The Buccaneers have Legarrette Blount, an undrafted rookie running back who ran for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries last season. He was the first Buccaneer to rush for 1,000 yards since Cadillac Williams' rookie season. His 5.01 yards per carry average is the best mark in Buccaneers history for a 1,000-yard rusher. Blount produced many highlight reel runs and he was one of the most exciting players on offense to watch. Yet somehow, I'm not comfortable with Legarrette Blount as the #1 running back for the Bucs. Let me explain why.
It starts with the philosophy of the running game in the NFL. Generally speaking, runs are used to produce consistent results and to sustain drives. Traditionally, the running game was the offense, and teams would only pass the ball when it was 3rd-and-long and the chance of picking up the first down with a run was minimal. While offenses have changed tremendously in varied ways, the core idea of the running game as a sustaining element remains.
Running backs have to be able to grind out 4 yards consistently and keep the offense on track. This is important throughout a game, but it is vital when protecting a lead. This is something that the Bucs couldn't really do last season, despite having multiple opportunities to do so. When faced with a late-game lead, they struggled to keep drives going and couldn't run down the clock. Instead the opposing offense often got the ball back with plenty of time left. This never really stood out because the Bucs' defense held up nicely (or because opponents missed extra points), but this is a fundamental deficiency of Tampa Bay's offense.
Legarrette Blount cannot sustain a drive. That's not the kind of back he is. While his 5.01 yards per carry was the third best mark among NFL running backs with at least 1,000 yards (behind LeSean McCoy and Darren McFadden), his success rate ranked just 23rd in the league at 45%. A successful carry is a carry that gains at least 40% of needed yards on first down, 60% on second down or 100% on third or fourth down. For comparison's sake, the most consistent running back in the NFL last season was Chris Ivory with a 59% success rate, while the worst was Chester Taylor with 36%.
This illustrates that Legarrette Blount was a very inconsistent running back, something that showed up in short-yardage situations as well. Blount had trouble reading blocking schemes and hitting the hole hard all season long, instead looking to bounce plays outside. While this would frequently lead to spectacular highlight-reel runs, it would also lead to an inordinate amount of stuffed runs. With Legarrette Blount at running back the Bucs couldn't count on the running game to provide a sustaining element to their drives, and as a result the Bucs were forced to punt on 46% of their drives, 26th in the NFL. The running game became explosive, and it functioned more like the passing game than a traditional running game: huge successful plays alternated with plays that went nowhere.
Fortunately, the Bucs have several ways to combat this problem and get back to a sustaining running game that can keep their offense on track. The first is Legarrette Blount himself. The young running back came to the Bucs after the preseason and had to learn the offense on the fly, no easy thing to do. He should have a better grasp of the offense and what he needs to do next season, which should lead to a more consistent effort on his part. Unfortunately, though, the lockout may hinder his progress.
The other option is FB/RB Kregg Lumpkin, a big, physical running back who was an important special teams player throughout most of the season but couldn't get on the field on offense. He's big and is supposed to be a decisive running back who will hit the hole hard, which would certainly help the Bucs. Of course, there must be reasons why he couldn't get on the field as a running back all of last season, so he surely has to improve.
The last option is perhaps the most realistic option: sixth-round pick Allen Bradford. He's another big, physical back who hits holes quickly and decisively. While Blount is a big back, he isn't a power back: he dances in the backfield and tries to find the open field. Bradford is nothing like that, and he prefers to run the ball inside. He's much more of a power back. If he can pick up the offense quickly, he has a chance to become a major part of the Bucs' offense. The fact that he's been working on the playbook with Rudy Carpenter shows that he's at least working at it. However, he's very similar to the aforementioned Kregg Lumpkin, so those two will likely have to fight for one roster spot.
Whatever the Bucs do next year, they need to find a way to sustain drives. Blount couldn't do that last year, and Cadillac can't be counted on as a running back anymore. So who will step up next season?