If Bucs hope to keep playoff streak alive, they better start running

TAMPA — The first time the Bucs won the Super Bowl, they were a mediocre running team. And that may be a generous description. They were 27th in the NFL in rushing yards and averaged a paltry 3.8 yards per carry.

The next time the Bucs won the Super Bowl, the ground game was similarly shortchanged. The Bucs were 29th in the NFL in rushing yards and had fewer rushing attempts than in all but two of the franchise’s 40-plus seasons.

So why the fuss?

In today’s pass-happy NFL, why was head coach Todd Bowles so insistent on building a running game? Why did the Bucs draft with run-blockers in mind, and why is new offensive coordinator Dave Canales forever talking about the marriage of pass/run?

Because, to put it bluntly, the Bucs were not good enough to be one-dimensional last year. Even with Tom Brady leading the league in both completions and sack percentage, the Bucs had a pretty lifeless offense in 2022. They struggled in the red zone and they were in too many passing situations after failed run attempts early in a series of downs. They may not need complete balance between run/pass, but they need more balance.

And, friends, that’s exactly what Canales intends on delivering. While the starting offensive line was on the field during Saturday night’s 26-20 preseason win against Baltimore, the Bucs had 12 plays on first down — six pass and six run. Overall, they ended up with 38 pass plays and 33 runs.

“That was the one thing we tried to get accomplished tonight,” Bowles said after the game. “We got some tough runs out of those guys in the first half. They weren’t big runs, but they were 4- and 5-yarders, which was good. It was very efficient. For us to throw the football, we’ve got to continue to play like that. That was good to see.”

To be fair, the quantity and quality of runs was probably an anomaly. First of all, the Ravens did not have a lot of starters on the field. And in Seattle last season, where Canales was quarterbacks coach, the Seahawks almost never ran more than they passed and topped 30 rushes in fewer than half of their games.

The point is the Bucs do not need to rush for 150 yards a game in 2023, but they need defenses to respect the possibility that Rachaad White may occasionally get the ball into the secondary. There were 151 rushing plays of 30 yards or more last season in the NFL. Only one belonged to the Bucs.

Bowles is not trying to recreate a 1970s’ run-based offense, but the Bucs do need to make sure second and long is not their default position every time they run on first down. They need to buy that half-second of uncertainty when a defensive player is unsure whether it’s a run or pass.

The Bucs did not give up a lot of sacks last season, but that’s only because Brady got rid of the ball as quickly as any quarterback in the league. And that also meant Tampa Bay was not completing as many downfield passes as it was in Brady’s first two seasons.

“It’s good for us to slow their pass rush down a bit. It’s kind of hard when teams know you’re going to pass all the time, and their pass rush can tee off on us. That was tough (in 2022),” said tackle Tristan Wirfs. “Now, we’re able to give them similar looks whether we’re running or passing and that slows them down.

“Those guys get paid to rush the passer, and that’s what they want to do. So if we can limit that, if we can throw them enough curveballs, it’s going to be really helpful for us in the long run.”

It’s not just the play-calling, but the style of offense. Canales is employing a zone blocking scheme to create gaps by lateral movement. It makes life easier on offensive linemen, and gives the running back more options to look for holes.

“We’re just getting started but I like this offense a lot,” said right tackle Luke Goedeke. “We have great communication, we’re moving guys in the run game and still getting great protection. I am really excited to see where this goes.”

Look, you shouldn’t expect the Bucs to lead the NFL in rushing. That’s not the goal. The idea is to avoid games when they cannot run the ball effectively and are stuck playing catch-up through the air.

When you factor in sacks, the Bucs had a seven-game stretch in the middle of last season when they averaged nearly 50 pass attempts a week. At the same time, they averaged less than 18 running attempts. Not surprisingly, the Bucs went 2-5 in that stretch.

That cannot happen again. The Bucs can live, and even thrive, with a mediocre running game.

But not a non-existent running game.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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