TAMPA — It seems like such an old-fashioned notion. In these pass-happy days of the NFL, here’s a defense devoted to stopping the running game.
And make no mistake, the Buccaneers do it well. Tampa Bay has the No. 1 run-stopping unit in the NFL going into this weekend’s game against Houston and 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde.
The Bucs are yielding only 73.3 yards per game and giving up only 3.35 yards per run. Since 2000, only five defenses have matched or exceeded those two numbers. And three of those teams made it to the Super Bowl.
So, yeah, Tampa Bay’s front seven has been a force when it comes to stuffing some of the league’s top running backs.
But is that because they are so hard to run against, or so easy to pass against?
The answer is complicated.
It is true, opposing teams have attempted more passes against the Bucs than any other defense. Some of that is circumstance. Tampa Bay’s offense is scoring nearly 30 points a game, so teams such as the Rams, Seahawks, Colts, Giants, Cardinals and Lions were throwing a lot of passes just to keep pace.
But it’s also true Tampa Bay’s young secondary looked like easy pickings early in the season, and opponents took advantage.
“We’ve got to get better at the passing game," said defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. “We understand that."
So which is it? Do opponents have a lot of respect for the Bucs run defense, or a lack of respect for the pass defense?
“You’d have to look at the scores and see where we were at those times in the games, and certain things that we do to deter some of the things in the run game," Bowles said. “It’s all mixed in-between We’ll get a look at it after the season and see where we can make adjustments."
It’s safe to say, however, that Bowles will not abandon the idea of stopping the run first.
Even though the league has evolved — runs accounted for 51.9 percent of the offensive plays in 1979 and 41.1 percent this year — there is still a simple truth to football. If a team can beat you on the ground, it will run the football frequently. The running game may not account for large chunks of yardage as effectively as the passing game, but it can eat up the clock and cut down on turnovers and sacks.
Look at the top five rushing teams in the NFL today: Baltimore (12-2), San Francisco (11-3), Seattle (11-3), Minnesota (10-4) and Buffalo (10-4) are all heading to the playoffs. On the flip side, only one of the top five passing teams (Kansas City) will go to the postseason.
That’s not necessarily a strict cause-and-effect scenario, but it does indicate that an effective running game is not simply a 1970s relic.
“It’s important to understand for people outside of our world who do watch football, if you can’t stop the run people are going to have a field day and run all over you," said Bucs defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. “When you reduce a team to a one-dimensional offense, it’s a lot easier to stop. You stop the run and then you’re able to get after the passer.
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“With us being able to shut down the run for most of our games, it’s allowed guys like Shaq (Barrett) and JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) and the linebacking corps to get after the passer."
Tampa Bay’s evolution as a run-stopper has been swift. The Bucs were one of the worst run defenses in the NFL (123.9 yards per game) last year before rising to the top in 2019. Some of that is clearly personnel. Vita Vea has become a major presence in his second season, Suh has effectively replaced Gerald McCoy and rookie linebacker Devin White has been an upgrade.
But Bowles has also made it more of a priority, and the effect is obvious.
“It’s no secret," said defensive lineman Will Gholston. “We’re just following the game plan."
So what are the chances of shutting down Hyde and Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson on Saturday?
The Bucs have already faced top-10 rushers five times this season. Three were held below 40 yards (Carolina’s Christian McCaffery twice and Jackonsville’s Leonard Fournette) and only one (Seattle’s Chris Carson) topped 100 yards.
“Truthfully, run defense is a question of pride," said Suh. “It’s man-on-man or two-men-on one, depending on how you look at it. If you want to be considered one of the elite and have the opportunity to go on the pass rush yourself, then you better stop that run first."
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.