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Smoke screen: Bucs turn to running back Ronald Jones

Second-year running back continuing to become more involved in Tampa Bay offense, this time as a pass catcher.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (27) is pushed out of bounds by Arizona Cardinals strong safety Jalen Thompson (34) and outside linebacker Haason Reddick (43) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (27) is pushed out of bounds by Arizona Cardinals strong safety Jalen Thompson (34) and outside linebacker Haason Reddick (43) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio) [ MARK LOMOGLIO | AP ]
Published Nov. 10, 2019

TAMPA — The Bucs offense looked a little different in the first half on Sunday.

Utilizing running backs as receivers has been a staple of Bruce Arians’ offenses in Arizona, but not so much in Tampa under first-year offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s system.

Until Sunday.

In their first eight games, Bucs running backs averaged just 4.25 receptions a game, and 18 of the 34 catches went to Dare Ogunbowale, the team's primary third-down pass-catching back.

But the Bucs went out Sunday and ran several successful screen passes to Ronald Jones to move the ball down the field.

Jones made four screen-pass catches for a team-high 55 yards in the first half, using open running room ahead of him to log three gains of 14 yards or longer for first downs.

Quarterback Jameis Winston connected with Jones three times on the Bucs’ first touchdown drive. On a third-and-15, Winston hit Jones for a 17-yard game along the right side.

On that first touchdown drive — an 11-play drive — Jones touched the ball six times for 50 total yards, including a seven-yard touchdown run.

A first-down screen pass to Jones for 14 yards on the Bucs' next drive was the key pass play on 12-play, 63-yard drive that ended with a Matt Gay field goal.

The use of Jones in the passing game is another sign that the Tampa Bay coaching staff is gaining more trust in Jones, who made his second consecutive start.

Jones received a career-high 18 carries for 67 yards in his first career NFL start last week in Seattle.

He entered Sunday with just eight catches on the season.

“I think he handled it really well,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s been consistent [and] he’s been more explosive. It’s not that Peyton [Barber] did anything wrong. I think RoJo has earned the right to play a little bit more and start the ballgame.”

Leftwich mentioned this week that the staff has seen improvements in Jones.

“He’s been playing well for us, he’s an explosive player [and] a young player who’s always working on his game,” Leftwich said. "Those game situations are good for him too because a lot of these are new to him too, because he didn’t play a lot last year, so this is really his first time being out there consistently and you can see the improvement day in and day out.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.