Bucs’ struggling ground game means balance is elusive

TAMPA, Fla. — A balanced offensive attack is the key to success in the NFL, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are scrambling to spark any area at all. The calamity has one major culprit: an ineffective running game.

Sunday came and went at Raymond James Stadium, and you’re excused if you mistook the Bucs’ offense for a tractor stuck in a lake of mud. The San Francisco 49ers outgained them 376 yards to 183, had 22 first downs to the Bucs’ 13 and controlled possession for nearly 20 minutes longer (39:50).

“Today,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said after the 33-14 loss, “we weren’t effective running the football.”

From an offensive standpoint, outside a couple short stretches, this was a kick in the pewter-and-red backside. The Bucs teased with touchdown drives of 80 and 92 yards, but don’t let those flashes fool you: This is a team that wants to win by running the ball first, and since a Week 12 win over the Detroit Lions, the opposition has gobbled up Tampa Bay’s ground game.

*In Week 12, the Lions held the Bucs to 22 yards on 24 attempts. (Running back Bobby Rainey had 35 yards on 18 carries.)

*In Week 13, the Carolina Panthers held the Bucs to 66 yards on 20 attempts. (Rainey had 63 yards on 17 carries.)

*In Week 14, the Buffalo Bills allowed 165 yards on 36 attempts. (Rainey had 127 yards on 22 carries. But if you erase his 80-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, that total looks much less rosy.)

*Sunday, the 49ers held the Bucs to 39 yards on 12 attempts. (Rainey eked out 27 yards on 11 carries.)

Entering Greg Schiano’s second season, running the ball was thought to be the Bucs’ strength. Running back Doug Martin, a jitterbug in the backfield, burst onto the scene with 1,454 yards rushing last year, good enough to earn a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie.

Tampa Bay began training camp last summer with high hopes, anticipating an offensive line featuring Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph together healthy at the guard spots to pave rushing lanes as wide as Dale Mabry Highway.

Best-case scenarios, though, were dashed before Halloween.

In October, Nicks had surgery on his left foot to scrape out a MRSA condition that had affected him since August. He has played two games this season, none since Week 4.

Martin, meanwhile, found daylight against defensive lines harder to find early this fall. He ran for 456 yards on 127 carries before he was placed on injured reserve after sustaining a torn labrum in his left shoulder during a Week 7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Rookie Mike James ran well in Martin’s absence, totaling 295 yards on 60 carries, before his season ended after sustaining a fractured left ankle in a Week 10 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Rainey, after James went down, ran for 163 yards in a Week 11 victory over the Falcons. But since, he has been contained, being held to fewer than 65 yards in three of his five starts.

There are many reasons for the decline. The Lions, Panthers, Bills and 49ers, for the most part, boast defenses that are no pushovers. Detroit ranks fifth against the run (99.3 yards per game), Carolina second (84.9), Buffalo 26th (127.3) and San Francisco sixth (99.4). There’s no easy assignment in the bunch.

“They are, in this case, some great defenses,” Schiano said. “That’s who we played. We have to be able to run the ball against who we play if we’re going to profess to be a running football team. … So we need to do better.”

Some responsibility to do better, though, falls on quarterback Mike Glennon. At its best, an offense is a well-oiled machine, with the engine humming in all areas: On the ground and through the air, with one threat creating more opportunity for the other.

But as the Bucs’ running game has sputtered, so has the rookie’s ability to show he can make a defense pay for locking on Rainey. Glennon has four touchdowns and four interceptions in his last three games, and he has thrown for no more than 180 yards each time. Not good enough.

“I think we’ve had multiple games this year where both (the run and pass) have been effective,” Bucs wide receiver Vincent Jackson said Sunday. “We always want to be balanced. … We just couldn’t seem to find that balance (against San Francisco), but I still believe we have all the tools and the people in this locker room can get that done.”

Glennon must be part of that equation. Remember, he’s 24 years old, still learning how to be consistent at this level. A stretch like this was expected after his early momentum, and if he allows it, the struggle can be a constructive moment for him as he continues to mature in the game.

Glennon has talent, and until the loss at Carolina, he had grown each week. He has the tools to be a capable quarterback in the league. But until he can show defenses that he can win with his arm alone, Rainey will continue to be Target No. 1 for defensive coordinators. That means rough running ahead.

“There were some opportunities there,” Schiano said of his team’s running strategy. “There were some things we were doing that I felt really good about, but it wasn’t consistent enough, then we got behind the chains a little bit.”

Any offensive success the Bucs enjoy these last two games will depend upon them flipping that reality. The St. Louis Rams boast the league’s 12th-best run defense (105.4 ypg), and the New Orleans Saints rank 21st (116.4). You can bet both will try to load the box and take Glennon out of his comfort zone.

It’s up to the Bucs to scramble the strategy.

Of late, though, they have struggled to do so. When one part of the pass-run equation is missing, the other is in danger as well. When both struggle to produce, points are scarce.

Until the Bucs are more effective with their feet, balance will remain elusive.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.