With a little over 11 minutes left in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Three game against the New York Giants, Jameis Winston scrambled forward out of a jumbled pocket on third down and tried to lob a touch throw to Mike Evans while on the run. The pass sailed well off target and was easily intercepted by Giants linebacker Ryan Connelly at the New York 26, killing a prime opportunity for the Buccaneers to add some insurance points to their 28-25 lead.
That turnover proved to only be a temporary hiccup as NFL sack king Shaq Barrett divorced Daniel Jones from the football two plays later and gave it back to the Bucs in pretty much the same spot, and with a fresh set of downs. Winston, however, would not throw another pass until there was just 3:30 left in regulation.
After getting that new set of downs at the Giants' 42, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich called for six straight handoffs to Ronald Jones. It worked to the tune of 37 yards, a first down at the 13 and then a third-and-two at the five-yard line. Unfortunately, a seventh straight run call, this one an RPO handoff from Winston to Peyton Barber, was bottled up and the Bucs elected to kick a field goal for a six-point lead. It wouldn't hold, as Jones ran in the go-ahead score with 1:16 left and Bucs rookie kicker Matt Gay barely missed a 34-yard field goal as the clock expired.
Before all that, the Bucs' defense forced a three-and-out and the offense had another shot to put the game away with four minutes to go. Two more runs made it third-and-two before Winston finally threw another pass, this one to tight end Cam Brate, who was tripped up in the open field a yard short of the sticks. So, did the Bucs get conservative after that momentarily frightening turnover and choose to keep it on the ground to avoid a repeat? Did they become turtles down the stretch, protecting a lead?
No, not really. More like elephants…elephants who just found a small but satisfying water hole.
"As an old saying of mine, you find a mud hole, you stomp all the water out of it before you go to the next one," said Arians. "And we were stomping that water pretty good until that third down call."
In other words, the rushing attack was working quite well just when the Bucs needed it to, and they were willing to see how long it would take for that well to run dry. But for an execution error on the third-and-two from the five, it might have worked to perfection. And, in a larger sense, the strategy did work, as it helped put the Bucs in position to win the game with a field goal that NFL kickers are going to make almost every time.
"Yeah, I don't think [of the running plays] were unsuccessful until third-down," said Arians. "They were all successful."
Overall, Arians and Leftwich have shown that they were speaking the truth when they said, prior to the season, that they wanted to be a run-first team, fielding an offense with true balance. After the Week Two win at Carolina, in which the Bucs ran the ball 31 times and dropped back to pass on the other 28 snaps, Arians said he liked seeing the stat sheet from a 60-play game and finding a 30-30 split.
In particular, the Buccaneers have been run-heavy on first down, but also willing to take shots downfield when they do break from that trend. The strategy goes hand in hand.
"For me it's yardage," said Arians. "We're in the top, I think, top ten now in first-down yardage because we've hit our shots. We're starting to hit our shots on first down. That's a setup. It may be a three-to-one [chance of hitting it] but that one is big. It's a give and take. Can you throw quick passes? Yeah, but I'd rather pound it and throw it down the field and get that big number."
The Buccaneers do, in fact, rank 10th in the NFL with an average of 6.0 yards per first down play. They've had 90 first-down snaps so far, resulting in 538 yards, and they've gotten at least four yards on 48.9% of those plays, which is 14th-best in the NFL. That reflects the boom-or-bust approach when passing because on their 56 runs the Bucs have averaged 4.7 yards per carry, seventh-best in the NFL. Twenty of those 56 runs have been good for six or more yards.
The run first, then throw downfield approach worked against the Giants as the Bucs rolled up 499 yards of offense. Among the big passes Winston hit on first-down throws were completions of 55, 44 and 20 yards to Evans, the last one for a touchdown, and a 30-yarder to tight end O.J. Howard.
"I just think it's such a positive when you're able to run the football, no matter if it's first down or what," said Winston. "The more effective we are and if we continue to be efficient, eventually it will open up some big play-action shots for us, but as long as we keep running the ball effectively, I'm happy."