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Ronald Jones’ mental mistakes may keep him off the field for Bucs

The running back missed a blitz pickup that got Tom Brady sacked vs. the Falcons on Sunday.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones is tackled by Falcons linebacker Steven Means on Sunday during the fourth quarter.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones is tackled by Falcons linebacker Steven Means on Sunday during the fourth quarter. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 20
Updated Sep. 20

TAMPA — The Bucs’ running back situation has been described by Bruce Arians as “three dogs fighting for one bone.”

If that analogy is true, it would appear Arians is close to the end of his leash with Ronald Jones.

Two plays in the Bucs’ 48-25 win over the Falcons on Sunday illustrated why Jones is playing his way onto the bench.

Facing second and 20 in the fourth quarter, the Falcons’ Deion Jones blitzed quarterback Tom Brady and Ronald Jones failed to recognize his man in pass protection.

The Falcons linebacker slammed into Brady for a 7-yard loss. The Bucs’ Jones was replaced on third down by running back Giovanni Bernard, who caught a pass from Brady for 10 yards, forcing a punt.

“Yeah, it speaks for itself, you know?” coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “Ro, that’s his guy. He’s got to get out of those type of situations. I thought he ran hard and protected the ball. But again, you can’t have those mental errors.”

Contrast that with the block that running back Leonard Fournette made on Deion Jones in the second quarter. Facing second and 8 at the Tampa Bay 42, the Falcon came on a blitz that was picked up by Fournette, allowing Brady to deliver a 17-yard pass to Antonio Brown.

Ronald Jones, who was benched after losing a fumble in the season opener against Dallas, started Sunday’s game and ran the ball well. He had six carries for 27 yards (4.5 yard average) and caught one pass for 9 yards.

But pass protection continues to be a problem for him in his fourth season, the third under Arians. Getting Brady hit won’t instill much confidence.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Arians said. “And at times it is. It’s just attention to detail like missing that blitz. But he is a great runner. Caught the ball well. I would like to see him run for the first down. But yeah, I mean his mind is fine, it’s just his play isn’t as good as it should be.”

Jones is in the final year of his contract with the Bucs and rushed for 978 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He would have eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark had he not missed the final two regular-season games with COVID-19.

In the first playoff game at Washington, Jones pulled a quad muscle in warmups and did not play, ushering in the arrival of Playoff Lenny (Fournette).

Brady is all about trust and it’s hard to imagine he has much in Jones in terms of pass protection.

Both Jones and Fournette are below-average pass catchers and each dropped seven balls last season. Jones rarely was called upon to be a receiver at Southern Cal, where he had only had 32 career receptions.

He has worked hard on his hand position but it’s still unnatural. As a rookie, Jones was a bit overwhelmed by the NFL. Having just turned 21 when he arrived in Tampa Bay, he struggled with the details of the pro game.

Last season was Jones’ breakout year and had he not caught the virus, the playoff glory could have been his. It’s a long season and the Bucs will need all four running backs, including Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who has been inactive the first two games.

Vaughn is the only Bucs running back under contract for 2022. That means Jones and Fournette are free agents playing for their next deals.

In the season opener, Jones was benched after losing a fumble. Arians said he didn’t handle it ”mentally.” When Fournette watched a pass deflect off his hands for an easy interception, he didn’t come out of the game.

Arians seemed to make up with Jones by announcing he would start against the Falcons. But the missed blitz pickup may result in a lineup change Sunday against the Rams.

Arians offers only this advice: “RoJo just has got to do his job.”

It may be the only way to stay out of the doghouse.

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