Several factors stifling running game for 'pass-first' Bucs

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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the last team in the NFL to get a rushing touchdown from a running back last Sunday. Through six games, the Bucs have 513 total rushing yards, which ranks No. 31 out of 32.

So what's stalling the Bucs' ground game and how concerned is the coaching staff? Should the Bucs' running backs be completely written off in fantasy football?

Here's a closer look at answers to those questions:

Barber vs. Jones

Peyton Barber remains the Bucs' starting running back. He left Sunday's win against the Cleveland Browns because of injury, and Ronald Jones got the majority of snaps during Wednesday's practice because Barber was still "nicked up," according to coach Dirk Koetter. But Koetter sees plenty of positives for Barber despite the injury risk and his 3.51 yards per carry.

"I think Peyton's ready to go to the next level," Koetter said. "Peyton just needs touches. He just needs carries. We threw it 52 times out of those 90-something plays [against the Browns]. We actually called more passing plays when Jameis [Winston] had his runs."

"Peyton right now is on a pass-first team with really good skill guys at receiver and tight end. He's just got to hang in there. I don't think Peyton is doing anything wrong, and I think Rojo is doing a good job of catching up and closing the gap, but right now, we're just a pass-first team," Koetter said.

Jones' workload will gradually increase as he gains more trust in terms of blitz pickup and catching the ball. He has started to hit holes harder and more decisively as he has gained a better grasp of the playbook.

"[I'm] getting there, but still a work in progress. [I'm] getting more comfortable," Jones said. "It's good to see that the [extra] time is paying off."

'Pass-first' team

As Koetter alluded to, gone are the days when a Bucs back would carry 30-plus times a game and do so consistently on first and second down. Doug Martin is long gone and the Bucs aren't built for that anymore -- they're built to throw, and they're doing it a lot more on first down. The Bucs' 108 pass attempts on first down this season are eighth most in the league. Through the first six games last season, the Bucs had 82 passing attempts on first down, and in 2016 they had 72.

That doesn't mean they haven't wanted to run. Two weeks ago against the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs tried to run on first and second down. But when the Tampa Bay defense surrendered touchdowns on the first three possessions and Winston threw a pick late in the second quarter, it was tough to stick to that. Barber wound up with 13 rushing attempts (Bucs running backs had just 14 carries in this game), but he averaged an impressive 6.31 yards per carry, so there was some success.

"Some of the games we've been in, they've just been shootouts, so the run game kinda takes a back burner on those. If you can get it going early in the game, it definitely helps," said Bucs center Evan Smith, who believes new league rules are also influencing teams to pass more frequently.

The Bucs' Week 1 contest against the New Orleans Saints was like that, as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Drew Brees combined for a hefty 849 passing yards.

"It's kind of how the game goes -- if we have an opportunity to get out there and run the ball, we're gonna do it. Of course, that's what you want to do in football, period, but you're always going to take advantage of your best matchups. Just however it works out, it works out," Smith said. "I'm not saying that our run game is lacking, but some of the games we've gotten in, we haven't really been able to lean on it. It's not that we haven't wanted to."

Miscommunication, technique with the offensive line

Several offensive linemen indicated they have had issues getting on the same page in terms of communication. There's a new center with Ryan Jensen, plus Ali Marpet shifted from center to left guard and Caleb Benenoch and Smith continue to rotate at right guard. This can create challenges.

"When we block it the right way, we always have production. We've just been having some missed blocks here and there," Smith said. "It's just one of those things that happens. Hell, sometimes you have everyone on the same page but somebody [on the defense makes a great play]. Those guys get paid, too."

Donovan Smith believes they also have to get off to faster starts and establish a rhythm early.

"We have to be right in our technique and our fits, be consistent in sustaining our blocks -- we've just got to do that from the get-go. We can't start off slow or wanna pick up later. We've gotta establish it early," said Smith, who would like to see more of a balanced offense.

"That way, defensive ends don't think, 'Oh, I can just rush the passer.' It makes them have to respect the run game and stuff. If you're not doing that, it makes it easy for them to just pin their ears back and get off the ball."

Stout run defenses

Four of the Bucs' six opponents so far this season are giving up fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. The Cincinnati Bengals have a tough defensive front, but they're surrendering 4.98 yards per rush -- 29th in the league. They're also allowing a 66.7 percent conversion rate on third-down rushes -- 25th in the league. So there is some opportunity Sunday.

The verdict

As far as fantasy, as long as the Bucs' offense remains committed to throwing early and often, neither Barber nor Jones are great options because their touches will be limited. That's only magnified when the Bucs find themselves behind early in games.

The Bucs are averaging 2.13 rushing yards before first contact -- 27th in the league -- indicating that the blocking needs to improve. Bucs running backs are averaging 1.45 yards after contact per rush -- 27th in the league -- meaning they're going down too easily after contact.

Bottom line: The Bucs' lack of a ground game is on the whole team.