TAMPA — Ronald Jones is a top-four rusher in the NFL, on pace to easily eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. He’s the kind of running back who wants the game plan placed squarely on his shoulder pads.
The Bucs aren’t going to take the football out of Tom Brady’s hands. But after some evaluation during the bye week, it’s clear they would like to get back to a more balanced offensive attack.
Potentially, that could mean more carries for Jones if the Bucs can avoid falling behind early in games.
“He’s having a heck of a year, and when things are good, he’s got 20 touches,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We’ve just got to stay in the ballgames earlier and not fall behind. That is what we try to do every week. I thought in the Kansas City game we did a good job of staying in the game plan, keeping him going and getting back in the ballgame. He is where we start.”
However, how the Bucs have started games is slowly, and that has been the issue during their three losses in the past four games.
They fell behind 31-0 to the New Orleans Saints after starting the game with four three-and-outs, an interception an a turnover on downs.
The Bucs trailed the Chiefs 17-0 in their last game after producing only one first down in their first four possessions.
Jones had only 10 touches in the 27-24 loss to the Chiefs. But he was extremely productive, rushing nine times for 66 yards (7.3 average). It included a 34-yard run. Jones also had one catch for 37 yards and a touchdown.
Jones, who has rushed for a career-high 820 yards and five touchdowns, said Tuesday he was humbled by Arians saying, “he is where we start.”
“It definitely means a lot,” Jones said. “Again, as a player, all you can do is ask for the opportunity. They’ve given it to me, and I’ve just got to make the most of it. Take it and run with it — literally — so that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Of course, Arians is right. The Bucs are better the more Jones is involved in the offense. Tampa Bay is 5-1 in games when Jones gets at least 15 touches.
Jones also has the highest yards-per-carry average among backs with 150-plus carries, gaining 5.06 yards per attempt.
There’s some evidence that running the football is a precursor to success. Twelve of the top 13 rushing teams are in playoff contention, including NFC division leaders such as the Saints, Packers, Rams and Giants.
But it’s not simply a matter of running the football more. In fact, the problem with the Bucs’ failure to convert some third-down situations is that they haven’t been as successful as the rest of the league running the football on first down.
The Bucs are averaging 4 yards per carry on first down through the first three quarters of the game this season. That sounds good, but the NFL average is 4.4. Typically, you would want to hit that 4-yard average on 49 percent of the first-down runs, which is the league average. But the Bucs fail to gain at least 4 yards on first down 60 percent of the time.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has emphasized running the football. The Bucs have a 49/51-percent split run vs. pass on first down. In a passing league, with the rules protecting against hits on quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, first down is the best down to throw the football.
Overall, the Bucs pass the ball about 64 percent of the time. Only the Bengals, Eagles, Jaguars and Bears have attempted a higher percentage.
The slow starts on offense have also affected the defense, especially against high-powered offenses like the Rams and Chiefs.
“I think we had those answers going into (the bye week) ― it’s third downs (and creating) manageable third downs on offense,” Arians said. “Defensively, it’s just matching the speed. We do a great job in the second half, but we have to do a better job of matching the speed — especially if the (other) team is in tempo — to start the ballgames and get off the field on third down.”
The lack of continuity has been consistently mentioned as a problem. But on Tuesday, Jones said Brady told his teammates that everyone “had to step up” and “there are no rookies anymore.”
Arians agreed that excuse can no longer be used after 12 games.
“None of them are really new anymore,” Arians said. “It always starts with the running game. The receivers have been together now and Tom (Brady) is very, very comfortable this week. The identity is being able to do a lot of different things with a lot of different people.”
According to Arians, the Bucs practiced with plenty of energy Tuesday. At 7-5, they control their own destiny and would make the playoffs by winning the last four games.
“I think we’ll see it more on Sunday,” Arians said. “It was a good rest for (Brady), but also going back and looking at a lot of different things. Looking at the way this team plays and the way we’ve played teams like them. It’s still a work in progress — that part is — but again, I feel very comfortable that everybody’s on the same page right now.”