The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two per-game statistical targets for their rushing attack under Head Coach Dirk Koetter, with the belief that hitting one or the other greatly increases their chance for victory. One is to rush for at least 125 yards; the other is to average 4.5 yards per carry. It's possible, of course, and particularly advantageous to do both.
On Thursday night in Jacksonville, the Buccaneers achieved one of those goals, rushing for 125 yards on 33 carries, while falling a bit short of the other, with an average of 3.9 yards per tote. Of course, the Bucs' last "run" of the game was an intentional safety taken by punter Bryan Anger, resulting in a loss of nine yards. Remove that fluky play and the Bucs' average is at 4.3 and pretty close to the second goal.
And, yes, the Buccaneers won the game, pitching a 12-0 first-half shutout when both teams were playing their starters and holding on for a 12-8 victory. While the team's red zone problems from the preseason opener persisted, improvement in the ground game was one of the best developments in Week Two.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' preseason matchup with the Jaguars.
"We played overall more physical and we opened more holes than we did against Cincinnati," said Koetter on Friday. "Our type of offense always does better when we run the ball and then play-action off that, and we were able to do that last night."
It's instructive to consider how a team might hit one or the other of those rushing goals. A high per-carry average without a 125-yard total could very well indicate some explosive plays early, leading to more opportunities in the passing game. Putting up more than 125 yards while falling short of the per-carry goal will often be the result of protecting a lead in the second half and running repeatedly into a stacked front. There was a little bit of both on Thursday night.
The football went to starting running back Doug Martin on each of the first four plays. That included two short passes and a nifty, spinning run for six yards. An end-around to DeSean Jackson picked up 15, which surely helped give quarterback Jameis Winston time to complete three passes between 13 and 15 yards. Martin ran it in from two yards out to finish the drive. That's the element of the Bucs' attack that was missing last season, when the team averaged just over 100 rushing yards per game and just over 3.5 yards per carry.
"When we can get Doug a chance to get started, I think Doug showed that the things that we've been seeing in practice, his quickness, is there, and that always starts with the offensive line," said Koetter. "We didn't run it as well as we would have liked to in the two days that we practiced against the Jags, but those are in drills. In a 9-on-7 drill they have their two safeties down there so it's really seven on nine, they've got us out-numbered. When you have a real game you can spread them out a little bit more. One of the things as you all know that we need to improve over last season is we've got to run the football better. We've got to do better."
One thing that was different in Game Two after a less impressive 106-yard rushing output in Cincinnati was the middle of the Bucs' offensive line. Ali Marpet, who spent the offseason converting from guard to center, got his first NFL start at that latter position after sitting out in Week One with a minor injury. His initial exposure to the pivot went well, and he should continue to get better quickly.
"At the point of attack he did a really nice job and we're very happy with him," said Koetter. "He saw the defense, he made the calls. He did what we asked him to do. He had a couple minor mistakes that were just inexperience things at that position on some things that we tried to do on third down, but easily fixable. We feel good about that."
On the other hand, the Buccaneers lost starting right tackle Demar Dotson to a groin injury fairly early in the game, with Caleb Benenoch getting most of the first-team snaps after that. Koetter complimented the second-year player's work in run-blocking but termed his pass-protection inconsistent. There's no indication yet if Dotson will miss significant time, but if he does one alternative option would be to move starting left guard Kevin Pamphile to right tackle and insert veteran reserve Evan Smith in Pamphile's spot.
"Evan Smith would be the next guy in there right now," said Koetter. "That's where having those veterans like Evan and Joe [Hawley], we've got some flexibility there. Evan can play three positions. Joe could get us out of a game at guard, but primarily at center. Not what we're looking to do, but there's always the option of one of those two back at center and Ali at guard. Evan Smith has had a really nice camp. He's played more guard than center in this training camp even though he's a center by trade, and he's done a nice job the whole camp. That would probably be the first move right now – if we had to move Kevin out to tackle then Evan Smith would go at left guard."
The Buccaneers have two more preseason games to mix and match on the offensive line to prepare for various contingencies in the regular season. Those two games will also involve some more opportunities for young backs Peyton Barber and Jeremy McNichols. Barber was the team's leading rusher on Thursday night with 42 yards on nine carries, averaging 4.7 per tote.
"I thought Peyton did an outstanding job, and that's how he's looked at practice, his quickness and his power. As I've said many times, he's one of the most improved players on our team from where he started a year ago to where he is now. I think in McNichols' instance, he's a lot like Peyton was a year ago. He's a little indecisive, he's still feeling his way. He's improving and we like a lot of things about him, but he's just a little tentative out there, and that just comes with reps."