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Pushed into a corner, the Buccaneers have their feature back in Ronald Jones II

Losing key players is never easy, but the silver lining often comes in unexpected places

NFL: OCT 18 Packers at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Raise your hand if you thought Ronald Jones II could be a legitimate RB1 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. (If you actually raised your hand, you’re my kind of people) Ok, now keep it raised if you thought Rojo would be a Top-3 back with just over one-third of the NFL Season in the history books.

If you still have your hand raised, I love you, but you’re either a big liar or the biggest homer. While the Bucs came into the 2020 season touting Jones as their starting running back the drafting of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and signings of both LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette absolutely cast a shadow over the true meaning of the ‘starting’ status Jones truly carried.

Now, after three straight 100-yard rushing performances it’s hard to see anyone but Jones carrying the load for this team moving forward. Not only has he not done anything to lose the starting job, he’s done so much more to show he’s truly the best all-around back on this roster.

I do wonder however, if we see these in-season milestones happening with Jones if Fournette and McCoy don’t come down with their injuries, and if Vaughn doesn’t struggle with turnovers and a couple injury experiences himself.

This is what would be called, the ‘silver lining’ to bad situations. Not to celebrate physical ailments hindering anyone it’s just hard to think Rojo gets the full opportunity to assert his dominance without them.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back at Week 1, while Jones is the only back to have a full season of experience with Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich he nearly splits snaps with McCoy and is out-snapped by the two newcomers combined.

The quality of snaps was certainly different, as Jones touched the ball nineteen times compared to McCoy and Fournette’s combined seven. Rojo totaled 82-yards against the Saints (4.32 yards per touch) while the other two combined for 21 (3 yards per touch).

A good start to the year for Jones comparatively, yet in game two against the Carolina Panthers, Jones was completely out-snapped by Fournette and McCoy still took 18% of the offensive reps.

The result was good overall as Fournette turned in a 103-yard rushing day on just twelve carries and added another thirteen on four catches while scoring twice. Jones got ten fewer carries in Week 2 and produced 23-yards on the ground while catching two passes for four-yards.

It was certainly fair to say Jones lost ground to Fournette in the win over the Panthers, and it appeared the Bucs were laying the groundwork for a regime change at the top of the running back chart. Jones might have been the starting back in Week 2, but he was far from being the feature back.

Then, if the running back room wasn’t confusing enough, Jones out-snapped Fournette by ten while McCoy was on the field for eleven total. In the Buccaneers’ second-straight win in 2020 Jones touched the football fifteen times gaining 73-yards. Fournette got nine touches and chipped in with 22.

So, who is RB1? The answer it seemed, was nobody. Sure Jones starts the game on the field, but through three games it was a ‘hot-hand’ method we’ve seen many times. Which means you don’t have a featurey back. And this method can work as we’ve seen. However, sometimes it’s best to have a feature back with role players who can fill in to keep your main guy rested or in key situations where their specialty can be successful even when the defense knows what’s coming. This is the school of thought I subscribe to.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At some point in the Tampa Bay Week 3 win over the Denver Broncos Fournette injured his ankle, and hasn’t (really) played since. Forced into it, Jones was in on 64% of the offensive snaps in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Chargers and turned in 111-yards on 20 carries. Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn scored his first NFL touchdown and was in on 25% of the snaps, and McCoy was in on just 7% and came out of the week with an injury of his own.

So, for Week 5 now, Leftwich had just Jones and Vaughn at his disposal. So Jones was going to get his shot at being the guy, not one of the guys.

In the upsetting loss to the Chicago Bears, Jones stood out as one of the few bright spots. His 17 carries for 106-yards and 19 more on three catches gave the Buccaneers a chance at winning the game they gave a way otherwise.

An early injury and fumble by Vaughn certainly skewed what was likely planned to be a more even distribution of playing time, and Jones walked out playing on just about 70% of the offensive opportunities. Technically Fournette was available and did play on one snap, but he was far from healthy.

In the latest outing, Fournette was inactive again for the Bucs while McCoy and Vaughn were active. Clearly, Jones was the featured back in the offensive game plan this past week and turned his lion’s share of the snaps into his third-straight 100-yard rushing game and led the running back room with as many targets as McCoy and Vaughn combined.

Granted, it was only two, but this is what feature back duty looks like, and it’s been a sight to see.

The Buccaneers may have been forced into using Jones as their feature back, but Rojo has risen to the challenge and demonstrated strongly he is fully capable of carrying the day for this team moving forward.

It’s a long race, and as Fournette continues to mend, it’ll be important for he, McCoy and Vaughn alike to contribute when and where they can.

We wanted to see Jones get fed in Week 6, and he did. Because of it, the Buccaneers not only won the game, but they became the first team to have the games leading rusher against the Green Bay Packers this season. Coincidence they’re also the first team to beat them? Possibly. Possibly not.

Tampa Bay begins a three-game stretch where they play in primetime each week, and with good timing as they’re finally getting healthier than they have been all season long. Jones now has the chance to enter the national conversation as one of the better young backs in the NFL.

Now, Fournette will get another week to heal, which is good overall. If Jones has shown anything though, it’s that he has earned the right to be used early and often by Byron Leftwich and this Tom Brady led offense. To be the feature back, finally.