Theoretically, run defense wouldn't seem to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' biggest concern this week. Tampa Bay's defensive results have been dissatisfying enough to prompt the team to make a change at coordinator; the Buccaneers rank 31st in the NFL in yards allowed and 32nd in points allowed. However, the Bucs' run defense stands fifth in the rankings, giving up just 84.2 yards per game; as Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted earlier in the week, coverage is where the team has really suffered.
It's true, of course, that some of that run-pass imbalance has been situational. The Buccaneers have had games where they've rushed out to big early leads, forcing their opponents to throw more frequently in a comeback bid. They've had other games where their opponents were having so much success throwing the ball that the run game became an afterthought. Even with those concessions, however, the Buccaneers have legitimately been tough to run. More telling is the 3.76 yards per carry they have allowed, which is also fifth-best in the NFL.
"Yeah, good, we've done a good job [stopping the run], but no one that we've played to date has really been a run-first team," said Koetter. "New Orleans in that first game, maybe because of their running back situation they ran it some, but not as much as I think that they will as the year goes on with both their backs. Nobody's tried to consistently pound the ball at us."
The obvious storyline for the Buccaneers' defense this coming Sunday is how it will perform against a rookie quarterback, as the Cleveland Browns are led by number-one overall draft pick Baker Mayfield. Tampa Bay has largely faced established and star-caliber quarterbacks so far this season, such as Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and even reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. Mayfield will be making just his fourth NFL start, and while he has definitely shown some early signs of pending stardom, he has some of the up-and-down numbers you would expect from a rookie quarterback. That includes a 4-5 TD-INT ratio, a 55.6% completion rate and a 72.8 passer rating.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
So will the Buccaneers turn hyper-aggressive under new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and try to throw the kitchen sink at Mayfield in terms of blitzes, disguises and other stunts? It remains to be seen if there will be a substantive change to the overall approach under Duffner, but that may beside the point. What Tampa Bay needs to do to make Mayfield uncomfortable is take away his running game.
"First of all, Cleveland is a run first football team," said Koetter when asked how his team would game-plan for Mayfield. "They're fourth in the league in rushing. They've got the three-headed attack at running back – three really good running backs."
That three-headed backfield Koetter mentioned consists of former 49er Carlos Hyde, rookie second-rounder Nick Chubb and change-of-pace back Duke Johnson. Hyde has been the primary ballcarrier, with 115 of the team's 178 carries and a team-high 382 yards and five touchdowns. Chubb has been used in small doses – he's had either two or three carries in each of the Browns' six games – but he's hit some big plays, turning his 16 runs into 173 yards. Johnson has 16 carries, too, but has been the top pass-catcher of the trio, with 14 grabs for 164 yards.
Overall, Cleveland has run for 137.7 yards per game, and while that does include a bit of inflation from Tyrod Taylor's scrambles before he ceded the job to Mayfield, that's still the most successful rushing attack the Bucs have faced so far this year. If Tampa Bay's front can continue to slow down opposing backs, that would take away some of the options from Mayfield and the passing attack.
"We've talked in here about our own offense," said Koetter. "If you can run the ball successfully, then you're going to take your play-action game off of that. In the NFL, third down is third down. You've got your third down game plan, your red zone game plan, your two-minute game plan. I think it start with our defense. We have to start with how are we stopping the run and how are we – the plays the concepts that Cleveland runs they run on a consistent basis – how are you going to try to attack those?"
The Browns are indeed more likely to run the ball than most of the teams the Bucs have faced so far. Week Four foe Chicago ranks seventh in the NFL in percentage of plays that are runs, at 45.9%, though against the Buccaneers they pulled away early with a string of big passing plays before settling down to that sort of rhythm. New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Atlanta all rank 18th or lower in run percentage, none of them getting close to 40%. The Browns have run on 40.4% of their plays so far, a ratio that slipped quite a bit last week when they fell into a big hole against the Chargers.
The Bucs know they can't dismiss the threat of Mayfield's passing just because he's a rookie. For one, he's obviously very talented, and he can extend plays with his good mobility. For another, the NFL has clearly developed into a league in which just about every team can put up big passing numbers in the right situation. But there could be something to a rookie passer's added vulnerability when things get a little chaotic. According to NFL stat service Sportradar, Mayfield has a 76.5 passer rating and a 60.2% completion rate when he is not pressured. When he is pressured, those numbers fall to a 60.5% rating and a 40.0% completion mark.
So the Bucs don't want Mayfield to have a preponderance of unpressured throws.
"What I've seen him do in the NFL – forget college – in the NFL I've been really impressed," said Koetter. "I've been impressed with mainly his timing – how quick he gets it out. He hits the back of his drop, he knows where he's going, and he gets the ball out on time."
Hopefully the Buccaneers won't see a lot of that on Sunday. They'll have a better chance of making the Browns' future franchise quarterback look like a rookie if they can take away his best friend, the rushing game, and put him into a more difficult passing environment.