Convention wisdom dictates that a rookie quarterback's best friend is a good run game, and the 'eye test' seems to suggest that when the Bucs were productive running the ball against the Saints (averaging 4 yards a carry as a team), it played a large part in the team's only victory so far.
So why did the run game fail against the Texans? The team average of 2.9 yards per carry was the lowest of the three games so far, and that game also saw the fewest rushing attempts at just 20. I decided to look more in depth at the Bucs' rushing attack, the plays that were used, and how successful they were or weren't.
By a considerable margin the go-to run play for the Bucs last Sunday was the outside zone - often with 7 or even 8 in-line blockers, something a formation that the Bucs used to run a lot of zone out of under Mike Sullivan as well.
Outside zone can be a great run scheme - with a back with good vision, you can compensate for mistakes on the offensive line, and it gives that back a lot of room to use speed to get around the edge, or cut up inside and use elusiveness to make men miss or even just put their shoulder through someone.
The rules of outside zone for linemen is relatively simple - get playside leverage over the player lining up to your playside; if you can't get that playside leverage, then just drive them towards the sideline and hope the back reads your block and cuts up inside of you.
The Bucs don't run OZ badly, and schematically it matched up well with a lot of the fronts the Texans showed against them. The issue, however, was that too often, one or two of the Bucs' blockers were simply being beaten on their assignment, which sometimes ended in moderate gains that could otherwise have been much bigger plays, and sometimes just resulted in the play being plugged at the line.
Below, you see the line's assignments in the outside zone:
Neither Luke Stocker nor Gosder Cherlius were able to get outside leverage on their assignments - so they did the next best thing: drive them towards the sideline, putting their bodies between Doug Martin and the two Texan defenders. Martin reads their block, and cuts upfield inside of them.
Unfortunately, as you see below, another player failed to get outside leverage - Logan Mankins, who couldn't get outside of Brian Cushing. Martin makes five yards on this play, but gets tackled by Cushing; if Mankins is able to make his block, this play could have broken for a much longer run.
"Leverage" really is the key factor for outside zone. Below, we've got another OZ play, this time with Jorvorskie Lane in as a lead blocker as well. On the playside we also have a double-team between Cherilus and Ali Marpet, which will see Cherilus using the "reach and rip" technique you sometimes see in OZ (essentially, Cherilus would 'rip' past the JJ Watt, like a DE or DT would use as a pass rushing move, and move up to the linebacker, while Marpet would take over Cherilus's block on Watt).
Martin heads on an outside track, and with Stocker being unable to move Whitney Mercilus, Martin cuts up inside the TE. However, Marpet, taking over Cherilus' block on Watt, takes a bad angle and comes directly too Watt; what Marpet ideally should be doing is taking a too-wide angle past Watt, then turning back inside to seal him to the backside. Instead, by moving up to Watt square to the line, Marpet cannot get that outside leverage.
Watt ends up, well, being Watt, and breezes past Marpet to bring down Martin for a loss of two.
It wasn't the only time Marpet failed to get in good position to maintain leverage on an outside zone play. The following play is another where the Bucs are in good position to run against the Texans, and is an example of a good gain on what could have been a highlight-reel play.
Watt actually takes himself out of the play, pushing Cherilus into the backfield past Charles Sims, which should have opened up a good-sized hole for Sims to cut up inside. Unfortunately, Marpet again comes too shallow against Cushing, and it's Cushing who has the outside leverage now - putting him in perfect position to fill the gap.
Yet, Sims is still able to get 9 yards on the play. So why am I zeroing in on Marpet's poor blocking angle on Cushing? Look at the All-22 angle below:
I've highlighted Marpet and Cushing in yellow. If Marpet gets that leverage on Cushing and keeps him out of the running lane, Sims is essentially in a foot race with the single high safety, especially as a sealed-off Cushing would have given him a bit of room inside to make sure he could get around Jonathan Joseph (#24 for the Texans). This play was the Bucs' first in the fourth quarter, with the score at 10-9 Houston. A better block my Marpet, this could have been an 80+ yard touchdown, which would have swung momentum to the Bucs heavily.
So, moving away from leverage, there's two other common mistakes on the offensive line that can ruin an outside zone, and the Bucs managed to commit both on the following play: 'cheating' to the second level on a double team, and waiting too long on a double team.
The two double teams in question here are Donovan Smith and Brandon Myers on Watt, and Cherilus and Marpet on Jeoffrey Pagan.
As you can see above, Myers is meant to double with Smith, but then move up to Cushing. Instead, what happens is Myers goes straight up to the second level, not checking on Watt first. Watt, seeing it's an outside zone, swims Smith and gets behind him. As the name suggests, outside zone gives the linemen zonal responsibility - and when Watt swam behind Smith, he entered Myers' zone. Of course, Myers having 'cheated' by going straight up to the second level, has to flail behind Watt trying to chase him down, as you can see below. You will also notice that Mercilus, sitting on the playside edge of the box, is unblocked. Cherilus needs to move off the double team on Pagan and leave him to Marpet.
...but he doesn't. As you can see in the below photo, Mercilus is still unblocked, and Cherilus is still sitting on Jaspar. Cherilus' hesitation (needless as it is - Marpet even tries to push Cherilus to indicate that he's got Jaspar on his own), causes Martin to slow down, and Watt brings him down from behind, Mercilus joining in to split the credit for the tackle.
Yet, when the outside zone is blocked up even 'mostly' correctly, a running back can make a lot of yards. The play below has everyone in position, with Marpet about to move up to cut off Cushing, and Stocker and Myers double-teaming Mercillus.
Marpet fails to block Cushing, and Myers and Stocker aren't able to turn Mercilus, forcing Martin to cut inside. Luckily, Cherilus does such a good job of blocking Watt, that the relative freedom outside zone gives to running backs means that Martin can cut inside and make yards, as you probably saw earlier this week in this Vine...
You don't often see JJ Watt introduced to the turf. Smoosh! https://t.co/ohZz0rsNrC— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 30, 2015
Still, this last outside zone play epitomises why the Bucs only averaged 2.9 yards against Sunday. The Bucs were't going for three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust with their run game - but running plays either got good yardage, or were stuffed for no gain or even a loss. The problem with zone, and offensive line play in general, is one person failing in their job will mess up the play. Almost everyone on the following play gets a good block on this outside zone play, except one.
Another example where the scheme is right, the call is right, but Smith simply couldn't deal with Jadeveon Clowney (something that was true throughout the day). Clowney swims Smith, and has a straight path to Martin who he brings down for a loss.
Of course, where you get outside zone, you get inside zone. Inside zone differs, in that it's designed to hit inside the tackles rather than outside, as you could probably guess with the name. While it still gives the running back options, making him responsible for finding open holes and cutback lanes, he doesn't have the same amount of space to work in, as the emphasis for the OL is to move the defense vertically rather than spread them horizontally.
Its main advantage over outside zone is that it gets the running backs moving north-to-south far quicker, whereas a good flowing defense can force a running back to go all the way to the sideline without allowing a vertical crease for the backs to make positive yards. Because of the play goes downhill sooner, all the action is compressed into a much narrower area of the field, and as a result it's less forgiving on OL mistakes than outside zone can be.
The below play is another example of a single player simply not being able to execute. Most of the blockers have been able to move their defenders and make some space, butJoe Hawley is simply overpowered by Vince Wilfork. Wilfork collapses the running lane and makes the tackle.
Another inside zone play, and this time it's a mixture of being outmatched and simply failing to execute. I wrote above about 'cheating' on double-teams, and that's exactly what Cherilus does - rather than moving laterally to Marpet first, he heads straight to the second level. Clowney slips behind Marpet into Cherilus' zone responsibillty, but having cheated up to the second level early, he's not there to prevent Clowney chasing down the play.
While the play may have been ended by Clowney, it wasn't helped by Vince Wilfork again overpowering a Buccaneer, in this case Mankins. By stonewalling Mankins, forces Martin to the backside - where Clowney is waiting for him with open arms.
The Bucs ran much less inside zone than they did outside zone on Sunday, because, well, it just plain wasn't as successful. Wilfork proved too big a lump to be moved vertically easily by the Bucs OL, and he really made a difference against the inside zone. If the Bucs want to have more success with the IZ, they need to be able to either get movement on the big guys in the middle, or they need to be more sound on the back end to let cutback lanes open up for the backs.
Of course, the Bucs didn't just run zone on Sunday - no team at the pro level can afford to be exclusively a man-blocking or a zone-blocking team. Here is a selection of the other run plays the Bucs ran on Sunday.
THE OTHER PLAYS
The Bucs ran power plays a few times on Sunday - their first run of the game was an unsuccessful attempt at a standard 'Power O', most of the OL downblock to isolate the playside defensive end, who is kicked out by a fullback while the pulling backside guard leads the running back up the resulting alley.
The following play is a quicker power play, with the playside tackle staying home to block out the playside end, and the backside guard still pulling and leading the running back up the alley. Basic assignments are drawn up below - but Smith's assignment, Bernardrick McKinney, won't need to be blocked.
The Bucs had ran so much zone, that the defense began biting on it - and to McKinney, the movement of the left side of the OL is very similar to what they would do on an inside zone. So, appearing to assume that it's a zone, McKinney scrapes over the top to the other side of the box, where Martin may have emerged if it had been a zone play. Instead, he finds himself in perfect position to be blocked by Hawley, as circled below. This clears up a massive hole for Martin to follow Marpet through - and the play goes for 17 yards.
Having seen above how downblocking can look like inside zone to linebackers - and get them to move out of position - the misdirection play tries to achieve similar results, with the handoff likewise looking like it should be an inside zone to the right, especially as for much of the day the Bucs would have their backside-most blocker on the zone staying at home to deal with Jadeveon Clowney, who the Bucs seemed to be trying harder to get blocked than JJ Watt on many plays. The only indication that something different is happening is Jorvorskie Lane moving to the backside to block Jared Crick.
However, Lane's blocking seems to have been enough to tip of Cushing. Unlike McKinney, Cushing doesn't bite on the zone blocking - in the above photo, you can already see him moving to fill the gap inside of Lane, even though Martin still looks as if he's running inside zone right. Cushing met Martin in the hole to stuff the play.
The Bucs also deployed an inside trap, one that almost resembles the old school Wing-T inside trap.
The two tackles kick out their respective ends, while Hawley downblocks on Christian Covington, who's lined up inside Mankins. Marpet and Cherilus release inside and up to the second level and split the linebackers, Mankins pulls across the formation to block out Jared Crick, who's lined up at 3-tech on the other side of the formation. This in theory should leave a big gap up the middle for Martin to run through; in reality, Marept and Cherilus aren't able to get great blocks on the two backers, who close back on Martin after a modest gain of 4.
The draw play is simple: the QB acts as if it's a pass, assisted by the OL initially looking like they're pass setting, before the ball is handed off to a running back who runs up holes left in a defensive front who will have hopefully half bailed to their pass responsibilities.
The Bucs ran draw twice that I saw on Sunday, and had mixed success; the other draw play lost three yards, but this one gained five yards. Hawley and Mankins move out to their left, as if they were in slide protection for a pass; but Smith, Marpet, Cherilus and Myers head straight downfield. Sims takes the handoff and runs up the A-gap.
Donovan Smith is responsible for blocking the A-gap defender, Brian Cushing... but as you see above, Cushing swum him with ease.
With Cushing filling the A-gap, Sims tries to cut outside, where Watt brings him down, but not before he gets five yards downfield. Pay particular attention to the highlighted players above - yeah, that's right, Jameis tried to get a block in on Watt!
The ISO play is one of the oldest in the playbook: the offensive line down-block away from a specific gap, isolating the defender responsible for that gap. A lead blocker runs up the hole, blowing out that isolated defender, leaving (in theory) nothing but green for the ball carrier.
On this ISO play, it's the strongside B-gap that is being isolated (between Marpet and Cherilus). There should be two double teams occurring, between Marpet and Hawley, and Myers and Vincent Jackson; Marpet and Myers should then move up to the second level, leaving just one linebacker (Cushing) for Lane to block.
However, as you can see above, Myers turns his back away from Demps, and as a result is late to peel of and block the DB.
As a result, Martin sees Demps coming through with Myers in poor position to block him, so tries to move to the backside. However, Hawley, who has been left one-on-one by Marpet (correctly) to contend with Wilfork. Willfork's strength and size allows him to drive Hawley into the middle of the field, and then will bring Martin down right around the line of scrimmage.
The final run play we'll look at is a toss play, designed to get the ball outside the box quickly, and, in this version, with a wall of blockers in front of Martin.
There are really two key blocks in the first phase of this play - Russell Shepard blocking Clowney, and Luke Stocker downblocking on Watt. These two blocks sets the edge for this toss play, Mankins, Smith and Kevin Pamphile get out in front of the ball. Also important is Hawley needing to get out to cut off McKinney in order to give the play 'home run' potential.
Unfortunately, Stocker doesn't get the block he needs, with Watt swimming the TE to get free. Meanwhile, behind him Hawley is trying to get off of Wilfork, leaving him to Marpet, and get up to cut off McKinnie.
Unfortunately, in a comedy of errors, Stocker's momentum actually carries him into Hawley, blocking his own teammate. Worse, Marpet gets caught up in the pile, and Wilfork is uncovered to chase down the ball. Mankins, instead of going downfield as a third blocker, has to peel off to handle Watt. With Hawley blocked by Stocker, and with Mankins having to deal with Watt, McKinnie is free to tackle Martin. The play did get four yards, but again, this play could have gone for a lot more with better blocking.
So what can we say about the Bucs' run game? It becomes clear, to me at least, that Koetter's run game design is actually pretty good, with the Bucs actually taking advantage of some of having a lot of blockers in the box by following it with outside zone, leaving a lot of defenders behind (whereas Sullivan, who also often used 7 or 8 in-line blockers, would normally run inside zone, plunging the running back into 8 and 9 defender boxes). He's calling plays that build off of the zones by manipulating defenders by giving similar looks, and occasionally just throwing in some old school ground-and-pound traps and ISOs.
The issues is simply that the Bucs' OL is often not good enough to execute across the board, which a lot of the 'change up' plays require. Because the zone puts more responsibility on the back to find the open running lane, rather than the OL to force open a specific gap, the run game can produce some moderate, and even significant, gains through zone runs; but even then, undisciplined, or just out-matched, blockers can and will result in some plays being killed at the LOS. It's the players that need to do a better job, because if they can execute what Koetter is asking them to do, then I truly believe the Bucs do have the potential to have a productive run game that they can rely on.