Since the arrival of Todd Bowles in 2019, first as the defensive coordinator for three seasons and now as head coach, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been the most difficult team in the NFL against which to run the football. Over 53 games in that span, the Buccaneers have allowed 4,470 rushing yards, or roughly 84 per game and a total of 581 yards fewer than the next best run defense.
Those numbers do include the results from Sunday's 41-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but they were definitely not helped by that outing. Kansas City ran the ball 37 times for 189 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per tote and finding the end zone twice. Only two runs went for more than 10 yards, including an 11-yard jaunt by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but the Chiefs were routinely picking up five or on first downs, leading to very manageable third downs. That explains in part why Kansas City was able to convert 12 of their 17 third-down tries, including eight of nine in the first half at they built a 28-17 lead.
Bowles attributed the uncharacteristically porous nature of the Bucs' run defense on Sunday night both to how the Chiefs played and some mistakes made by the defenders.
"Missed tackles, blocking assignments and they played tougher than us and they played better than us," said Bowles succinctly.
Stopping the run first in order to make the opposition one-dimensional – which is exactly what the Chiefs did to Tampa Bay's offense on Sunday night – has always been a cornerstone of Bowles' approach to the defense. That will surely be a focus this week because the Buccaneers can't afford to have another performance like Sunday night in Week Five.
The next team coming to Raymond James Stadium is the Atlanta Falcons, who happen to be tied with the Buccaneers atop the NFC South at 2-2. The Falcons also happen to be one of the NFL's best rushing teams so far in 2022. Atlanta is picking up 168.0 ground yards per game and 5.13 yards per carry through four contests, which ranks fourth and sixth in the NFL, respectively. Though they had to put lead back Cordarrelle Patterson on injured reserve on Monday due to a knee injury, the Falcons had little trouble moving the ball in Week Four with rookie fifth-rounder Tyson Allgeier and practice squad call-up Caleb Huntley in their narrow win over Cleveland on Sunday.
As you would expect, given how things unfolded Sunday night, Bowles is concerned about how his run defense will perform when the Falcons take the field next Sunday.
"I think they've done a great job," said Bowles of Atlanta's new-look offense. "Their run schemes are outstanding, probably one of the tops in the league. Their defense is playing very well. They do a good job keeping you off balance, [Marcus] Mariota does a good job of running the offense. They have a lot of pieces to use. Obviously the tight end is great, they've got a first-round receiver. They've got a lot of pieces and the offensive line is very tough, so they've been running the ball on everybody. And considering how we played on Sunday, it's going to be a tough task."
Atlanta's offense looks quite a bit different in the post-Matt Ryan era. In Ryan's last season with the team a year ago, the Falcons ranked second-to-last in the league with 85.4 rushing yards per game and 30th overall with 3.69 yards per carry. Atlanta hasn't finished a campaign with a top-10 rushing attack since 2016 and has been 27th or worse in each of the last four seasons.
But Mariota, a gifted runner, has replaced the relatively immobile Ryan under center and second-year Head Coach Arthur Smith, who certainly had a power running game in Tennessee, has leaned on the team's new strength on the ground. That aforementioned star tight end is Kyle Pitts, the fourth-overall pick in the 2021 draft who had 1,026 receiving yards as a rookie. Through four games this year, Pitts has just 10 catches for 150 yards. The first-round receiver is eighth-overall pick Drake London, who is off to a pretty good start (18 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns), but Atlanta is running the ball more than any team other than the pass-allergic Chicago Bears. The Falcons have kept it on the ground on 55.5% of their offensive snaps so far, and none of their games have been blowouts. All four of Atlanta's contests have been decided by four points or fewer.
In their win over the Browns on Sunday, Atlanta ran the ball 35 times and dropped back to pass 20 times, with Mariota only completing seven passes the entire game. Patterson was limited to nine carries, though he turned them into 38 yards and a score, while Allgeier and Huntley got 10 handoffs each and produced 84 and 56 yards, respectively. Mariota only ran it five times for three yards (three were kneel-downs) but on the season he already has 95 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
Tampa Bay's rush defense is clearly not as strong with Akiem Hicks sidelined by a foot injury and not lining up next to Vita Vea to form a mini-mountain range. Hicks is not on injured reserve but he's missed the last two games and there's no certainty he'll be back for next weekend's game against the Falcons.
"We'll see where he is this week and next week," said Bowles on Monday. "Obviously, we want him back as soon as possible, but we want him healthy. We'll see how he moves."
With or without Hicks, the Buccaneers need to get their run defense back to its usual level of importance. And with the Falcons headed to town, they need to do it quickly.