Buccaneers-Saints Turning Point, Week 9: The nonexistent run game

Bucs running backs carried the ball 19 times Sunday in a 30-10 loss to the Saints. On six of those carries, they failed to gain at least a yard. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs running backs carried the ball 19 times Sunday in a 30-10 loss to the Saints. On six of those carries, they failed to gain at least a yard. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Nov. 6, 2017

Jameis Winston wanted to know where the line was.

"As far as doing too much, I want to have a good understanding of how much is doing too much," he told Dirk Koetter.

Koetter responded: "We have by far the best team since you've been playing in the NFL, and you are a guy that's able to win a game. But also we don't need you to lose a game for us."

Such scenes from HBO's Hard Knocks have aged quickly. They feel like old home videos now. Familiar and foreign all at the same time.

Three months ago, we wondered whether Winston could protect the football.

Now, we wonder whether the Bucs can protect Winston, who did not play during the second half of Sunday's 30-10 loss to the Saints because of a shoulder injury.

It's reasonable to have expected more from Winston this season. The team has invested heavily in bolstering his supporting cast. He has not been good enough. He has not hidden from that fact.

But when he first suffered a shoulder injury three weeks ago at Arizona, the Bucs needed to depend less on their quarterback.

How do you do that?

You run the ball.

The Bucs have tried. They just haven't been effective.

In fact, their run game has been nearly nonexistent.

When evaluating a team's run game, we need to consider more than yardage totals. Yes, the Bucs haven't gained more than 90 rushing yards in a game since Week 4, but that's mostly a product of them playing from behind. Teams usually run the ball when they win, not win when they run.

Yards per carry tells us a little more, but even that can be misleading. The Bucs gained 3.5 yards a carry Sunday. That's not good — especially considering that the Saints had been allowing 4.9 yards a carry — but it doesn't immediately trigger alarms.

Sometimes, we have to go play by play.

Let's look at how many yards Bucs running backs gained on each carry Sunday and see whether we can detect a pattern:

2, 4, -2, 1, -2, 0, 5, 2, 9, -2, 2, 2, 5, 0, 2, 6, 3, 4, 0.

There's not a single explosive run in there. The Bucs either gained nothing or lost yards on a third of those runs.

That 9-yarder? That was Peyton Barber with about five minutes left in the second quarter. By then, the Bucs were already losing 9-0.

That run set up one of the most critical sequences of the game.

On the next play — second and 1 from the Saints 29-yard line — Barber took a toss to the left side of the field. As soon as the ball was in his hands, he had to dodge a tackle in the backfield when safety Kenny Vaccaro beat tackle Donovan Smith around the left edge. Before he could reach the outside, linebacker Manti Te'o knifed through traffic to bring him down for a 2-yard loss.

Despite the setback, the Bucs still faced a manageable third down — until they started committing penalties. Instead of third and 3, they faced third and 13, a predictable passing situation.

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No one was open initially, and as the pass protection broke down, Winston rolled to his left to evade the pressure. And then he rolled to his right.

For a moment, you wondered whether he would pull off another escape like he did a year ago against the Bears.

There was no such magic, however. Only a 9-yard checkdown to Charles Sims. A promising drive stalled, and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal.

On the first play of the Bucs' next possession, the Saints beat Smith around the left edge again. Defensive end Alex Okafor wrapped his arms around Winston and drove him — injured shoulder first — to the ground.

Technically, he dropped back to pass two more times. In reality, though, his day was already over.

The box score shows that Doug Martin gained 7 yards on eight carries and that Barber gained 34 yards on 11 carries. It might seem obvious that Barber outperformed Martin.

But it's not.

To be sure, there are differences in their styles. Martin tends to wait longer for lanes to develop. Barber is more of a north/south runner. But neither made very many defenders miss tackles Sunday.

More telling, though, is that the Bucs gained more yards after contact than total yards. That's a sign that an opponent is penetrating the offensive line and hitting runners in the backfield. Barber gained 36 yards after contact, and Martin gained 13, according to Pro Football Focus.

This is not an aberration. Two weeks ago against the Bills, Martin gained 49 yards but 50 after contact.

So the question today isn't whether Winston is doing too much.

It's whether the Bucs are doing enough.

The answer is in their record, and it's unsparing.

Two wins. Six losses.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.