Jumbo running back LeGarrette Blount is the reason the Bucs play blood-and-guts football. • At 6 feet, 255 pounds, he is the round end of the hammer that dots the I-formation behind 265-pound fullback Erik Lorig. Tampa Bay's primary running play is called 16 Power (though it goes by different names, every team runs it). • Blount takes the handoff and follows his fullback to the tight end side of the formation as the guard pulls and the tackle kicks out toward the defensive end. • The Bucs' formula is simple: The defense will tire before Blount does. • "It's a lot of fun because you get a chance to see who's going to man up and who's not; who's ready to play and who's going to be scared; and who's going to punk out," Blount said.
"After three or four times of that play and you've been hitting with a 255-pound running back and a 265-pound fullback, (defenses are) not going to want to do it anymore. They're going to take bad angles and try to make it seem like they try to tackle you and won't."
In each of the past two games, the Bucs melted the final minutes of the clock while sitting on a slim lead by using Blount to pound with 16 Power. Up 16-13 against the Falcons on Sept. 25 with 3:24 left, they ran the play five consecutive times. Up 24-17 against the Colts on Monday with 2:26 left, they ran it on three consecutive plays.
Against Indianapolis, Blount rushed 25 times for 127 yards, including 35 yards for the winning touchdown with 3:15 left.
Most of Blount's yards come after he has been hit. According to the website Pro Football Focus, which analyzes player performances, 73.4 percent of Blount's 1,007 yards as a rookie last season came after a defender made contact. His average of 3.7 yards per carry was first among players with at least 200 carries.
This season he is eighth with 106 yards after contact, an average of 2.5 yards. Among his 294 total yards, 36.1 percent have come after contact.
"I never even knew they kept that as a stat," Blount said. "I know they have yards after contact, but I thought they kept that on Madden (the NFL video game). … I heard I led the league in broken tackles, yards after contact. I hear something new every day."
Blount's improvement is not lost on teammates. A year ago at Atlanta, he failed to follow his blocking on a late fourth-and-1 play. It cost the Bucs the game — they lost 27-21 — and maybe a playoff spot.
While at Oregon, Blount relied more on his instincts in coach Chip Kelly's spread offense.
"The biggest thing is he's accepting his coaching," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "He's not just running off of instinct. When you're in college, a lot of times the coaches will let that athlete be an athlete. This is a little different game.
"You can't coach, you can't teach and you can't learn yards after contact. That part is all him, and it's probably one of the biggest reasons we've been successful with our running game (11th in the league averaging 117 yards per game). There have been a bunch of times when he's been hit after gaining 3 yards and made it into a 7-yard run. That's a huge asset for us."
Because of Blount's success, defenses must adjust. The Bucs aren't seeing as many two-deep zones in pass coverage because opponents have to commit an eighth man near the line of scrimmage in an attempt to contain Blount. That has fueled quarterback Josh Freeman's success on play-action passes.
"I said, 'Okay, bro, we've got one game on film where you really pound it and stuck with it,' " Bucs running back Earnest Graham said he told Blount. " 'I'm telling you, the next couple weeks, things are really going to open up. You're going to be able to do a lot of things.' "
Blount isn't a finished product.
At times he runs too upright and gives defenders a big target. Even though they sometimes bounce off him, coaches fear the hits will take a toll. Blount also can become a more productive receiver as he perfects route running and protection schemes.
However, he has the power running game down pat.
"He wears them down," Faine said. "Whether he knows it or not … he's making our job a lot easier."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nflstroud.