No end run for Bucs: Tampa will need to move ball on ground to solve Saints

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) hands off to running back Leonard Fournette (28) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won 31-27. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

TAMPA, Fla. — In a perfect world, this weekend turns into something legendary. A head-to-head showdown of the two most prolific quarterbacks the NFL has ever known. Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees with the entire season, and a generation of memories, on the line.

But before that can happen, the Buccaneers are going to have to run the football. Seriously, effectively, faithfully run the ball.

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There’s nothing optional about this. We’ve already seen what happens when the Bucs become one-dimensional against New Orleans, and it isn’t worth three hours of your Sunday.

The problem is, I’m not sure the Bucs are capable of pulling it off.

Head coach Bruce Arians disagrees, and he’s obviously a lot smarter about these things than I am. Arians correctly points out that Tampa Bay’s inability to run in the second New Orleans game had a lot to do with turnovers and a score that got lopsided in a hurry.

“The first game,” he said, “we ran the ball pretty well at times.”

That’s true, depending on your standards. The Bucs finished the game with 86 rushing yards (not bad) on 26 carries (not good). That works out to 3.3 yards per run, which isn’t terribly efficient. Even worse, 11 of those yards came on the final play of the game when the Bucs were just trying to get out of the Superdome without further embarrassment. That means, for the first 59:37, the Bucs gained 75 yards on 25 carries.

Do you know what you call that? Third-and-long.

The Bucs were often in passing situations because they weren’t picking up much yardage on first down, and it didn’t help that the Saints seemed to have no fear of Tampa Bay’s ability to run.

Between the two games, the Bucs called 17 running plays on first down and gained 2 yards or less on 10 of those plays. That’s an atrocious rate, and it has nothing to do with the score being lopsided.

Now, it must be said, the Bucs were not alone in this predicament. The Saints were fourth in the NFL in run defense, so there were a lot of teams running into this particular brick wall. In fact, the most effective way to beat New Orleans in 2020 was with an old-fashioned ground attack. The Saints were 2-4 when giving up 98 or more rushing yards, which means they were 10-0 the rest of the time.

That’s why the Bucs cannot count on Brady to bail them out on Sunday.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be crucial to the outcome, and it doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of having a big day. But the previous two New Orleans games have proven that Brady isn’t going to carry Tampa Bay on his back against this team.

What makes New Orleans even more problematic is the defensive front can rush the quarterback as well as stop the run. The Saints blitz on 31.8 percent of their plays, which is just about the NFL median line, and yet they’re sixth in the league in the rate of quarterback pressures.

One of Brady’s gifts is being able to read defenses, anticipate the blitz and get the ball out quickly against man-to-man coverage. But New Orleans was able to put pressure on Brady without many blitzes, which meant the secondary was still flooded with defenders.

Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why his interception rate against New Orleans (6.7) was more than five times higher than against the rest of the NFL (1.2).

“When we played them in the last two years, we’ve turned the ball over too many times and given them too many opportunities,” Arians said. “If we don’t turn the ball over, it’s a different ballgame.”

Once again, that’s true. But it’s also true that Tampa Bay’s turnovers have not been random events. They’re often caused by pressure on the quarterback, and that pressure is directly related to the struggles running the ball.

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We’ve seen enough of Brady at age 43 to know he is still capable of magic. This weekend would be a perfect time for another Brady memory, but the Tampa Bay running game has to give him a chance.

Romano writes for the Tampa Bay Times

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