One of the dominant storylines heading into Monday Night Football between the first-place Buccaneers and the last-place Steelers will be the things we didn’t expect to see. It’s the team that usually melts down against the team that actually is melting down, Chernobyl-style.
MNF also will be about the players we won’t see. Jameis Winston, obviously. Le’Veon Bell, too.
And then there’s Ronald Jones.
What ever happened to him? You know, the running back the Bucs chose in the second round of the NFL draft in April? If Phillip Lindsay — an undrafted free agent for the Broncos — is seeing enough snaps to be among league leaders in rushing yards, why can’t Jones even sniff the field?
“I don’t know,” the rookie said this week. “It’s really up to the coaches. I’m just doing what they ask me to do every day, coming in and working hard, just trying to be overall a better player, a more complete player.”
It’s not that Jones isn’t talented or that he isn’t working hard enough. Turn on his USC highlights. He’s an explosive, violent runner who can move the pile when he needs to. But that’s not enough in the NFL.
The simple answer is that the Bucs don’t feel like Jones is ready for a role on special teams. That’s how Lindsay secured a roster spot on the Broncos. A team can activate only 46 players on game day, so unless a running back is getting a significant number of touches on offense, he needs to be a contributor in other phases to justify his spot.
“If you’re not starting, you’re usually on special teams because they can only dress so many,” Jones said. “I’m just trying to work my way into one of those spots.”
Teams don’t invest second-round picks in players they plan on sitting, though. Nick Chubb, whom the Browns chose three picks ahead of Jones, played 43 snaps in two weeks. Kerryon Johnson, whom the Lions chose five picks after Jones, played 52 snaps in two weeks.
There’s more to this decision than Jones’ ability or inability to play special teams.
Veteran running back Jacquizz Rodgers knows what it takes. It’s the reason why he’s playing in his eighth season in the NFL and his third with the Bucs. It’s the reason why, when he was a free agent a week into the 2016 season, he got a call from coach Dirk Koetter. Koetter had coached Rodgers in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014, when he was the Falcons offensive coordinator.
“I’ve been with the same coaching staff, so I feel like it’s just the trust that they have in me,” Rodgers said when asked how he has managed to extend his career. “(They trust) that I’m going to know my job and that I’m going to know what to do when my time comes.”
Flash back to October 2016. The Bucs were 1-3 and in desperate need of a win heading into a Monday night game in Carolina. Koetter couldn’t trust his defense, which had allowed 128 points. He couldn’t trust his quarterback, who had thrown eight interceptions. Who did he turn to? Rodgers. Rodgers touched the ball on Tampa Bay’s first six plays from scrimmage and a career-high 35 times that night. His 129 yards from scrimmage, which also were a career-high, helped the Bucs squeak out a 17-14 win over the Panthers.
Now pretend you’re making decisions for the Bucs. The NFL has suspended your starting quarterback for three games. You can’t afford to start the season 0-3. Your job is on the line. You need to win now.
You’re doing things differently this season. You’re going to be a pass-first offense. You want explosive plays. But you have a 35-year-old journeyman quarterback. He’s running out of time and you need to buy him some more.
You see that you’re playing the Saints in New Orleans to start the season. The last time you were there, by the way, the defense drove your quarterback to the ground and forced him to leave the game.
You need players who know what to do. Players who can block. Players who can pick up a blitz. Players who won’t give up ground in the backfield. If Ryan Fitzpatrick gets blindsided and loses the ball, that could cost you a game. And you only have 16 of them to prove that you deserve to stay.
Does that sound like a situation in which you would give snaps to a rookie running back, especially one whose greatest weakness coming out of college was pass protection?
“Your backs have to be able to block,” Koetter said. “First touchdown of the year at New Orleans — the left guard gets beat, if Peyton (Barber) doesn’t block the D-lineman, the throw to DeSean (Jackson) doesn’t get off if the quarterback’s on his back.”
Plans can change suddenly, which is what veterans on the team have been telling Jones.
“Everybody’s telling me to stay on my stuff because you never know when your number’s going to get called,” he said.
Will his number be called Monday night? With Blitzburgh in town, that’s doubtful.
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What to watch for: Tempo
We’ve never seen a Bucs offense like this. We really haven’t. Long gone are the days where Mike Alstott would run into someone for a 2-yard gain and then return to the sideline to schedule an appointment for neck surgery. This is not only one of the most efficient passing offenses but also one of the fastest.
In fact, the Bucs are the fastest offense in neutral situations, according to Football Outsiders’ data. Excluding plays during blowouts, at the end of the first half and in the fourth quarter, the Bucs are running a play every 27.3 seconds, two seconds faster than last season and six seconds faster than 20 seasons ago. It is, by far, the fastest offense in team history.
While the Steelers have been one of the most productive offenses, they’ve also been one of the slowest. Under new coordinator Randy Fichtner, however, the tempo of Pittsburgh’s offense this season has increased. They have gone from running a play every 31.7 seconds to running a play every 28.8 seconds, the eighth-fastest pace (after adjusting for game score and situation). Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has benefited from the faster pace, posting a 102.9 rating in no-huddle situations. Basically, without a huddle he’s Tom Brady and with a huddle he’s Joe Flacco.
Two fast offenses. Two quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to throw deep. Two talented receiving corps. Two suspect defenses. Expect a lot of points Monday night.
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Key matchup: Bucs receivers vs. Steelers secondary
The Steelers are vulnerable to deep passes (throws targeted at least 20 yards downfield), allowing quarterbacks to complete more than half of them for an NFL-high 250 yards. Three of Patrick Mahomes’ seven deep passes for the Chiefs last week resulted in touchdowns.
That Kansas City’s receivers were able to run free in the 42-37 win might be reason to believe that the Fitzmagic will continue. Pittsburgh will adjust, however, and could scale back its game plan, as cornerback Joe Haden indicated this week.
“It’s not an excuse, but I think simplifying the game plan, letting us line up and make plays, line up to what we see (will help),” he said, via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
The key Monday isn’t so much where Bucs receivers catch the ball. It’s what they do after they catch it. The Steelers certainly have blown some coverages, but one of the other reasons they’ve surrendered so much yardage on deep passes is that their tackling has been atrocious.
That’s not a new development, either. It’s a trend, and it’s a problem. They allowed broken tackles on an NFL-high 14.1 percent of defensive snaps last season. They have continued struggling this season, allowing broken tackles on 10.2 percent of defensive snaps, the fourth-worst rate. The cornerbacks and safeties are most to blame. They missed nine tackles against the Chiefs.
Keep an eye on O.J. Howard, who at 6 feet, 6 inches and 250 pounds, is a battering ram in the mold of Tecmo Christian Okoye. The Bucs tight end is among the league leaders at his position in yards per route run (4.2).
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Which Steelers team is going to show up in Tampa? The one that has won their past 10 primetime games or the one that’s won only four of their past 13 road games in September?
They’re a mess. Just like they were in 2010 when Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games. (They finished 12-4 and reached the Super Bowl.) Just like they were in 2013 when they started 0-4. (They finished 8-8 and just missed the playoffs.) Just like they were in 2017 when Roethlisberger said “Maybe I don’t have it anymore” after he threw five interceptions in a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars. (They finished 13-3 and clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs.)
One thing we know for sure: Roethlisberger is going to sling the ball all over the field. Whether the Bucs win probably comes down to whether they can capitalize on his aggressiveness.
As defensive coordinator Mike Smith said after the 48-40 win over the Saints: “Usually when it’s a track meet, turnovers win.” The pick: Bucs 31, Steelers 28.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.