Buccaneers: Numbers are extremely telling on run game problems

Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) /

The Buccaneers have to abandon the run on first down.

It has almost become a joke at this point. The first down runs by the Buccaneers didn’t work last year, and after one game this season, they aren’t working this year either.

This has become a growing trend over the past few seasons. Gone are the days of establishing the run to set up the pass. The opposite is actually true, especially on a team like the Bucs.

With the greatest quarterback of all time and the best modern pass-catcher room, who wouldn’t want to let the ball rip on first down? Unfortunately, Byron Leftwich makes the opposite decision far more often than he should.

The run obviously still plays a larger role in the playoffs, but the pass is king in the regular season, and the numbers from the Bucs last night prove this beyond a doubt.

From a split standpoint, Tampa ran the ball on first down 11 times on qualified drives (leaving out the final drives of each half where circumstances make the data unreliable) and passed on first 16 times. Off to a good start, but even then, the divide could and should be much larger.

On those 11 first-down rushes, the Bucs gained 42 yards for 3.8 yards per carry. On the other hand, Tampa gained 185 yards on their 16 first down passes, good for 11.6 yards per attempt on first down.

Gaining more than three times as many yards on first down passes rather than first down runs should already speak volumes about the substantial benefit of the pass over the run, but the numbers don’t stop there.

“But the run sets up the pass!” Actually, to the football guys in the room, the run doesn’t set up anything better than the pass. The pass sets up follow-up plays with a higher level of efficiency than running. This is even true of play-action in a league that passes first. Play-action plays actually open up running plays later on, not the flip.

On second down following runs, the Bucs averaged 6.3 yards per play. This is decent, especially when it pairs nicely with their 3.8 yards per carry on first to round out a first down. However, the passing numbers still blow the running numbers out of the water.

On second down plays following passes, the Bucs averaged 10.3 yards per play. This isn’t quite double, but there is still a clear distinction between the run and pass, even after just one game.

The numbers prove in nearly every area that the run is not what the Buccaneers need to lean on, especially not in the regular season. The Cowboys just came out with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with Ezekiel Elliott healthy and still threw the ball 58 times with a quarterback that was out most of last season against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Everyone saw the success Dallas had.

Running the ball just for the sake of running it wastes plays and establishes nothing. There are moments when clock management comes into play, but quick/short passes to receivers are a much better use of personnel in Tampa.

Who do you trust more to get a first down; Ronald Jones or Antonio Brown/Chris Godwin? If the sole goal is to move the chains and keep the clock going, there is still a pretty clear answer. And don’t let anyone tell you there is a risk in doing that-is Tom Brady really going to miss a four-yard pass? It probably has the same likelihood of a Buccaneer running back getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

Trusting AB or Godwin to beat one guy in space is a much safer bet than needed Jones to beat multiple guys in a tight box.

Jones and Fournette are decent backs, but they aren’t the strength of this offense. Give the ball to Brady and pass until the defense vacates the box. Once you start seeing seven or even six guys in the box, start running the ball out of 10 personnel.

This isn’t a complex or ground-breaking concept to understand. The opposite worked for decades to set up the pass when running the ball was easier. Run until they stack the box, then pass with much higher efficiency.

Trying to run the ball with this roster against eight-man boxes is asinine. You can run the ball on second or third-down all you want, but leave the first-down runs in the early 2000s where they belong. The age of analytics is here-start using it. Your run game will thank you when fewer plays make a much bigger impact.

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