Why the Buccaneers’ running game is stuck in the mud
The Bucs need a running game, and haven’t had one all season.
Under Dirk Koetter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ pass blocking is never a disaster as he has learned how to mitigate a lack of talent along the offensive line. His weakness is at run blocking with those same talents. In 2015, veteran Logan Mankins came into camp in shape and his leadership had the whole offensive line in sync for run blocking. Unfortunately, Mankins retired after the season.
There was a lot of promise coming into the season. Left tackle Donovan Smith’s late season play was ranked very highly by Pro Football Focus. The organization decided to move right guard Ali Marpet to center and insert a healthy JR Sweezy at right guard. Young left guard Kevin Pamphile should improve after another season under his belt. Finally, there were hopes that right tackle Demar Dotson would regain his form.
Also, the thought of Doug Martin running behind that line healthy would be an added boon. (Although, I thought Martin was running the same way he did last year as he did in 2015. But more on that later in this article.)
After eight games, we can reflect on the offensive line play.
The pass blocking has been relatively good for most of the season, with only two average performances out of the eight games, per Football Outsiders’ metrics. They have been trending upwards in performance until last week. Again, HC Koetter has always had a way to have very good pass blocking.
The overall ranking had been trending downward since week 4. Although the run blocking unit finally fell to average in week 8, they have ranked as a better than average unit for most of the year.
I like to look deeper into stats because sometimes they do tell a different story. What is odd is that the Power ranking is worse than the Stuff rankings for most of the season. If one is not getting stopped at the line of scrimmage (LOS) or behind it, then one should expect to have equal or better production in short yardage situations.
Reason why this oddity occurred is that the Bucs running backs are generating yards after contact. Usually, the running backs are getting hit in the backfield and gaining yards afterwards to prevent a stuff, but then coming up short to gain enough yards for a first down.
Here are a few quotes from Pewter Reports reporting what PFF recorded.
Week 4 PPF notes, courtesy of Pewter Report:
Bucs RB Jacquizz Rodgers was impressive against the Giants on Sunday, not going down on first contact hardly at all. He registered 56 of his 83 total yards after contact, averaging 3.50 yards after contact per attempt. He forced two missed tackles on his 16 carries – and saw great success running behind C Ali Marpet, registering 6 carries, 54 yards and 1 of his missed tackles forced when rushing to either side of Marpet.
Week 6 PPF notes, courtesy of Pewter Report:
The lack of a running game against Arizona can be in part be anointed to the deficit to overcome – but even on 18 carries, Bucs running backs forced just one missed tackle on the afternoon. Doug Martin did gain 29 yards after contact, most of which came on runs to the right side of the offensive line, proving the worth in run blocking of Demar Dotson.
Week 7 PPF notes, courtesy of Pewter Report:
RB Doug Martin earned his paycheck, and his yards, on Sunday against the Bills – gaining more yards AFTER contact, than total rushing yards. On his 20 carries, Martin gained 49 total yards, but did it the hard way as 50 of those were after first contact. He forced two missed tackles on the afternoon.
Week 8 PPF notes, courtesy of Pewter Report:
The Bucs runners and receivers did not force a single missed tackle against the Panthers on Sunday but RB Doug Martin did produce 44 of his 71 yards after contact. He really did his best work in the middle of the line as all but 19 of his yards came inside the tackle boxes.
Week 9 PPF notes, courtesy of Pewter Report:
Removing the QB runs from Fitzpatrick (30 yards) and Winston (8 yards), and you get a grand total of 49 yards from the Bucs backfield members as Peyton Barber rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries and Doug Martin was only able to accumulate 7 yards on 8 carries. Martin could not force any missed tackles, while Barber forced two. The worst part of the rush game stat sheet for the Bucs – their yards after contact outgained their total rushing yards, meaning they were constantly being hit in the backfield against the Saints front four. Barber totaled 36 yards after contact while Martin totaled 13 yards after contact.
Fans like easy, simple stats. They can blame players faster with easier stats. Last year, this occurrence did happen and many kept saying that Martin was just terrible. Here is an article I wrote last year that the offensive line was more of the culprit to the bad run game: link.
Just how bad is the offensive line?
Again, Pewter Report reporting on PFF’s ratings, this time in Trevor Sikkema’s weekly segment called the Cover-3: Bucs Trench Woes. This is a great read with lots of video breakdowns in run blocking and pass blocking protections for the Saints game.
According to PFF, rotation LG Evan Smith has been outperforming starting LG Kevin Pamphile on the year with an overall grade of 76.4. This is why the Bucs are rotating Evan Smith into the offensive line. The problem is why are the Bucs rotating in a better LG instead of leaving him in for good? Sikkema has an angle on that, so I encourage you to read this week’s Cover 3.
Run Directional Breakdown
Note: We were last in carries, but I did not record the ranking because the Bucs started a week later than the NFL and would inherently be at the bottom in run attempts so early into the season.
The Bucs ran up the gut 54% of the time. According to PFF, we only have two good starting options on the offensive line in C Marpet and RT Dotson. In the next segment, we will look at the yards produced per direction and discover the productions.
Run Yards Breakdown
This chart supports just how great Dotson has been in the run game, but also how not so great running through the middle has been. Yet the team runs it up the middle 54% of their runs. That production 3.76 yards per event on over 50% of the running situation is abysmal. Unfortunately, FBO does not distinguish between guard directional running as it is an up the middle play. But PFF does do individualized ratings on blocking. Let us immerse ourselves into the interior line play.
As I stated in the introduction, Koetter does know how to make the pass blocking unit perform better than expected. The most surprising player here is right guard JR Sweezy. There was an assumption that Sweezy could only run block and would be disastrous in the pass blocking arena. Apparently, that thought is wrong.
In half of the offensive snaps, the offense has an interior line of Pamphile-Marpet-Sweezy. That is a setup for disaster for any running back that Tampa puts behind it. This is also why the Bucs have been average or below average in Power Success, short yardage success for a first down.
Last year, LT Smith looked to be on the verge of becoming an upper echelon left tackle. This year, not so much of that thought. A plausible reason for that could be the lack of chemistry between LG Pamphile and LG Smith. That rotational occurrence at LG is disturbing as Pamphile is not that good. RG Sweezy is good at pass blocking, but quite abysmal in run blocking.
Top end left tackles usually are taken in the first round. So too are top end pass rushers, which the Bucs possess none at the present moment. The Bucs can land a top guard in the second round instead of hoping one of its lower round picks pan out in 2014 fifth rounder Kevin Pamphile or 2016 fifth round pick Kevin Benenoch. Tampa needs an immediate upgrade yesterday at both guard positions for the run blocking department.
Although Koetter’s offense can produce without a great run game as he had in Atlanta, he does not have the quarterback to overcome a consistently bad run game. The pass blocking unit is a good unit for the most part and can be aided with a chipping TE. Tampa possesses a superfluous amount of receiving weapons. If the QB is not connecting on his receivers, then the Bucs become a zero-dimensional offense.
ESPN’s Jenna Laine has this nugget:
From his 2008 rookie year to 2016, DeSean Jackson had 56 catches on throws at least 30 yards downfield, 15 more than any other player, and his 25 receiving touchdowns on those throws were first in the league. This year, Bucs quarterbacks are 0-for-9 targeting Jackson on those deep balls with an interception, according to ESPN Stats’s & Info.
That interception occurred on a badly underthrown ball in the end zone, with Jackson having beaten his defender soundly.
As PFF has recorded, the Bucs have three RBs in Doug Martin, Jacquies Rodgers, and Peyton Barber who have generated more yards after contact than their net production in a few games. Should the Bucs improve their run blocking, then they will be able take off a huge load from their quarterback. While it is not what Koetter would like to see or admit, because it dissuades him from replicating his Atlanta pass often offense, he does need to solidify the run blocking to improve the offense into a formidable and balanced two-dimensional machine.
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