Four chances. That’s all you have in football to get 10 yards. In some scenarios, those 10 yards seem pretty easy. Other times, that first-down marker couldn’t feel further. But if you cut that yardage, say, in half on first down – you’re going to like your chances.
So, does it matter how you get those initial five or so yards?
Exactly the thoughts of Head Coach Bruce Arians.
"For me, it’s yardage,” he said of his balancing runs and passes on first down. ”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, 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. "
That setup is because of a strong run game – which the Bucs seem to have this season. At least, a vastly improved run game, averaging 121.7 rushing yards per game, ranking them eighth in the league – one behind this week’s opponent in the Los Angeles Rams. It was a run game that was pleaded for in past years. A run game that helps the offense remain not only balanced, but help in the passing game, too. It also eats clock. Let’s not forget that. So, in the fourth quarter, with the Bucs clinging to a six-point lead down the stretch with 10:27 left to play in the game, running the ball sounds pretty appealing.
And that’s exactly what the Bucs did. It was aided in the fact that on first down, running back Ronald Jones gained five yards. His next run on second-and-five? A 13-yard scamper and a fresh set of downs. Tampa gained 18 yards on three first downs in that drive by just feeding Jones.
"Yeah, I don’t think any were unsuccessful until third-down,” Arians said of that drive. ”They were all successful."
Ah yes, that third down. The Bucs did ultimately end up settling for a field goal at the end of the drive. But on third-down-and-two against the league’s 18th-ranked run defense, I’d probably run it, too. Regardless if you would or wouldn’t, it’s not an outlandish call.
"As an old saying of mine,” Arians continued. “‘You find a mud hole, you stomp all the water out of it before you go to the next one.’ And we were stomping that water pretty good until that third-down call."
That drive ate up four-and-a-half minutes of clock. It also helped further enforce the run. The Giants went three-and-out in their next possession and the first play when the Bucs got the ball back was another run to Jones, which went for a gain of eight. In fact, the Bucs were faced with third-and-two in that series and elected to pass. It fell incomplete to tight end Cameron Brate and Tampa Bay punted.
“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,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “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.”
It’s all about going with what works, or stomping all the water of a mudhole, as Arians said. And it changes throughout the game. But since when is committing to the run a bad thing?
“I think we were just running the ball effectively, and it really steps on a team’s will when you’re able to run down their throat,” Winston said. “You think about that drive we had against Carolina where we just ran that ball. We really were one block away from scoring a touchdown against the Giants, so it’s definitely a team effort. I got my chance at the end of the game and we executed there. We’re going to have some games like that. Now, we’ve just got to bounce back, focus on this game and try to get a victory.”