It’s official, if it wasn’t already: rookie Rachaad White is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ best running back.
After nine weeks of dreadful play from their running game, the Buccaneers made a change at the running back position in their 21-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. It worked. White’s 22-carry, 105-yard performance showcased a diverse and exciting skill set Tampa Bay must continue to tap into.
White’s emergence as a key contributor this deep in the season for Tampa Bay does not come as a luxury; it comes as a necessity. Entering their Week 10 matchup against the Seahawks, Tampa Bay ranked last in rushing yards per game this season. They are projected to finish as the third-worst rushing team by EPA/play since 1999. People have quibbled over whether Tampa Bay should strive to find balance in its play-calling with such a poor running game. What was undeniable, however, is that when the Buccaneers chose to run the ball, they needed to be better.
Tampa Bay had two clear levers to pull over the first half of their season in improving their run game: giving White a more prominent role, and benching reeling rookie left guard Luke Goedeke for Nick Leverett. The Goedeke benching took care of itself when he injured his foot in the team’s Week Seven loss to the Panthers. Leverett has seized the job with comparatively excellent play at left guard over the past three weeks.
Before Sunday, empowering White was trickier. Giving White the lead job in the backfield would have meant relegating Leonard Fournette to a supporting, complementary role. On the surface, there would be nothing wrong with that. Fournette has underperformed this season, averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. He has looked slow to get to the second level, struggling with his vision and laboring in short yardage. He has also declined in pass protection, an area in which he made real strides last season.
Demoting a player with Fournette’s production should not come with much controversy. Demoting a player with his pedigree does. Fournette signed a three-year, $21 million extension with Tampa Bay this offseason to be their lead running back after an outstanding season last year. He is beloved by the locker room and fanbase alike. More importantly, he did not seem amenable to taking on a lesser role.
During Tampa Bay’s Week 9 comeback over the Los Angeles Rams, CBS reported that Fournette was seen sulking over losing touches to White. Before the team left for Germany this week, Fournette said, per the Tampa Bay Times, of the idea of a platoon system that “(developing a rhythm) is very important” but “it is what it is at this point.”
Nonetheless, the risk of a potentially unhappy Fournette for an improved rushing attack is one Tampa Bay had to take at this point in the season. Week 10 saw them do so, giving White the start and 48 snaps to Fournette’s 22. By the end of the first half, White had seen more carries than he had in any game during the season. He had also shown a skillset that stood in stark contrast to that of Fournette’s. White looked quick and slithery getting to the second level. His vision stood out, positively. He excelled in short-yardage, converting on every short-yardage opportunity available to him. And, as everyone has seen by now, he finishes runs—give that man his scepter, Kyle Brandt! White showed more pop as a runner Sunday than Fournette has since Week 1.
White’s opportunity on Sunday had been a long time coming in the eyes of many. There had not been much to back it up from a statistical standpoint—his perfect conversion rate on third and fourth and one this year in comparison to Fournette’s struggles in that area offered a breadcrumb, not much more – but from an intuitive standpoint, it seemed to make sense that White would perform if given the opportunity.
When things are blocked clearly for Fournette, he excels, hitting his next gear as he gets to the second level and punishing linebackers and defensive backs. Ali Marpet’s retirement and Ryan Jensen’s knee injury both have led to regression on the offensive line, and the holes in Fournette’s game have been plain to see. Tampa Bay has needed a running back with the quickness, vision, and wiggle White showed on Sunday, who can create when things aren’t clearly blocked.
On Sunday, White staked his case for taking the lion’s share of Tampa Bay’s backfield split. Yes, it will be a split; White is unlikely to take full control of the backfield. Fournette will play a role. He has a role to play, especially as defenses wear down over the course of a game. His punishing style makes for a nice contrast to White’s quickness. But his ideal role right now is as a complement to White. White should be the running back in Tampa Bay’s offense.
The Buccaneers ran for more than twice as many yards on Sunday than they had in any game since Week 2. They may, may, have finally found a running game. All it took was going to Germany… and playing the right lead running back.
- Dec 09, 2022
- Dec 09, 2022