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Todd Bowles: ‘Everything’ contributed to Bucs’ abysmal rushing attack

Tampa Bay finished last in the NFL in several significant rushing categories.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (7) gains 3 yards before being stopped by Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) during Dallas' 31-14 romp in an NFC wild-card game Monday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (7) gains 3 yards before being stopped by Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) during Dallas' 31-14 romp in an NFC wild-card game Monday night at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 18|Updated Jan. 18

TAMPA — The season’s final stat line for the Bucs’ run game seemed as fitting as it was feeble.

Twelve attempts, 52 yards in Monday night’s 31-14 playoff loss to the Cowboys. In retrospect, that number of carries roughly equals the number of culprits in the run-game regression in 2022.

Be it the blandness of the scheme or greenness of the blockers or misuse of the backs, coach Todd Bowles suggested Tuesday that all may have been complicit in the failure of a unit that finished last in the NFL (76.9 yards per game) and averaged a meager 2.23 yards after contact (according to Pro Football Focus).

“I think any time you’re the worst in the league, it’s a combination of everything,” Bowles said.

“There is no one thing that you can point to to say we weren’t good in the running game. We just weren’t good in the running game. So we’ll look at the tape, and we’ll re-evaluate everything and we’ll make those decisions going forward of why we had such a bad (run game).”

Despite the addition of fleet, versatile rookie Rachaad White as a complement to burly veteran Leonard Fournette, the Bucs averaged a league-low 3.4 yards per carry and attempted the fewest carries (386) of any team. Part of those paltry figures can be attributed to the Bucs’ consistently slow starts (they failed to score a touchdown in nine of 18 opening halves) that forced Tom Brady to throw.

Others have accused Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich of forcing a tailback rotation that didn’t allow White — the starter in the season’s second half — to establish a rhythm.

White averaged 3.7 yards per attempt (129 carries, 481 yards) and became a reliable target out of the backfield (50 catches). Fournette averaged 3.5 (189 carries, 668 yards) but finished with 73 receptions.

Bowles denied any suggestion his staff was trying to preserve Fournette in the regular season with the hopes he’d flourish in the playoffs as he did in the 2020 postseason (448 total yards, four touchdowns).

“I thought Lenny started out the season tough,” Bowles said. “I thought Rachaad came on. We never thought about shelving (Fournette) until the second half of the season so he can be ‘Playoff Lenny.’ I thought they were a good 1-2 punch, and we tried to play the year out like that. Some games we had some success — moderate success, so to speak — and a lot of games we didn’t.”

Either way, the team will have to make a decision on Fournette, who represents an $8.5 million cap hit in 2023 (according to spotrac.com) and turned 28 on Wednesday.

“We haven’t met on (free agents) yet, but we will prioritize the guys that we really want to keep and guys that we are willing to wait and see going out there,” Bowles said. “I think every team is going to have the same problems, so we have to be prepared either way.”

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