Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Winston keeps improving, but run game remains important to Bucs

TAMPA — It sounds simple. If the Bucs want to move the football, keep it in the hands of Jameis Winston and let his right arm sling that pill through the air, past the defense and into the fingertips of his receivers.

That seemed to be the approach against the Eagles in the preseason opener last week. The Bucs' primary formation on offense was three receivers, one tight end and one running back, which they ran in 47 of 70 plays or about 67 percent of the time.

Winston went 7-of-9 passing for 97 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown to Russell Shepard, playing only the first quarter. On his first series, he lost a fumble as he tried to shake off his peaks and valleys play.

Dirk Koetter, the Bucs' offensive coordinator turned head coach, still is the play-caller. The team only rushed for 31 yards. So is this the year the Bucs fill the sky with footballs?

"I don't think that's the case. Don't read too much into how preseason games go," Koetter said. "It's not the season, and it's not game-planning. We're going to be a run first football team. You got to run the ball and stop the run to win in this league, and we're not going to change from that."

Nobody has more faith in Winston than Koetter. "Jameis every day he asserts himself more and more as a leader," he said. "I mean, he still has things he needs to work on as a quarterback. I love what he's doing leadership-wise."

But Koetter knows how to play toward Winston's strength, which is driving the ball down the field. A year ago, Winston's 13 yards per completion ranked only behind Cam Newton and Carson Palmer.

But to get the football downfield, the Bucs need run-action. Receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson need several yards to get to top-end speed. Although Winston has worked to improve his mechanics, keeping his feet under him and needing less space in the pocket, he needs some extra release time.

Quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian constantly hammers Winston with "Boxer's stance! Boxer's stance!''

"It's always about having a good base and feeling that pocket," Winston said.

To throw deep, you need to have enough protection. Last year, the team's base personnel grouping was two running backs and one tight end or one running back and two tight ends. The extra back or tight end provides pass protection. Even on those instances when the Bucs spread teams out with three receivers, they still love to run the football.

"I think we were like that a lot last year, too," Jackson said. "We used a lot of two tight end sets, three receiver sets. Our run game was really strong out of three receivers. We really block well on the edge and it really helps open up the defense, you know, keep guys out of the box a little bit and things like that."

Of course, it helps that the Bucs have the NFL's second leading rusher in Doug Martin, who gained 1,402 yards and six touchdowns on 288 carries last season. Even with all those big bodies at tight end and fullback, Martin is effective picking through small spaces.

"As a running back, you love to hear those words (run first)," Martin said. "But everybody knows it's a game of balance. You've got to be able to run the ball, you've got to pass the ball. That's what we're going to do, that combination."

Another plus for Winston is that both backs — Martin and especially Charles Sims — are good receivers out of the backfield, even if Winston's throwing motion doesn't make him particularly adept with them on check downs and swing passes.

There's no question Winston will continue to become more of a focal point for the offense. His acumen for recognizing defenses is off the charts, and he get more leeway to check out of bad plays.

But if you're looking for a template for the Bucs' approach? "Think Seattle or Carolina," general manager Jason Licht said.

That's not so bad. One of those teams has appeared in the past three NFC Championship Games.

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