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Trying to make sense of the Bucs' struggling running game

TAMPA, Fla. -- If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense is supposed to be a Ferrari, then the Bucs' ground game is supposed to be its tried and true V12 engine, designed to set up play-action passes and explosive plays downfield.

In 2015, it was a well-oiled, powerful machine, with both Doug Martin and Charles Sims each amassing 1,000 all-purpose yards.

Fast-forward to 2017, however, and they're operating with a junkyard engine from 1976 and going nowhere.

The Bucs have rushed for 655 yards this year, good for 28th in the league. They're averaging 3.68 yards per rushing attempt, which ranks 25th. Only four teams in the league have had fewer rushing touchdowns (3). And for a team that values explosive plays as much as the Bucs (rushing plays of 12 yards or more), they've managed only nine, which is tied for worst in the league. They feel the weight of that, too.

"The biggest challenge for us right now is to not get down ourselves, to stay optimistic, to stay positive and bring a lot of energy on the practice fields, to keep practicing and just get ready for the next game," Martin said. "With the offense and the run game, we've just gotta execute better. We've gotta focus on the details, just execute the little things and it will start opening up."

Is it bad blocking?

According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs are getting stuffed on 21 percent of their rushing plays, with "stuffs" defined as plays where the running back is tackled in the backfield or behind the line of scrimmage. The league average is also 21 percent. They are only averaging 0.48 open-field yards -- 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage -- compared to the league-best 1.40 they had in 2015.

Bucs running backs are also averaging 2.09 yards per carry per run before contact, which is 25th in the league, and 1.59 yards per carry after contact, which is 21st. In 2015, they averaged 2.78 yards per run before contact (seventh in the league) and 1.97 yards per carry after contact (second in the league).

This suggests the run-blocking needs improvement, something of which the offensive line takes full ownership.

"Obviously it's extremely frustrating. We want to fix it and fix it in a hurry. But we haven't," center Ali Marpet said emphatically. "It's hard. I don't know. I feel like we're preparing as well as we should. I don't know what needs to be changed, honestly, but something does need to be changed. I just don't know what it is."

Are defenses stacking the box?

No. As a matter of fact, opposing defenses have only put eight defenders in the box against the Bucs on 35 snaps this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which averages out to four or five times per game. That's 21st in the league. Compare that to 110 snaps for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have rookie sensation Leonard Fournette.

This is way off from two years ago, when the Bucs encountered this on 139 offensive snaps (almost nine times per game), the second-most of any team in the league. That's what happens when a team's running threat has fallen off or when opponents believe that the Bucs' desire to push the ball downfield is simply greater than their commitment to run.

Looking at the production the Bucs have had with eight or more defenders in the box this year, Martin has rushed for 0.67 yards on such plays. Interestingly, in five touches with eight or more defenders in the box, Barber has averaged 3.8 yards per carry, more than Devonta Freeman, Jordan Howard and Carlos Hyde and just below LeGarrette Blount.

That number is skewed because Barber had a nine-yard run against the Saints last week, but he did average 4.0 yards per carry on four plays when the box was stacked -- a season-high for the Bucs.

It's not just on the running backs

Why is it that Barber, an undrafted free agent in 2016, seems to have had more success running with an extra defender in the box than Martin, a two-time Pro Bowler? There's more that meets the eye, according to head coach Dirk Koetter, although Koetter said that Barber will be getting more playing time now.

“There [are] a lot of different reasons [why]," Koetter said. "You would have to look at every single one of those plays. ... If you look at the New Orleans game, on Doug's carries, he had a free-hitter in the hole almost every single time. Sometimes the running back is going to make that guy miss. Sometimes he is going to break the tackle. It just depends on how much space he has."

So the best explanation there is that this extra rusher wasn't accounted for when Martin was in, but he was with Barber, which means that it really wasn't Martin's fault, something tight end Luke Stocker alluded to.

"Honestly, I think it comes down to us as players executing, doing a better job, creating more space for Doug. If you watch the game last week, Doug a lot of times didn't really have a chance to get started. He was fighting to finish in the backfield. That's on us as blockers, whether it's missed ID or just us missing a block. As a group, offensively, we have to take ownership. Obviously, me being a run blocker, I'm a big part of that, so I'm really frustrated with how the run game has been this year."

Why do they keep running it up the middle?

This is a common question, and the best answer is because it sets up their play-action, but it's truly puzzling. The Bucs are averaging 3.28 yards per rush up the middle this season, 25th in the league. They are rushing the ball up the middle a little over nine times per game. In 2015, they also rushed the ball up the middle a little over nine times per game but averaged 4.97 yards per rush, first in the league.

Martin is averaging 2.09 yards per rush up the middle, ranking 49th in the league and third-most of any Bucs running back, yet they have relied on him more than any other back in this situation, rushing him 33 times.

Meanwhile, Barber has averaged a team-best 4.08 rushing yards up the middle on 12 touches, yet he's third in touches in this area. Granted, his sample size is much smaller, but it's a better number than Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Joe Mixon.

This isn't an indictment on Martin. He has actually had far more success rushing off the left and right guards than he has up the middle. He's averaging 5.16 yards per carry on 32 rushes when running through the B-gap, which is 10th in the league. He also produced nine of his 14 first-down rushes there.

Those numbers aren't skewed based on opportunities, either. He's had just one fewer run off guards than he has up the middle. Martin is not only a downhill runner, but he's also shifty, with some good lateral quickness, so it makes sense that he's had some success with directional running.

"It just depends. It might just be an anomaly stat that you saw," Martin said, smiling. "I feel I am able to run [in any direction], the running backs in the running back room are able to run in any direction -- down the gut, outside, misdirection. But we need to focus on the details ... communication, execution, reads, things like pressing the hole or how you should you stay on the guy, coming to the next guy, working on the second level and things of that nature."

Adjustments that could be made

As far as combating teams that bring an extra rusher in the box, the Bucs can bring in an extra blocker like Stocker, which they do at times. But as Stocker stated, there has to be proper identification. They can also have multiple wide receivers lining up on one side of the formation, which typically brings the safety away from the box. Of course, hitting some explosive passes downfield will also help loosen things up.

As far as playcalling, if you go back to 2015, when Martin rushed for the second-most rushing yards in the league and made his second Pro Bowl, he had 64 rushes off the right and left tackles and averaged 5.52 yards per carry. Sims also had a great deal of success with those outside runs too, rushing for 5.03 yards per carry. Between the two of them, they had about six carries on the outside per game.

In 2017, Martin is only having one or two runs outside per game, and in total, the team is averaging less than three of these types of runs per game. If you saw the second half of the Carolina game, Martin had two big runs -- 14 and 17 yards-- when running off the left tackle.

Incorporating some outside runs, tosses and sweeps are a way to open things up, as are some screen passes, which they could do with Martin, Sims or Rodgers. And it's clear that Martin is having most of his success off guards. Overall, the Bucs need to get away from consistently going up the middle, as it's not producing much success. But if they do choose to stick with that, Barber should probably be the one handling it.