Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their Week 13 bye, Head Coach Bruce Arians emphasized the importance of getting the football into the hands of running back Ronald Jones II, saying that Jones "needs to have 20 touches" per game. Of course, Arians also noted the difficulty of accomplishing that goal when the Buccaneers quickly find themselves in a 17-point first-quarter hole, as they did against Kansas City in Week 12.
During the bye week, Arians and the Bucs' coaching staff studied the reasons for the team's recent slow starts, pinpointing troubles on manageable third downs on offense and not matching the opposing team's speed on defense in the early going. If the Buccaneers also found ways to fix those issues – and fast starts were common for the team in the season's first half – then they should also be able to get closer to that 20-touch goal for Jones.
And if that happens, it could be the third-year back who drives the team through the upcoming four-game sprint to the finish and, hopefully, some extra games in January. Even with an offense helmed by all-time great Tom Brady and bristling with dangerous pass-catching weapons, it's Jones that is the starting point, in Arians' estimation.
"He's having a heck of a year and when things are good, he's got 20 touches," said Arians. "We've just got to stay in the ballgames earlier and not fall behind. That is what we try to do every week. I thought in the Kansas City game we did a good job of staying in the game plan, keeping him going and getting back in the ballgame.
"He is where we start."
Jones has had 20 or more touches – handoffs plus receptions – in four games this year, and the Bucs have won three of them. He actually only had 10 touches in the narrow loss to Kansas City, he just made the most of them, with a 103 yards from scrimmage that included a 34-yard run and a 37-yard touchdown catch. In the last three games, Jones has had six "big plays," defined as either runs of 10 or more yards or receptions of 20 or more. The Buccaneers were able to keep Jones involved to some degree during their comeback attempt against the Chiefs but not as much as they would in a tighter game because they ran several series in a two-minute drill, which is generally the province of running back Leonard Fournette.
Even as the Buccaneers drafted Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round in April and later signed veterans Fournette and LeSean McCoy, Arians never wavered from his contention that Jones was the team's lead back. Against Carolina in Week 10, Arians even made a point of going right back to Jones after the young back fumbled on his first touch of the game. He was rewarded with a career-best 192-yard effort, including a 98-yard touchdown run. All of that support has helped with Jones confidence, especially after his career started so unexpectedly slowly in his rookie year.
"It definitely means a lot," said the former USC star. "Again, as a player, all you can do is ask for the opportunity. They've given it to me and I've just got to make the most of it. Take it and run with it – literally – so that's what I've been doing."
Through three-quarters of the season, Jones ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing with 820 yards and his 5.1 yards per carry is better than that of the three backs ahead of him, Tennessee's Derrick Henry (4.9), Minnesota's Dalvin Cook (5.0) and Jacksonville's James Robinson (4.6). If Jones can maintain that average it would set a new single-season record for the Buccaneers and it would probably also be accompanied by Jones' first 1,000-yard rushing season. Tampa Bay's offense hasn't featured a 1,000-yard rusher since 2015.
Jones prepared for the run at 1,000 during an offseason in which he made a point of adding muscle and getting stronger. That has allowed him to remain effective deep in the season, and the Buccaneers' very late bye week was another advantage in getting Jones ready for a stretch run in which he may get more carries than he has in any previous month. He's ready for it, though he doesn't feel a responsibility to carry the offense with so many other weapons around him. His success should lead to more opportunities for his teammates.
"My body feels good, coming fresh off this bye week," said Jones. "I appreciate Coach saying that. I definitely put in a lot of work this offseason and it feels good to be one of those players for the team moving forward. When you look at the guys we have around and everyone else that can make plays, I'm just trying to do my part. Coach always talks about, 'We want to stay balanced, keep the defense guessing out there. I think that's one of the things we do well when we are at our best is a combination of those two things. We've definitely got to pick it up for this last stretch and into the playoffs. That's been the goal."