Bucs need a better running game to defeat Pittsburgh

by Gary Shelton on September 22, 2018 · 2 comments

in general

Barber needs to see more daylight./CARMEN MANDATO

Saturday, 3 a.m.

At this point, you might expect the Tampa Bay Bucs to be a little sneaky.

You might expect them to run the ball.


After all, the Bucs have been pass-happy for the first two weeks of the season. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has more than 800 yards, and he's thrown for eight scores. The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, aren't the usually Steel Curtain we have come to know. After two games, the Steelers are 30th in the league against the run, giving up. 4.8 yards per carry.

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Fitzpatrick has had to carry the load for offense./CARMEN MANDATO

On the other hand, the Bucs haven't done much on the ground all year. Peyton Barber is only 116th in the NFL with an average of 2.6. Jacquizz Rogers is averaging only 2.0.

And furthermore, ouch.

"First of all, I need to call it better," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "That’s starts with us coaching-wise – I have to call it better and stick with our plan. We have to be able to run the football when we want to run the football. That’s the biggest part of it. It’s still about yards and scoring points — not turning it over and being explosive, which we have been.

"That was probably one of the most frustrating things from the game the other day. You’re not going to count on two 75-yard touchdown plays. What we do want to be able to count on is not dropping the football and not fumbling it. Those are things that we need to count on moving forward — not anticipate having two 75-yard plays because really we left some things out there with drops — or mishandling the football is the best way to put it.”

Of course, the Bucs' plan was to get an infusion from rookie running back Ronald Jones II, the team's second (38th overall) pick out of USC. But Jones had a dreadful preseason, and he's been inactive the first two weeks (he offers no help on special teams).

“He’s an improving player," Monken said. "He’s got a world of talent and he continues to work at it and have a great attitude. Right now, there’s just a few things that we feel like from a game plan standpoint and from special teams that Shaun (Wilson) gives us. That’s really what it comes down to.”

Frankly, the Bucs have never found a lot of success with their second-round running backs. Doug Martin wound up being a frustrating piece of work, a guy whose gains were measured by inches. In six of his last seven games, he averaged fewer than three yards per carry before being allowed to become a free agent (he is now with Oakland).

Still, Martin had two monster seasons, which allowed him to average 66.8 yards per game. It's the most of any runner with the Bucs.

-- There was Jimmy DuBose, the 35th overall pick in 1976. He never had a 1,000-yard season and averaged just 21.3 yards per game.

-- There was Ricky Bell, the overall first pick in 1977. He had one 1,000-yard season and lasted just three years. His output was 47.9 yards per game.

-- Johnny Davis was the 30th overall pick in 1978. He averaged 9.2 yards per game.

-- James Wilder, the 34th overall pick in 1981, had two 1,000-yard seasons. He averaged 46.6 yards per game.

-- Bo Jackson never played here. He lasted four years with the Raiders, but his legend is greater than his production. He never had a 1,000-yard season.

-- Don Smith fizzled as a second rounder (51st overall) in 1987. He averaged only 4.5 yards rushing per game.

-- Lars Tate, the 53rd overall pick in 1988, averaged 32.2 yards a game  in his brief (three-year) career.

-- Reggie Cobb, the 30th pick in 1990, had a thousand-yard season. Overall, he was good for 40.3 yards per game.

-- Errict Rhett didn't last long, either. He was the 34th overall pick in 1984. He had one thousand-yard season and accounted for 48.2 yards per game.

-- Warrick Dunn, the 12th overall pick in 1995, had five 1,000-yard seasons, but only two of them were for Tampa Bay. With the Bucs, he averaged 54.8 yards rushing per game.

-- Cadillac Williams had an abbreviated career because of injuries. The fifth overall pick in 2005, he had one 1,000-yard season. He gained 49.9 yards per game.

-- Martin, the 31st pick in 2012, had two 1400 yard seasons. But he became more tentative as a runner.

What does it mean? It means that the Bucs, once again, are wading through quicksand as they try to run the ball. Blame the backs. Blame the line. Blame the calls. But it isn't working.

In some ways, that makes it more surprising what Ryan Fitzpatrick has done at quarterback. He and his talented receivers are the more reliable way for this team to move the ball. Fitzpatrick has led the Bucs to upsets over two teams that are still above Tampa Bay in the ESPN power rankings. His downfield throws have been terrific.

“There’s a lot of different things that go into it when you’re throwing the ball down the field," Fitzpatrick said. "Clean pocket help, and we’ve had clean pockets. Receivers and quarterbacks being on the same page helps. For me, I think it’s just something that we put an emphasis on in the offseason and throughout training camp. I had mentioned before, Todd Monken with the way that he’s coaching and getting everybody right and on the same page, I think that’s been extremely helpful.

"I think I’ve also just improved over the years and it doesn’t hurt when your deep targets are the guys that I’m throwing to. They do a great job of getting behind the defense and making plays.”

Monday night football is its own special animal. But the Bucs can't afford to get lost in the stadium lights.

“I just think we have to keep our eye on what the goal is," Fitzpatrick said. "The goal is now to go 3-0. Like I said, nobody is going to take these guys lightly. This is a team that every single year, they’re in that Super Bowl hunt and in the playoffs. Obviously, they’re 0-1-1, but they’ve played well this year. It’s not like they were getting blown out in the games.

"They’ve got probably a Hall of Fame quarterback and a defense that likes to get after the quarterback in terms of sacking the quarterback, last year and even this year. They’ve done a great job, so it’s going to be a huge challenge. I don’t think it will be an issue for us to focus on this game and trying to figure out what we can do to pull out a win. It’s going to be a tough game.”

Receiver DeSean Jackson says that raw talent is always enough for a quarterback.

“One thing that’s good about him is he has good a good feel for it, dropping back and reading defenses, putting the ball where the defenders are not," Jackson said. "It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got to throw the ball 60 yards down the field. He drops back and gets it out (of) his hand. A lot it’s like 30, 40 yards down the field. It really gives you an opportunity right when you’re coming out of your break to catch the ball. If you throw it early that’s when (defenders) aren’t really ready. If you throw it later, (defenders) have time to adjust and react to the ball. So, that’s what he does (well).”

Jackson said that winning on Monday night is the goal.

“It’s been a dope ride so far," Jackson said. "I want to kind of continue to keep it going. I feel like the odds (have) been against us. No one’s really counted on us or picked us to win in the first (two) games, so just knowing that back against the wall mentality. Just trying to keep that mentality throughout the whole season and keep this up.”

“I think — once again — as professional athletes we get paid to do our job and play at a high level, so first of all you have to take that into consideration. That’s coming to work and putting it on film, the studying in the classroom, just repeatedly doing it over and over and over. As long as you’re able to do that, you’ll get your results on Sunday or Monday or Thursday or whenever you’re able to play. I think that’s what guys are doing — taking advantage of their opportunities and just putting their best foot forward.”

The Bucs are a 2 1/2 point underdog against Pittsburgh on Monday night.

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