The Buccaneers' running game has all but vanished in recent weeks, and it won't get any easier to find when the Baltimore Ravens come to town this Sunday.
The Ravens (3-2) feature one of the league's best run defenses, and in the middle of it is an emerging playmaker: first-round linebacker C.J. Mosley, who recorded his first career interception and helped force another last Sunday.
His early success in the NFL will come as no surprise to those who followed him through his collegiate years at Alabama, where he led the team in tackles for two straight seasons and was honored as the nation's best linebacker in his final season.
Five games into his rookie campaign, Mosley is again showcasing exceptional tackling and anticipation, as he ranks second among all inside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' run stop percentage statistic. He is credited with a "stop" on 14.0 percent of run snaps, ahead of the Panthers' Luke Kuechly (13.6) and behind the Steelers' Lawrence Timmons (14.7). A player is credited with a stop when the offense fails to accomplish one of the following:
• gain 40 percent of the yards needed for another first down on first down
• gain 60 percent of the yards needed for a first down on second down
• convert a third or fourth down to a first down
Mosley has been especially strong over the past three weeks, earning 13 of his 17 total run stops in that time. Here, we'll look at two of his three run stops against the Indianapolis Colts, who defeated the Ravens 20-13 last Sunday. On both plays, Mosley excels at getting off blocks.
Mosley's first run stop comes on a 4th-and-1 early in the first quarter. At the Baltimore 21-yard line, the Colts line up in the I formation with an additional lineman (Joe Reitz) and three tight ends, one of which is positioned as a fullback in front of running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Mosley, in the Ravens' 3-4 defense, is lined up over the "B" gap between the left guard and left tackle.
That's where the Colts elect to run the ball, and they pull the right guard over as additional reinforcement. There should be enough space for Bradshaw to get the first down, but the play fails when Mosley sheds Jack Doyle's lead block and brings down Bradshaw to force a turnover on downs.
The memory of the stop lingers as later in the first quarter the Colts, facing another 4th-and-1, choose to punt, a decision the New York Times' 4th Down Bot disagreed with.
Mosley stuffs Bradshaw for no gain again on a 1st-and-10 late in the fourth quarter as the Colts, leading 20-13, are trying to eat up a chunk of the 4:24 remaining.
The Colts are also in the I-formation here, with tight end Jack Doyle lined up as the fullback. Mosley is positioned between the left guard and left tackle.
The isolation, or "iso," run is designed to go through the A gap between the center and left guard. Defenses have to be prepared for the shifty Bradshaw to cut in any direction, but this is basic run-them-over power football. The problem is that the 6-foot-6, 267-pound Doyle once again doesn't overpower the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Mosley, who sheds the block and reaches out with one arm and begins wrapping up Bradshaw. Two attempts at attacking Mosley net the Colts exactly nothing.
The Ravens will move Mosley around. Sometimes they'll line him up as a left inside linebacker, sometimes as a right and sometimes they'll put him on the edge.
Wherever he is, he could cause headaches for Buccaneers, who, as Times staff writer Greg Auman noted this week, have managed to rush for only 64.3 yards over the past three games.
Is that the fault of the offensive line or the running backs? It's difficult to separate, but the answer is both. To evaluate, we'll use two advanced statistics that I swear are easier to figure out than credit default swaps or Lovie Smith's facial expressions.
Consider first Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) statistic, which indicates running backs Bobby Rainey and Doug Martin have had below-average seasons. According to DYAR, Rainey has outperformed a replacement-level back by 10 total yards while Martin has underperformed by 22 yards. Because not all runs are equal, DYAR (similar to baseball's wins above replacement statistic) takes into account down and distance, field position, time remaining and quality of the opponent. For example, a Martin 5-yard run in a blowout against the Jaguars isn't the same as a Martin 5-yard run on 3rd-and-4 late in a close game against the Seahawks.
As for the Buccaneers' offensive line, it ranks 30th in adjusted line yards (ALY), another Football Outsiders statistic. ALY attempts to separate the effects an offensive line and a running back have on a play. Using the rationale that the line is more responsible for short yardage plays and losses than it is for long yardage plays, the formula takes every carry and assigns a percentage of responsibility to the offensive line. The bottom five teams in the NFL: Jacksonville (3.18 per carry), Carolina (3.10), Tampa Bay (3.03), San Diego (2.78) and Philadelphia (2.41). By comparison, the Ravens' line, which features Buccaneers castoff Jeremy Zuttah, ranks fourth in ALY at 4.53.
Coming into the game against the Colts, the Ravens were also strong in pass protection, having not allowed a sack in three games. Linebacker Bjoern Werner exploited a potential weakness, however, beating undrafted rookie left tackle James Hurst, once on the outside and once on the inside, for two of the Colts' four sacks.
Defensive end Michael Johnson will line up opposite Hurst this Sunday, but whether he'll have as much success as Werner is a fair question. The Ravens, having seen Hurst's struggles against the Colts' pass rush, could bring a tight end over to the left side to help block.
It's also conceivable they will choose to see how Hurst performs one-on-one as Johnson, who continues to manage a high ankle sprain, has not been a productive pass rusher. Among players who have played as many or fewer pass rush snaps as Johnson, 12 have generated more than his eight pressures (quarterback sacks, hits and hurries combined). Here's a look:
|Player, team||Pass rush snaps||Sacks||Hits||Hurries||Total|
|Cliff Avril, Seattle||116||1||2||16||19|
|Cameron Wake, Miami||103||2||5||11||18|
|Robert Ayers, New York Giants||103||3||5||9||17|
|Malik Jackson, Denver||104||2||3||7||12|
|Robert Quinn, St. Louis||79||0||6||6||12|
|Ezekial Ansah, Detroit||118||2||5||4||11|
|Willie Young, Chicago||106||5||1||5||11|
|Tyrone Crawford, Dallas||60||0||3||8||11|
|Robert Geathers, Cincinnati||118||1||3||6||10|
|William Gholston, Tampa Bay||104||1||3||6||10|
|Derek Wolfe, Denver||113||0||0||9||9|
|Mario Addison, Carolina||87||5||2||2||9|
|Damontre Moore, New York Giants||56||1||3||5||9|
|Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay||118||2||3||3||8|
|Jarius Wynn, Buffalo||70||0||0||8||8|
After stunning the Steelers in Pittsburgh two weeks ago and nearly upsetting the Saints in New Orleans last week, the Buccaneers return to Tampa Bay seeking their first home win of the season. Considering the Ravens' strong run defense and thin secondary (they worked out — but ultimately decided not to sign — veteran cornerback Champ Bailey this week), the way to attack might be with the pass. The Ravens are the better team offensively and defensively, but if the Buccaneers don't beat themselves with penalties as they did against the Saints, they could stay within reach of their second upset in three weeks.
How do you see the game unfolding? Let us know below. Last week, commenter Fred VC nearly proved prescient, cautioning doubters that the game against the Saints "had the ingredients of an upset." Indeed, the Bucs were just a penalty or 15 away.