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Bucs’ run game is an example of bad football

Tampa Bay ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 65.3.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (7) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Rashad Fenton (27) during Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (7) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Rashad Fenton (27) during Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 8

TAMPA ― Tom Brady has operated from the highest perch in the NFL for 23 seasons, so when he gazes upon the landscape you have to give great weight to his point of view.

“I think there’s a lot of bad football, from what I’ve watched,” Brady said Thursday. “That’s what I’ve watched. There’s a lot of bad football. Poor quality football is what I see.”

Through four games, NFL teams are averaging 21.9 points per game, which would be the second-fewest since 2009 (21.5). The Bucs are average at best, ranking 16th in scoring at 20.5 points per game.

If you want to talk about bad football, start with Tampa Bay’s inability to run with it.

In Sunday’s 41-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bucs rushed only six times for a net of three yards, a 0.5-yard average. Four of those yards came on one attempt by rookie Rachaad White.

After four games, Tampa Bay ranks next-to last in the league with 65.3 rushing yards per game.

That includes Leonard Fournette’s 127-yard rushing effort in a 19-3 win at Dallas Week 1. But the combined 37 rushing yards over the past two games are the fewest in the NFL during that stretch.

There are many explanations for the lack of productivity in the run game: Three new starters on the offensive line, including a rookie and a first-year starter at center. The hyperextended elbow suffered by left tackle Donovan Smith that prevented him from playing against the Saints and Packers.

But in its simplest terms, the Bucs just haven’t done a good enough job running the football.

“First and foremost, we’ve just got to get connected,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “We’ve got to get in our run lane. We’ve got to get more downhill with our run game, to be honest with you.

“ ... (Sunday’s) game got away from us, so we had to chase the score. But in general, we’ve just got to do a better job getting connected on the second level. Running, getting to our landmarks so we can get to the right spots. We’re working on it. We’ll be fine.”

The nothing-to-see-here stance by Leftwich is commendable, and odds are the effort has nowhere to go but up.

But when you’re trying to protect a 45-year-old quarterback such as Brady, it helps to not ask him to throw the ball 52 times like he did against the Chiefs.

Brady understands the more predicable the Bucs become by getting behind on down-and-distance by not running the ball well, the less likely they are to be successful on offense.

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“I think you’ve always got to try to stay balanced over the course of the season,” he said. “A few games, we’ve done a better job. We’ve just been getting behind quite a bit, and it’s been frustrating that we haven’t performed very well early in order to keep us more two-dimensional.

“When you’re one-dimensional, it’s tough. Last year, we’d just kind of fall back to the passing game because we know we’re successful at it. But at the same time, you’ve got to play with the lead.”

The Bucs have a rebuilt offensive line. Second-year pro Robert Hainsey took over from Ryan Jensen, who suffered a significant knee injury the second practice of training camp and is on injured reserve. Rookie Luke Goedeke took over at left guard for Ali Marpet, who retired. Veteran Shaq Mason is at right guard for Alex Cappa, who signed as a free agent with the Bengals. Backup left tackle Josh Wells went on IR with a calf injury.

But every NFL team has turnover, so it doesn’t fully explain being the second-worst rushing team in the NFL, only ahead of the Chargers.

“It’s just some great defenders on the opposite side,” Leftwich said. “It ain’t easy to push them big guys around. We’re working on it. We’ll get to where we need to be to be effective.”

The tight end position also is an important component of the run game, and the Bucs have replaced retired veteran Rob Gronkowski with two rookies: Cade Otton and Ko Kieft.

Finally, there is little imagination to the Bucs’ run scheme. To see creativity, look no further than Sunday’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons. They rank fourth in the NFL in rushing at 168 yards per game and utilize several running backs to accomplish it.

“They add the flashes and the jets with the receivers coming across,” said Bucs co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers. “Then you add the inside zone. Then you’ve got the quarterback (Marcus Mariota) keeping it out here. It’s a nightmare.”

Bucs All Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs said it may take just a little more time for the Bucs run game to get untracked.

“I think it’s just getting connected to the guys: us, the running backs and tight ends all on the same page,” he said. “That’s what’s eventually going to spring stuff. Get stuff around the edge and everyone knowing what everyone is doing. Knowing where the backs are going to hit. It all goes hand in hand.”

Until then, Brady won’t have far to look to see bad ball.

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