New Bucs RB Derrick Ward won't get a chance to run through live tackling until training camp
Is the Buccaneers' new rushing attack coming together during these foundation-building months of the offseason? It's difficult to say for sure without contact drills, but the coaching staff is pleased with what it sees so far
At this point, it's just an educated guess.
Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished 15th in the NFL in rushing, and peaked at sixth in the rankings at midfield before injuries to the backfield took their toll.
During the offseason, the Buccaneers signed a 1,000-yard rusher in Derrick Ward, adopted a new zone-blocking running scheme and professed a desire to play a more physical brand of football in 2009. There is little doubt that the Buccaneers intend to emphasize the running game in '09; there is less certainty that the strategy will work.
That is, a plan to run the ball extensively and being able to stick to that plan are two different things.
So, will the 2009 Buccaneers be able to build their offense around a sustained, proficient rushing game? Well, it's just an educated guess in non-contact May and OTA June, but the coaching staff is getting good vibes so far.
"The run game looks really good," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "That's where we've got to develop our tempo. We've got this new zone scheme, and they're coming out, they're rolling. That's the tempo we're talking about developing…once we understand how to do some of those things, we can be better. We'll get better."
In the Bucs' eyes, they need to get better on the ground if they are to avoid the late-season struggles that have plagued them the last few seasons. That was the idea in pairing Ward with Earnest Graham — most of the top running teams in the NFL last season utilized at least two lead backs — and importing the rushing scheme being taught by new coaches Jeff Jagodzinski and Pete Mangurian.
On the practice field, it looks good. Ward and Graham seem to be averaging about 50 yads a carry; of course, that's because every run tends to go the distance in a non-contact practice. It takes a more practiced eye to see if those runs would have been successful against live tackling. Tampa Bay's coaches are seeing signs that it's going to work, albeit for something less than 50 yards at a time.
"The whole thing with is how urgent your blocks are," said Morris. "It's hard to practice this scheme in practice. A lot of it is dictated on cuts and getting the guy off the backside and having backside cut angles and backside pursuit and backside hustle. That's where you get your problems. How do you practice that? That's what we're doing. You've got to constantly enforce it, you've got to constantly drill it. You've got to simulate things to make it happen for them. That's what they're doing right now, so I see the development coming with the run game. I'm pretty pleased."
At one point last season, the Bucs were averaging close to 150 rushing yards per game. After the second-half fade, they finished the year at 115 per outing. That difference of 35 yards of offense per game may not seem like much, but it is. Of the eight teams that averaged even 130 rushing yards per game last season, six made the playoffs. The 11-5 Patriots lost out on a tiebreaker; only the 8-8 Redskins were out of the race on the final weekend.
So it's easy to see why Morris and the Bucs' new management is making the running game a priority. It's harder to see if it's working at this point, but the educated guess says that it is right on track.
"Obviously, it's hard to gauge that," admitted Morris. "Some teams don't even do running periods during this time of year because of how hard it is to gauge. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I can gauge the tempo of a run game right now. I'm not going to give you that. But these guys, they're working hard. That's what I can give you."
That's a good start.