Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano has stated his commitment to the run game in 2011. As with all scheme plans, nothing is ever concrete. Teams must adapt throughout a game, but the foundation is always there. By choosing to buck the pass heavy trend and focusing on the opposite, the Bucs could be ahead of the curve. As reported and debated among most media outlets, teams have devalued both the running back and linebacker positions. Gone are the days of obsession over guys like Brian Ulracher of the Chicago Bears. Instead, the focus has shifted to agile players capable of playing the run and the pass. As with anything, when the focus moves to quantity, you lose quality.
According to NFL.com, Clay Mathews ranked 91st in tackles, Tamba Hali ranked 67th, Terrell Suggs 59th and Ray Lewis 33rd. Every one of those players are well known throughout the league as elite achievers at the position. Yet none could even break the top 20 in tackles. What they do provide are “splash” plays. Sacks, passes defended, interceptions and fumbles have become the new evaluation of value for a linebacker. Of course, arguments can be made about overall production, but how valuable are those splash plays if your team allows opposing running backs to run rampant? Bucs fans are all too familiar with this point after watching a season riddled with missed tackles, poor angles and a run defense ranked dead last. In contrast, players like London Fletcher, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, whom are tackle machines and run savvy, saw lesser paydays and interest in free agency this year. Linebackers who affect quarterback play mean more in a passing league than those who affect running back play. Yet what happens when a team isn’t reliant heavily on their pass game?
Given the focus on versatile linebackers instead of run specialists, coach Schiano may be on to something. The Bucs have already drastically improved their pass game before Vincent Jackson even takes a snap. The threat is there, one which will keep secondaries and linebackers on their heels. The signing of Carl Nicks only adds to that threat, ensuring Josh Freeman has the time to make his reads and connect with the star wide receiver. Nicks’ arrival also ensures the Bucs will have among the best offensive lines when it comes to running the ball. While there has been a clamoring to draft Trent Richardson, it really may not matter who is running the ball, the success rate will be there. Divisional foe New Orleans finished the season 6th in total rushing yards despite a virtual roller coaster at the running back position. Ironically, it was the smallest man on the field, Darren Sproles, who finished as the leading rusher for the team. The point is, regardless of who is running the ball, it all boils down to the offensive line. The Bucs now have among the most seasoned and talented lines in the NFL. Combined with the vertical threats of Jackson, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, it won’t take an elite running back to find success.
Another point validating the success of the run game in 2012 is the Bucs strength of schedule. Based on 2011 opponents win-loss records, the Buccaneers have the 6th easiest schedule in the NFL. While many don’t buy into S.O.S. stats, a look at last season’s defensive performances of teams the Bucs face in 2012 gives more validation. Of the 13 different teams the Bucs will face, only two rank among the top ten in rush defense. The rest play out much weaker, many of the teams doing little to shore up their problems. Below is a list of 2012 opponents and their rush defense rankings last season.
Rams (31st), Raiders (27th), Chiefs (26th), Panthers 2x (25th), Broncos (22nd), Chargers (20th), Giants (19th), Redskins (18th), Eagles (16th), Saints (12th), Vikings (11th), Cowboys (7th), Falcons (6th).
While things certainly favor a running attack, the bigger problem is where the Bucs find themselves on this list…dead last.