Analysis: The Buccaneers Are Neutralizing Each Top RB They Face

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are proving to own an elite run defense, by shutting down top competition.
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Ever since defensive coordinator Todd Bowles arrived in Tampa Bay nearly two years ago, the Buccaneers have boasted excellent run defense ratings. Bowles, who is known for his aggressive play-calling, has crafted a defensive unit of playmakers who swarm to the ball, especially to stop the run. With a supreme defensive line paired with an elite linebacking core, the Bucs front seven has been established as one of the most difficult defenses to run on.

In 2019, the Buccaneers held their opponents to only 3.3 yards per rush, ending the year as the best team in that particular stat. That same success has carried over to the 2020 season, as the team has remained atop the stats in average yards per carry, this time coming in at a mere 3.5 yards. 

Going right along with the low average, the Buccaneers have only allowed 1052 rushing yards in 13 games so far, averaging out to only 80.9 rushing yards allowed per game. This average rushing yards allowed per game is slightly higher than last season which was only 73.8 rushing yards per game. 

A seven-yard difference between seasons isn't a huge deal, but nose tackle Vita Vea's absence is noticeable as he is one of the best run defenders on the entire team, who has been out since going down with a season-ending leg injury in week five.  Still, Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, and a combination of nose tackles have held their own paired with a great middle-four of the defense.

Teams know going in that they will struggle against a stingy Bucs run defense, so they don't even bother to try and find a rhythm and opt to throw the ball instead. 

These stats are outstanding, especially when your team plays in the NFC South, home of Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara

Throughout the 13 games in 2020, the Buccaneers have been tasked with limiting the following; Kamara (twice), McCaffrey (before his injury), Melvin Gordon, David Montgomery, Aaron Jones, Josh Jacobs, rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Dalvin Cook

Overall, Tampa Bay held its own when matched up with each of these running backs. 

In week one, Tampa held Kamara to 16 yards on twelve carries with one touchdown on the ground.

In week two, Tampa faced arguably the best running back in the entire NFL in McCaffery, only allowing him to post 59 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns, both of which came in the red zone from one and seven yards out. 

Next, the Bucs headed to Mile High Stadium to face the depleted Broncos without quarterback Drew Lock. Due to no serious threat in the passing game, the Bucs sold out on the run, only allowing Melvin Gordon 26 yards on 8 carries. 

In their week four comeback win against the Los Angeles Chargers, Austin Ekeler went down with a hamstring injury, after only two touches in the run game. The Chargers' leading rusher was QB Justin Herbert, who had 14 yards on five attempts. Tampa Bay only allowed 46 yards on the ground all day on 23 carries by Los Angeles. 

In their week five loss at Chicago, the loss was almost entirely to blame on the offense as the Bucs limited Montgomery to only 29 yards on 10 carries, adding one touchdown in the Bears 20-19 win. The Buccaneers only gave up a total of 35 rushing yards all night, forcing Foles to air it out 42 times. 

After a terrible first quarter in week six, the Bucs found a way to turn it around in a matchup against the Green Bay Packers, only allowing star running back Aaron Jones and rookie A.J. Dillon to combine for a total of 36 yards on 15 carries. Jamaal Williams also contributed 34 yards on four carries, breaking a rush for 25 yards, a rare miscue from the Bucs defense. Still, Tampa Bay tightened up and locked down the Packers' offense after allowing them to go crazy in the first quarter. 

After its game with the Packers, Tampa traveled across the country to Las Vegas, facing the Raiders and promising second-year back Josh Jacobs. The Alabama alum was only allowed 17 yards of wiggle room to ten carries, causing Jacobs to be a nonfactor in the game where the Bucs lead early and never looked back. 

In a surprise close game with the Giants on Monday Night Football, the Bucs allowed over 100 yards for the first time in weeks, as Wayne Gallman, Alfred Morris, and Daniel Jones combined for 101 yards rushing on 24 attempts. 

With a rematch against division rival New Orleans in week nine, The Buccaneers were completed exposed in one of the worst losses in franchise history, as they dropped to the Saints 38-3. Despite getting dominated in all three phases of the game, Tampa kept Kamara honest, only giving him 40 yards on nine carries and a touchdown throughout the night. Even when the Bucs get gashed on the ground, they still contain the rush, as they only allowed 3.7 yards per carry in their worst loss of the season. 

The Buccaneers got back on track in week ten though, only giving up a total of 65 rushing yards to a McCaffery-less Panthers team. 

In a Monday Night showdown with the Rams, the Bucs showed the entire country why they belong to be crowned the best-run defense in all of the league after shutting down head coach Sean McVay's rushing attack, eliminating any form of run that the Rams called. McVay tried to establish his outside zone concepts early and often to no avail, as the Bucs flocked to the ball over and over again, giving up a measly 1.7 yards per rush in the 27-24 loss.  

In a 27-24 loss to the Chiefs, Tampa shut down both Le'Veon Bell and Edwards-Helaire in the running game, causing Patrick Mahomes to drop back over and over again. Unfortunately for the Bucs, this played right into the strengths of the Chiefs, as the defense gave up 17 points in the first quarter due to the Mahomes-Tyreek Hill connection. Tampa Bay only let up 87 yards on the ground to the reigning Super Bowl champs, but could not complete its comeback when it mattered the most. 

This past weekend was a challenge for the Tampa defense, as they were tasked with bringing down Florida State alum Dalvin Cook, one of the most productive backs in the entire NFL after being drafted in 2016. Cook broke 102 rushing yards on 22 carries, also adding a touchdown to his impressive outing against the Bucs tough run defense. The Bucs had a rough outing against the Vikings, but were bailed out over and over and over again by Vikings kicker Dan Bailey, who missed three field goals and an extra point. The Vikings were moving the ball behind Cook but ultimately could not put up points to show for it. 

There is no stopping Cook, but the Buccaneers only allowed him two rushes of 10+, with his longest rush coming in at 14 yards, tied for his third-shortest long rush in a game this season. Cook was a non-factor once the Vikings were down (3.4 yards per carry in the second half), and the containment of the awe-inspiring running back forced Cousins to drop back and test a secondary that had locked up top receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson

With three games remaining, Tampa Bay will face the Detroit Lions sandwiched between two meetings with the Atlanta Falcons. Luckily for the Bucs, neither of these teams have a strong rushing attack like what they have faced in prior games, which should allow for plenty of success on the defensive side of the ball. 

The bend-don't-break mentality of the Bucs defense allows them to continually lock up anyone at any time by not allowing any big plays to give their opponents any momentum in the run game. They challenge you over and over again to try and gash them, but before you know it, their opponents are behind the sticks and are forced into third-down passing scenarios. 

The linebacking core is the best unit on the entire team, consisting of Jason Pierre Paul and Shaquil Barrett on the outside, with Lavonte David and Devin White on the outside. One commonality between each of these linebackers is speed, as each of these guys is quick off the ball, allowing them to fill their gaps and get to the ball-carrier before any big play is ripped off. Pair this with an experienced defensive line and you are in for trouble.

Despite Vea's loss, the Buccaneers have still had plenty of success in stopping the run and have adjusted quite well without their starting nose tackle. The sustained success that the Bucs have had in the run game has caused the young secondary to grow up fast, as they were challenged throughout last year. Still, the Bucs young secondary is slowly becoming a strength on the team, also in part due to the strong, experienced Buccaneers pass rush.  

In conclusion, the Buccaneers have established themselves as the best run defense in the entire NFL due to their ability to eliminate their opponents' top players in the run game. Bowles will dare you to try to attack his tenacious front seven with a variety of runs, but all of which are stopped or limited due to the discipline, contain, and gap control that the Buccaneers defense possesses. 

Time after time, Tampa Bay has shut down playmakers in the run game, a trait that is necessary if the Buccaneers are wanting to make a playoff run in just a few short weeks.