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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Ran Tough, And Enough, In Win Over Vikings

Statistically, the Buccaneers' rushing attack didn't look much improved over last year's anemic ground game, but it got some tough yards and kept Minnesota's defense honest in a narrow victory

run game story

In 2022, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense was the most imbalanced in the league, finishing second in passing yards and dead last in rushing yards. The Buccaneers brought in a new offensive coordinator in 2023 in Dave Canales, and while they are still going to run whatever plays give them the best chance to win, finding more balance is clearly an imperative.

The Buccaneers now have one game in their new system, a gritty 20-17 road win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. There are a lot of reasons the Bucs came away with what Head Coach Todd Bowles called "a great team win" – takeaways on defense, excellent kicking, some key plays by new quarterback Baker Mayfield – and at first glance an improved ground game wasn't one of them. In 2022, the Bucs' last-place rushing figures were 76.9 yards per game and 3.39 yards per carry. Against the Vikings, the Bucs gained 73 yards on the round and averaged 2.2 yards per tote.

But Canales and Bowles stuck with the ground game, eventually calling 33 rushing plays against 35 dropbacks by Mayfield. The offense didn't hit a single big play on the ground, which is a big reason the per-carry average was so low, as were three plays in the "victory formation" that lost three yards, but they did have 11 runs that gained between four and six yards. Many of those were minor victories of their own against a Minnesota front that was designed to make the Bucs' one dimensional. That never happened.

"I thought that there were tough runs, considering the fronts they were playing, trying to take away, and they kind of had an extra guy every time," said Bowles on Monday. "The run does not always have to be pretty. If you can get 33 runs and keep the defense off the field some, and keep [the offense] out there longer, [then] it keeps them honest and keeps them off of Baker some. It has a double fold, you know, the amount of carries are just as important as the yardage, if not more important. If we can stay with that and kind of stay balanced, it keeps everybody in the game."

The Bucs only ran 30 or more times in four of their 17 games last season, all victories. Over the last 10 seasons, including 2023, Tampa Bay has had 33 games in which it has run the ball 31 or more times. They have won all but two of them. Many football analysts would now be screaming the word "causation," and they wouldn't be wrong. Generally speaking, teams end up with particularly high handoff totals because they are winning, not the other way around.

However, in this particular case, the Buccaneers never led by more than one score, never held a lead for more than eight game minutes and were in a tie near the start of the fourth quarter. The game didn't script them into running it more and more; they specifically stuck with the run in a tight game for the strategic reasons noted by Bowles above.

It also helped that the Buccaneers rarely got into bad down-and-distance situations, which are generally caused by sacks and penalties. The team only allowed one sack of Mayfield and only committed three penalties, none of which were false-starts in the incredible din of U.S. Bank Stadium, and exactly none of which were called on the Bucs' offense. There's no credible threat of a run on second-and-15, which allows opposing defenses to dial up the pressure on the quarterback; it's vastly different on second-and-seven.

"It was progress from the preseason," said Bowles of the lack of penalties. "It kind of went down each game. We don't want to beat ourselves, we harp on that all the time. Sometimes you get those type of ball games but to start the season like that on the road with the crowd and atmosphere, especially with noise they bring and not get any false starts is impressive."

The Bucs' run game was in no way explosive in the season opener, and it will surely need to be more consistently productive if the offense is truly going to find some balance. But it did enough on Sunday to keep the Vikings' defense honest, and that's a decent start.

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