington’s first home game since its Week 4 victory over Philadelphia and the Redskins are coming off their two worst rushing performances of the season. Morris, Jones and third-down back Chris Thompson combined to produce 85 yards on the ground during road losses against Atlanta and the Jets.
Thompson injured his back Sunday in New York and hasn’t practiced all week and Jones – a former Florida Gator and Armwood High Hawk – is coming off a toe injury that kept him out last week.
Morris has started all six games this season, although the fourth-year back’s numbers continue to decline slowly ever since breaking out with a 1,613-yard, 13-touchdown rookie season in 2012. Morris is turning in career-low averages in carries per game (14.2), yards per game (49.5) and yards per carry (3.5).
Those numbers still aren’t shifting McCoy’s attention away from what Morris and Co. are capable of, though.
“Morris has been that guy since he came into the league, and he’s been a solid runner,” McCoy said. “You know what you’re going to get with him. And Matt Jones, he’s coming downhill so you better bring it when he has the ball in his hands.”
Jones is listed as probable for Sunday and participated fully in practice all week. He enjoyed his best day as a pro when he rumbled for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries Week 2 against St. Louis.
Gruden spoke during Wednesday’s conference call with the Tampa Bay media about what Jones adds to the Redskins offense and the organization’s emphasis on the run.
“We saw that [Jones] was a big, tough, physical runner in college,” Gruden said. “He’s a Tampa guy, I know that very well. We’re excited about him. He’s put a couple balls on the ground, but he runs hard and he’s a physical runner and he’s a great complement to Alfred [Morris]. When we’re at our best, those two guys are getting their touches, and when we’re not, those guys aren’t getting enough touches. That’s important for us to establish a run game. Alfred is still the lead dog, but bringing in a fresh Matt Jones – as big as he is, as physical as he is, to run with power and speed on the outside – he’s a great weapon for us and hopefully he’ll be healthy come Sunday.”
When it comes to slowing the tandem, the Bucs’ interior defensive line may have a slightly different look in Washington. Backup defensive tackle Tony McDaniel was ruled out this afternoon and Akeem Spence, out all year with an injury, may make his season debut.
If Spence doesn’t return Sunday, the Bucs could be dressing three players at the defensive tackle position – starters McCoy and Clinton McDonald, and Henry Melton. Head coach Lovie Smith would not reveal if Spence is ready to come back but spoke positively about his status and that three active tackles is not an issue.
“We like the flexibility to be able to do that,” Smith said about adding Spence to the active roster. “You want options as much as anything. He’s looked pretty good at practice this week.
“You need two to play, so two with a backup you’re okay with that. Yes.”