By Craig Smith
Special to Sports Talk Florida
There are very few question marks when it comes to the 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster. However, two of those questions arise among the running back group. The first is: why does Ronald Jones seem to get so despondent following a mistake? That issue has enough legs such that Bruce Arians acknowledged that Jones remained out of the game because he didn’t seem right as far as confidence after the fumble.
The other question is: what is there to make of the two-headed usage among Jones and Leonard Fournette? We know Arians likes to deploy both backs early. He normally does this in a 2-and-1 series type of approach to see which back has started stronger. But, in simply looking at the stats, how much has one back been favored over another during their time together in Tampa?
Fumbles haven’t necessarily meant the bench
Last season Ronald Jones fumbled twice during the regular season, losing both. Fournette did not fumble once. Jones’ first fumble occurred during the Buccaneers Monday night matchup in New York. On the Buccaneers second series, Jones caught a short pass and immediately was hit and fumbled. It was a bang-bang play, not a particularly egregious fumble. That being said, Jones only saw the field for 17 total plays (24%), his lowest percentage of the season. He did return and spell Fournette, but the latter led the backfield and was active in the passing game. That was more situational, as the Buccaneers trailed 14-3 and had to rely on their passing game to get back in it. As such – and especially since Jones came back in the game – I don’t think the fumble was necessarily why Jones saw so little action.
Two weeks later, Jones fumbled in the opening series at Carolina. However, he responded with a career game. He went for 192 yards on 23 carries on the strength of a 98-yard touchdown run. The Buccaneers led early and often, so the game plan favored staying on the ground, where Jones is clearly the Bucs’ best back.
Game flow favored Fournette during Jones’ down games
If you look at the games where Jones had the least amount of work, it was the stretch of at the Giants, New Orleans, then two weeks later against the Rams and Chiefs at home. Fournette led the way by a large margin in offensive snaps, but that really was largely out of necessity. The Buccaneers were in the midst of a tough stretch that took them to 7-5. Fournette was often called upon in the passing game as a better receiver. It was a matter of which player better fit the situation more than anything.
To the contrary, against teams where the Buccaneers could get the game flow in their favor and run the ball as effectively as they’d like, Jones has led the way with the majority of offensive snaps. This was the case at home against Green Bay, Atlanta, Minnesota, the second half against the Chargers, and at Carolina. The Bucs took control of those games at varying points and fed Jones. But when they’ve been playing catch up, it’s mostly been the Fournette show.
Verdict: Jones’ usage should be significant this week against Atlanta
If last year showed anything, it’s that Arians did not bail on Jones after his fumbles and that his usage strongly follow the game flow and the respective situations at the time. Jones ran for 78 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown in last year’s season finale against the Falcons. The Eagles ran for a very healthy 173 yards on 31 carries last week, with lead back Miles Sanders going for 74 yards on 15 carries. In other words, the Falcons’ defense is still seemingly suspect against the run. I would expect to see Arians give the first two series to Jones and see if he can find the same success that he did to close the 2020 season. If the Bucs’ offensive line can do its job and get a good push on the ground, I expect Jones to lead the backfield this Sunday.