How will the run game be dictated in Tampa Bay?

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There has been plenty of debate as to how Bruce Arians will utilize the running backs in what will be the new-look Tampa Bay Buccaneers. One only needs to consider the past to predict the future.

For anyone who has followed Arians’ career or watched games of the teams he has coached, it’s obvious his coaching style favors the passing attack. He didn’t earn the moniker “Quarterback Whisperer” for being a defensive genius. An architect of the Air Coryell scheme, his offenses dictated receivers stretch the field for deep- and mid-range passes, and power running from the backfield personnel.

Arians and the Browns

His first professional offensive coordinator role came with the Cleveland Browns (2001-2003). Surprisingly enough, despite the mess of an organization the Browns were at the time, Arians had very little turnover at the skill positions to contend with.

In 2001, his offense churned out 4,512 total yards on 863 attempts. Of those total yards, 1,351 (417 attempts) were on the ground and 2,801 (446 attempts) were through the air. Arians used a two-back system which accounted for a bulk of the rushing yards. One of the backs, former Buccaneer Jamel White, saw moderate work as a pass-catcher. White had 44 receptions (60 targets) for 418 yards on the year. Overall, the running backs combined for 436 yards.

2001
Pass – 52%
Run – 48%

There was a slight uptick in pass versus run percentage in 2002. With 5,027 total yards on offense (958 attempts), 1,615 were run plays (406 attempts) and 3,412 were pass plays (552 attempts). Once again, the ground game was running-back-by-committee. Running backs combined for 565 yards, 452 of which belonged to White.

2002
Pass – 58%
Run – 42%

The script didn’t change much in Arians’ last season with the Browns, though the offense did decline. Combined attempts were 921 for 4,504 yards with 1,670 rush yards on 412 attempts and 2,834 passing on 509 attempts. Pass-catching running backs tallied 467 yards with White’s receiving yards dropping to 303.

2003
Pass – 55%
Run – 45%

Arians and the Steelers

After three successful seasons as a wide receivers coach in Pittsburgh, Arians was back in the comfort of the coordinator position from 2007 to 2011. He may not have been able to help keep the Browns from being the Browns, but he was able to put the Steelers offense on the map as one to fear. Three Super Bowls (two victories) in six years doesn’t only happen to the New England Patriots.

His first season as offensive coordinator resulted in an un-Arians-like higher run than pass percentage. Yards rushed were a whopping 2,168 on 511 attempts. The two-back system was gaining popularity in the league, but the Steelers’ Willie Parker saw the bulk of the workload. He also played a role in the passing game with 164 yards on 23 receptions. However, Parker’s backup had the most receptions of the two with 184 yards. Total yardage reached 5,239 yards, of which 3,071 (442 attempts) of were aerial.

2007
Pass – 46%
Run – 54%

In 2008, there was an increase in passing and a decrease in rushing, Arians’ specialty. Returning to form seemed to work well for the offense, as the team won its second Super Bowl during his time in Pittsburgh. There were 966 total attempts for 4,991 yards with 1,690 rushing (460 attempts) and 3,301 passing (506 attempts). The ground game scored an impressive 16 touchdowns, which includes three from quarterbacks rushing. Two were scored by Ben Roethlisberger and one came from now-Buccaneers’ new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Running backs combined for 333 yards receiving.

2008
Pass – 52%
Run – 48%

Coming off a Super Bowl high, 2009 was a down year record-wise at 9-7, but the offense still produced a remarkable 5,941 yards on 964 attempts. The run game yielded 1,793 (428 attempts), and 536 pass attempts produced 4,148 yards. Running backs had 478 yards receiving.

2009
Pass – 56%
Run – 44%

In 2010, Arians’ offense helped put the Steelers back atop the AFC North thanks partially to 5,525 total yards on 950 attempts. There were 479 attempts through the air for 3,601 yards, and running backs contributed 444 receiving yards. Rush attempts of 471 totaled 1,924 yards.

2010
Pass – 46%
Run – 54%

During Arians’ reign as coordinator in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were known for their aerial attack. Despite a consecutive season at 12-4, 2011 would be the last of the Air Coryell scheme. The offense racked up 5,957 total yards on 1,027 attempts, 1,903 of which were rushing (434 attempts) and 4,054 were passing (593 attempts). Running backs helped support the passing game with 342 yards receiving. After enjoying a ranking in the top 15 seven out of eight seasons that Arians endured Pittsburgh, the offense ended the season ranked 22nd. The low run percentage contributed heavily to Pittsburgh not renewing Arians’ contract.

2011
Pass – 58%
Run – 42%

Arians and the Colts

The Indianapolis Colts offense climbed 11 spots (from 29th to 18th) when Arians were brought in as offensive coordinator. With rookie Andrew Luck at the helm, 628 passes were attempted for 4,128 yards. Rush yards totaled 1,671 on 440 attempts. Overall, 5,799 yards were ground out in 1,068 attempts. Running backs accounted for 322 yards as pass catchers.

2012
Pass – 59%
Run – 41%

Head Coach Cometh

Arians’ achievements as interim head coach in Indianapolis earned him permanency elsewhere in 2013. He took his talents southwest to the Cardinals where veteran Carson Palmer would be calling the signals to Arians’ plays. Together, they took their offense from the league bowels of 31st to a more competitive 17th. With 474 attempts came 4,002 passing yards with running backs catching 571 of those yards. Those backs gained 1,540 rushing yards on 422 attempts. Air and ground combined for 896 attempts and produced 5,542 yards.

2013
Pass – 53%
Run – 47%

In 2014, 965 attempts earned a total of 5,116 yards of which 3,808 were passing and 1,308 were rushing. Backs accounted for 485 yards receiving and five touchdowns.

2014
Pass – 59%
Run – 41%

The 2015 Cardinals offense shredded opposing defenses for 6,533 total yards as their ranking skyrocketed to second from the 24th spot the previous season. Ground gains resulted in 1,917 yards on 452 attempts and 16 touchdowns. Palmer threw for a career-high 4,616 yards (562 attempts) and a whopping 35 scores. Running backs combined for 679 yards receiving.

2015
Pass – 55%
Run – 45%

The next two seasons would result in the worst team records since Arians took over for the Cardinals. Despite putting 4,136 yards through the air and 1,732 on the ground, the 2016 season ended with an unfavorable record of 7-8-1. Twenty rushing touchdowns were scored and running backs posted 970 yards receiving, thanks to the pass-catching talents of David Johnson. The run/pass balance, however, was non-existent.

2016
Pass – 62%
Run – 38%

In 2017, what would ultimately be Arians’ final season with the Cardinals, the team avoided a tie game to end at 8-8. While attempts increased, total yards of 5,026 did not. Pass yards yielded a disappointing 3,640, but 2,168 rush yards were racked up. Running backs pitched in with 604 yards receiving.

2017
Pass – 54%
Run – 46%

Air Coryell

The Buccaneers will continue to operate the Air Coryell philosophy with which Arians has had great success, and one the offense has run since Winston was drafted. However, plays will not be called by Arians; those duties belong to Leftwich. If you blinked in the fall of 2009, you missed Leftwich’s brief stint as Bucs quarterback. Battling through hip and throwing elbow injuries, Leftwich went 0-3 to start the 2009 season before being placed on injured reserve. This is when the Josh Freeman era began.

Byron Leftwich

In October, midway through the 2018 season, Leftwich was promoted from Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Mike McCoy didn’t even have a chance to get comfortable in Arizona and was ousted after a 1-6 start to the season. The team didn’t fare much better after Leftwich was promoted, adding only two more wins to finish the season at 3-13.

When Arians hired Leftwich to coach Arizona’s quarterbacks in 2017, he was familiar with Leftwich’s work ethic. As quarterback, he played in place of Roethlisberger for six games when Arians was coordinator. He must’ve liked what he previously saw in Leftwich as the quarterbacks coach.

Fast-forward to 2018 when the then-retired head coach was working as an analyst for CBS Sports. From his broadcast booth vantage point, Arians witnessed how Leftwich performed in his new role and said he is a “rising star in this business”.

So, it should come as no surprise that Arians scooped Leftwich up to be part of his crew in Tampa Bay. Given how quickly the former quarterback has risen in the ranks is an obvious tribute to his coaching dexterity. Still, he has only has six games of experience as an offensive coordinator with a record of 2-7. Being responsible for play-calling is a daunting task, especially for someone as green as he is. Arians is showing a tremendous leap of faith ceding Leftwich the reins. It will be interesting to see exactly how that relationship works once the season commences, as Arians had always possessed play-calling authority whether in the coordinator role or as head coach. It is always possible that should Leftwich struggle with this responsibility, Arians could take over. He is the winningest coach in Cardinals history and part of that reason is that he knows how to call offensive plays.

How Quickly Can the Run Game Be Solved?

Where the Bucs seem to need the most help, however, is in the run game. For two of the five seasons that Arians held the post in Arizona, he had the luxury of a star running back in Johnson, who was equally adept in the passing game. Unfortunately, the Bucs don’t have a player of his caliber on their roster. In the recent past, that void has put a limit on the potential the offense can reach. If one (or two) doesn’t step up and stand out in 2019, it won’t be a surprise to see the Bucs draft one highly in 2020.

Tampa Bay’s “star,” if there is one, is Peyton Barber. He posted mediocre numbers his first two seasons but showed promise in 2018 with 871 yards rushing and five touchdowns. If he can build upon that, the Bucs might have something. Beyond Barber, there’s no telling what the roster will look like at running back come final cut day on August 31. Ronald Jones’ rookie numbers were underwhelming, especially considering he was a second-round pick. Organized team activities and mini-camp were productive for undrafted free-agent Bruce Anderson; should that continue into training camp, he’ll find himself a spot on the roster.

Andre Ellington to Bucs

The Bucs did not address the running back position in Arians’ first draft with the team. Instead, as one of his first orders of business, Arians signed Ellington, his former back in Arizona. Ellington was a 2013 sixth-round pick during Arians’ first draft as head coach. In the running back role, he’s averaged 4.2 yards-per-attempt and 9.1 in the passing game.

During his five-year Cardinals career, he appeared in 65 games (18 starts), toting the rock 413 times for 1,750 yards and 10 scores. Ellington also added to the passing game, recording 145 catches for 1,296 yards and three touchdowns. Though he suffered a minor fumbling issue early in his career (four fumbles in three seasons), he has not lost the ball since 2015.

Fresh Legs

Ellington was released by the Cards in November 2017 and acquired off waivers by the Houston Texans and played in four games to close out the season. Typically known more for results in the passing game than in the run game, he recorded 72 yards receiving and attempted five runs for only two yards.

How Ellington fits in with the Bucs will be something to watch at training camp. He has only played for five seasons and now has fresh legs, as he became an unrestricted free agent in 2018 and spent the season unsigned.

Arians’ Past is Bucs Future

If the past is any indicator, Arians will employ running backs sparingly as pass-catchers (look for Ellington to be relied on heavily here), and while teams generally strive for run-pass balance, advantage will go to the passing game. It’s also possible that Winston will have even more rushing yards in the Arians-era than the 794 he’s had in his career thus far.

Like an orchestra conductor, Arians is directing the team. His coaching philosophies will be written all over the Bucs. Expect an average rush total percentage of 44 and average total pass of 56 percent, as what he’s done with offenses in the past will be a major indicator of what will be the 2019 and beyond Buccaneers.

 

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