The Buccaneers have held three of the most high-profile running backs in the league to peanuts so far this season. The trio of Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, New York's Saquon Barkley and LA's Todd Gurley were held to just 63 yards on the ground by the Buccaneer defense… total. It's all in an effort to make the opposition one dimensional, which increases the likelihood of winning the game exponentially if you ask any of these guys.
The Rams, for instance, threw the ball 68 times in their loss to the Bucs last Sunday. A normal day for an NFL quarterback will see him throw it around 20-30 times, meaning Los Angeles' Jared Goff did 2-3 times the average. Knowing the quarterback is going to throw the ball makes him predictable for pass rushers, which makes it easier to get pressure on him or force him into unfavorable situations. Goff, for instance, took nine hits and was hurried a whopping 16.0 times. Those 16.0 hurries were the second-most in the league behind only the Chicago Bears in Week Four. Goff had Bucs defenders breathing down his neck all game, which helped in creating turnovers like the three interceptions Tampa Bay recorded in the game.
It was done by shutting down the run, first and foremost. Los Angeles was held to a 2.55 yard-per-play average on the ground. Carolina was held to even less at 2.05 yards-per-play in Week Two. The Bucs will now be tasked with doing the same against another division rival, armed with another of the league's most dangerous running backs in the very versatile Alvin Kamara.
"It's no different – he runs hard, he's quick, he's fast, he's elusive, he catches screen passes, he runs angle routes, he runs like wide receivers run," Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said. "It's going to be a tough challenge because he can see the hole, he can cut it back, he can do a lot of things and he just doesn't come down with an arm tackle, so we've got to get everybody around the ball to try to contain him."
The Saints do a lot of different things with Kamara. They'll line him up wide as a receiver. They'll use him in tandem with another tailback in the backfield to confuse opposing defenses on which back to focus on. Head Coach Bruce Arians said he may be the team's biggest challenge in a lot of ways as far as running backs go.
"This guy's a hell of a back," Arians said. "This is four [strong running backs] in a row, but he is indeed different at jet sweeps and the way Sean [Payton's] using him to get him in space. He's probably the most dangerous receiver of the group of running backs that we've played so far, as far as angle routes going to the house, matchups on backers and safeties – he's a legitimate threat, like [Christian] McCaffrey."
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs will be looking to give the Saints a challenge of their own on the ground. It won't be easy against a defensive front like the one in New Orleans led by Cameron Jordan. They have the 20th ranked rushing defense but are coming off a game against Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys in which the Saints allowed just 45 yards on the ground.
"I think they're just very sound," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "They have a great front led by Cameron Jordan. He's one of the best players I get the chance to play against every year. [They have] great young corners – two first-round draft picks over there – and they just do what they do really good, so we have to do what we do really good."
After a great performance, save for a couple major runs that were called back due to penalties, second-year running back Ronald Jones in tandem with fellow running back Peyton Barber has allowed the Bucs to put up over 100 rushing yards in three of four games so far this season. Again, it would have happened in LA had two huge runs not been called back, too. But Jones is coming on at a good time and he'll be needed this Sunday in the Superdome.
"This kid's just been really getting better every day," Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said of Jones. "Every day, every week, he's getting better, he's approaching the game the right way, he's attacking things that we're asking him to attack so he can become a better football player, and as a coach, that's all you can [expect]. He's attacking the game of football the way he should attack the game of football. You like to see that."
If Jones can have another great game with a couple of those runs that count and the Bucs' defense can hold off Kamara, the Bucs look to have a pretty good shot at their division foes, and subsequently first place in the NFC South, on the road. It just comes down to the ground.