Arians Defines Buccaneers RB Bernard's Role, But Should It Expand?

Assessing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running backs' performance and utilization in week one, and what can change moving forward.
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be able to rest comfortably over their outlook at running back. The Bucs own three starting-caliber, experienced backs on their roster in Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, and Giovani Bernard, each back offering a unique skill-set from the others.

That being said, and the following question was a repetitive theme throughout the 2020 season as well: Are the Buccaneers using their backs correctly?

In fairness, all we have right now is one game to assess. Tampa Bay can, and probably will find a way to allow Jones, Fournette, and Bernard to contribute meaningfully in 2021. One game in, however, it would seem the Bucs are going in the opposite direction of that sentiment.

Bernard, who signed with Tampa Bay in April, took the field for 17 of Tampa Bay's 65 plays on Thursday night. He didn't receive a handoff and was targeted three times, catching two passes for 12 yards. Jones, meanwhile, started the game with three carries for 13 yards but lost a fumble on his fourth attempt. After playing six snaps, Jones did not take the field again.

That left Fournette with the bulk of the action at running back (42 snaps) on Thursday night, and while he played a bit better as the game went on, his play was also disappointing. He bobbled a screen pass into the air that was intercepted in the second quarter, which Dallas turned into three points and a lead change on the following drive. He'd finish with nine carries for 32 yards (3.6 yards per attempt) and five receptions on seven targets for 27 yards (5.4 yards per catch), earning five targets after the drop-turned-interception.

Fournette is a serviceable power back, who came in the clutch during the 2020-21 playoff run with four touchdowns in as many games. However, he lacks the rushing consistency that should be required to significantly out-carry Jones, and is a liability as a receiver, unlike Bernard.

Entering the week, Bernard was listed on the injury report with an ankle injury. However, head coach Bruce Arians said last Monday that Bernard was at full-speed, and he shared on Friday after the game that the injury did not limit Bernard whatsoever against Dallas.

"No, he's our third-down back and two-minute back," Arians responded about Bernard's limitation. "No, not at all."

Arians acknowledged that Jones "struggled mentally" after his fumble which kept the fourth-year back on the sidelines from that point on. That reasoning is understandable, especially given Tampa Bay's depth at the position.

But if Bernard wasn't bothered by his injury, why was he only the third down and two-minute drill running back? Particularly when you consider the fact that Tom Brady threw 50 passes on Thursday night?

Arians believes that the Bucs' running backs need not be frequent pass-catching targets given the team's talent at wide receiver, calling the RBs "check-down people" on Friday. 

That idea is sound, but if that's the case, why was Fournette Brady's (tied for) third-leading target against the Cowboys? And why was Fournette the check-down person of choice over Bernard, the running back specifically signed to make an impact in the passing game?

The Bucs would certainly like to establish a better ground game moving forward than the team's 3.7 yards-per-carry outing on 14 attempts against Dallas. In addition, Brady has found plenty of success with pass-catching backs in the past, and while Arians thinks receivers and tight ends should get the majority of targets, Brady is sure to throw the ball to his check-down people aplenty.

However, in order to make both of those things happen effectively, the Buccaneers may want to reassess how they will utilize the trio of Jones, Fournette and Bernard in Tampa Bay's 16 remaining games.

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