As head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dirk Koetter has made his players aware of a short list of per-game statistical thresholds that are often associated with victory. Hitting one of them doesn't guarantee anything, but meeting most of them in the same game will usually produce the desired outcome.
For instance, Koetter wants his team to commit six or fewer penalties in a game, and to force two or more turnovers. When it comes to the running game, there is an either/or goal the team is trying to reach. The Buccaneers hope to rush for at least 125 yards in a game, but if circumstances lead to a low number of attempts, than the goal is to average at least 4.5 yards per tote.
Last year, the season was six weeks old before the Buccaneers reached either one of those thresholds, which helped contribute to a 1-3 start. Tampa Bay did turn things around in the second half of the season, with a five-game winning streak spurring the team to a 9-7 finish and a near postseason miss on a tiebreaker. That run, however, was fueled more by a turnover-happy defense and an offense that began to protect the football much better. The Buccaneers would only hit either one of those rushing goals one more time, in a season-capping win over Carolina.
Contrast that with the 2015 season, in which Tampa Bay's rushing attack hit at least one of those marks (and often both) in 10 games and came very close in two others. Koetter wasn't running the team yet, but he was running the offense in his first season as the Buccaneers' coordinator. Doug Martin finished as the NFL's second-leading rusher and Tampa Bay ranked fifth in that category as a team.
The Buccaneers obviously want to get back to that 2015 level of ground-game efficiency, though they will do it for at least three games without Martin, who is concluding a suspension levied by the league at the end of last year. The Bucs kept just three tailbacks on the 53-man roster to start the season: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber. Tight end Alan Cross can serve as a fullback when needed.
"As a group, [our goal is] being more consistent in the run game," said Rodgers, who recorded the Buccaneers' only two individual 100-yard rushing games in 2016. "Last year was a rollercoaster, up and down, so us as a group we've got to do our job and make sure we reach that goal every week."
It took the Bucs five games in 2016 before they even broke 100 yards in a single outing as a team. Rodgers' first two starts – with both Martin and Sims injured – resulted in a 113-yard outing for Tampa Bay at Carolina and another 249-yard day at San Francisco. Both games were wins. The emphasis for Rodgers and his teammates in 2017 is to get that kind of result right away.
"It's the same approach," he said, "go out there and try to get the running game started early this year and try to reach our goals in the running game."
In Week One, Chicago's defense held Atlanta to 64 yards on the ground and 2.8 yards per carry, which left the heavily-favored Falcons grinding out a six-point win that went down to the wire. That won't stop the Buccaneers from trying to establish their own rushing attack early, and that's no strategic secret. Even as Tampa Bay's running game lost a good amount of its effectiveness last year, Koetter's play-calling didn't deviate from his approach in 2015. Tampa Bay ranked ninth in percentage of running plays overall and fifth in percentage of running plays on first-and-10 in 2015; last year, the team ranked ninth and third in those two categories, respectively.
What is less clear is how the Buccaneers will divvy up those inevitable carries. Rodgers looks like the favorite to start on first downs but Barber, the second-year player, had a strong preseason and could get a larger load then he did as an undrafted rookie. Sims is an outstanding third-down back who will probably also get a share of the first and second-down work.
Koetter said those three backs had the complementary skills necessary to fill all the roles his offense calls for in its running backs.
"Yes, absolutely," said the coach. "We have a lot of confidence in these three guys and all three of them will be out there playing on Sunday."
Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, who helps Koetter devise the game plan during the week, said the Buccaneers' added weapons on the outside – including big-play wide receiver DeSean Jackson and seam-stretching rookie tight end O.J. Howard – should also help soften up defenses for the running game. He expects the running back rotation to work itself out as the games go on.
"Between Peyton and Quizz and Chuck, I don't know how it will end up dividing itself out," said Monken. "Getting Chuck back – we lost him for a good part of last year – gives us some real flexibility on third downs, putting the ball in his hands he is a really good space player. Obviously, we will continue to try and do that. The other two are going to have to do a great job running the football and taking advantage of the creases when we get them."
The Buccaneers may end up very deep at tailback when Martin returns following his suspension, though Koetter has steadfastly declined to speculate what Martin's role will look like when he does get back on the field. In the meantime, the team will go into every game with the exact same rushing goals as it always does, and it expects the backs on hand to meet those goals.
Rodgers is confident that they can do just that.
"We're going to do our job," he said. "We're going to go out there and make the plays when our number is called and not look for a decline. We've got expectations in our room and we're going to reach those expectations."