The beginning of the end of the Jon Gruden era in Tampa came on December 8, 2008. On that day, the Buccaneers allowed the Carolina Panthers to rush for 299 yards on Monday Night Football. The Bucs were 9-3 coming into the game and seemed to be ready to cruise into the playoffs. Four weeks removed from the end of the season, they needed one win to make it - and they lost every one of those games. To make matters worse, they allowed an average of 189 yards rushing per game during that stretch.
There were many other reasons why Jon Gruden was fired, but that late-season collapse was the immediate cause was that four-game stretch of incompetence. But despite many changes along the way, the Bucs still cannot stop a running game. Never was that more obvious than on Sunday, when the Bucs allowed arguably the worst starting running back in the league to gain 190 yards on just 23 attempts.
Even on a day when the pass defense performed pretty well, even scoring a touchdown, the Bucs were once again ripped apart by their Achilles heel called run defense. That despite the fact that the Bucs actually had a number of very good performances against the run earlier in the season. They kept the Atlanta Falcons to 30 rushing yards, the Indianapolis Colts to 62 and the New Orleans Saints to 70. In fact, until they faced the Chicago Bears in London it looked like the Bucs had finally found a way to turn around their run defense, with only Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore gaining more than 100 yards against the Bucs.
But since then, the Bucs have allowed 170 yards per game on the ground. The New Orleans Saints, a team they had limited to 70 yards on the ground in week 6, managed to pound out 195 yards just three weeks later. And when you allow a running back who was averaging 3.2 yards per carry coming into the game to run for 8.3 yards per carry, something's wrong.
And that something has been an issue since Raheem Morris took over. Since 2009 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been the worst team in the NFL stopping the run. During that time, the Bucs have allowed opponents to gain a league-leading 4.78 yards per carry. No other team even comes close. The Oakland Raiders rank second at 4.69 yards per carry, while the Buffalo Bills have allowed 4.68 yards per carry during that period. The Bucs' mark of allowing 6,175 yards on the ground ranks second in the NFL, behind only the Buffalo Bills' 6,584 total yards.
That kind of incompetence over such a long period is baffling. And all that despite the Bucs making plenty of changes. They drafted four new defensive linemen, added a new starter at middle linebacker and replaced their starting strong safety. When they replaced Sabby Piscitelli and his hilarious lack of football skills, that was supposed to improve the run defense. When the Bucs replaced Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan in the middle, that supposedly would make a big difference. When they replaced Barrett Ruud with a more physical, intimidating middle linebacker in Mason Foster, that was supposed to make a difference.
Yet the Bucs once again allowed a running back who had struggled to produce anything this season to run roughshod over them. This is not a fluke. This is a structural problem with this defense. I don't know what the issue precisely is, but I can identify a few things that break down over and over again: this defense cannot tackle, this defense cannot stay in its gap, and this defense gives up contain much too easily. All three of those issues should be fixed through coaching. In fact, all three of those issues should have been fixed through coaching back in 2009. And yet, these problems persist.