TAMPA — Jameis Winston is a running quarterback — often able to extend plays by moving around in the pocket as he tries to find a receiver downfield — but he hasn't been a rushing quarterback.
Gaining big chunks of yards with his feet isn't part of his game, but over the past two weeks, pulling the ball down and getting yards on the ground has become a key facet of Winston playing mistake-free football and winning two straight games.
Winston was the Bucs' leading rusher in last week's 24-17 win over the Panthers — logging 48 yards on five carries — and his day included a pair of 18-yard runs that marked his longest of the season.
Going into Sunday's game against the division-rival Saints at Raymond James Stadium, Winston's three longest runs this season have come over the past two weeks, both Tampa Bay victories. He's only had three runs of gains equal to or longer in his career.
"It's just part of making great decisions," Winston said. "And making great decisions is a part of winning football games. So as long as we're doing that as a team, and as long as I'm doing that, we're going to win."
He was also the team's leading rusher in Tampa Bay's overtime win over Cleveland on Oct. 21. Winston ran for a career-high 55 yards on 10 attempts and had four carries of 9 or more yards.
That game and last week's win are the only two games in Winston's four-year NFL career that he's run for more than 32 yards .
Make no mistake, the Bucs are still a pass-first team. They rank first in the league in pass offense and 26th in rushing offense. But Winston's newfound willingness to pull the ball down and take what the defense is giving him on the ground instead of forcing a pass into tight coverage is a sign of better decision making.
And after throwing 11 interceptions in his first five games, he's thrown none in his last two.
"When you're in man coverage a lot, not many times you have a guy for the quarterback, so in that case, a lane opens up and you pull it down and tuck it and get what you can get," Winston said.
In reviewing film of the Bucs, Saints coach Sean Payton has taken notice of Winston's recent run prowess and he sees a confident quarterback.
"They're putting up really, really big numbers in the passing game," Payton said. "But I think not just in the passing game, they're converting on third downs, and he obviously has a chance with his legs, if the play breaks down, he can beat you on the ground. He's done that more so and you've seen it now where you feel like you've got the perfect coverage … and then, he climbs the pocket and rushes for a first down. You know he's competitive, he's a proven winner and I think he's playing that way."
In the Bucs' first meeting with New Orleans, a 48-40 Tampa Bay win at the Superdome in Week 1, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — starting while Winston served a three-game suspension — iced the victory with some decisive running in the second half. His season-high 36-yard rushing day included a 12-yard scramble on third-and-11 play late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock.
"I think Ryan does a good job of that, of just being decisive and putting the ball down and run," Winston said. "I think that's always been a part of my game, trying to find ways to extend plays and use my feet."
Last week, both of Winston's 18-yard runs came on second-and-long situations.
On both plays, Winston saw man coverage, no receivers open and was resolute in filling a running lane while securing the football.
On the Bucs' first drive of the game, they had second and 11 at the Carolina 24. Tampa Bay had a five-wide, empty backfield set, when Winston scrambles when a hole opened through the middle of the field, running downfield and holding the ball with two hands as three Panthers defenders zeroed in on him.
That play put the Bucs in the red zone, and three plays later Winston connected with Adam Humphries for the game's first score.
"They were in man coverage and he signaled to a different route and when you look at it on tape, the middle kind of parted and he just took it and ran hard," Koetter said.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Bucs had second and 13 at the their own 33. With another empty-backfield set, a linebacker came free on a rush. Winston pulled the football down after a pump fake, dodged him and scrambled up the middle near midfield before the drive stalled on three ensuing offensive penalties.
"We kind of had a little breakdown and he pulled it down," Koetter said. "We were in empty and we turned it the wrong way — we turned the protection the wrong way and so we were hot. Jameis had a guy in his face. He juked him with a pump and got him in the air — that was a really nice run too. We're not designing it for Jameis to be our leading rusher, but that's the way it worked out (Sunday)."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.