TAMPA, Fla. — Ronald Jones may be the least-heralded component of the success of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ star-filled offense, but the third-year running back is also emerging as one of the most important.
While teammates garner far more attention as playmakers at Tom Brady’s disposal, Jones is proving his worth as one on the NFL’s leading rushers.
He’s on pace to become Tampa Bay’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2015, and he’s playing so well that better-known, more accomplished backups Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy remain role players for the Bucs (7-3), who host the Los Angeles Rams (6-3) on Monday night.
“You talk about their runners, I think Jones and Fournette are as good a tandem as you’re going to find,” Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said. “I think those guys are really an engine for this offense.”
Jones, a second-round draft pick out of USC in 2018, is coming off a career-best 192-yard rushing performance in Tampa Bay’s 46-23 rout of Carolina last week. The highlight was a 98-yard scoring burst that was one of the four longest touchdown runs in NFL history. Derrick Henry, Tony Dorsett, and Ahman Green are the only other players who have runs of at least 98 yards.
“Once the play snapped, I saw a gap . . . All of a sudden, you’ve got one guy to beat. I knew it was going to be a footrace,” said Jones, who was a sprinter in high school. “I just had to look up at the Jumbotron to see where the rest of the defense was going to be and change angles. It was a track meet like the good old fashioned days.”
With 730 yards rushing through 10 games, Jones has already surpassed his total from all of last season and nearly doubled his run production for his first two pro seasons combined.
The Buccaneers (7-3) are off to their best start in a decade in their first season with Brady, however they have lost two of three night games and frankly were fortunate to win the one they did.
“It’s just bad football,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Bad football and not being ready to play.”
Arians tinkered with his usual practice routine, working at night instead of the afternoon, and intends to make changes on game day in hopes of avoiding slow starts that contributed to a Thursday night loss at Chicago and a 38-3 Sunday night debacle against New Orleans at home two weeks ago.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski said there are no valid reasons for not performing well under the lights. He and Brady were fixtures in prime-time games while they were together with the Patriots.
Brady improved to 18-7 in 25 starts on “Monday Night Football” three weeks ago, with the Bucs overcoming a slow start before holding off the Giants, 25-23, when Daniel Jones’s potential game-tying 2-point conversion pass was broken up in the end zone.
“It’s just another football game, and that’s how we’ve got to treat it. You can’t let it get to your head that it’s a prime-time game, that you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,” Gronkowski said.
“No, it’s just another football game. It’s just at night this time. We’ve got to show up and do what we’ve been doing all year, no matter what time the game is. There’s no excuses.”
The Rams, coming off a 23-16 victory over the Seahawks in which they forced three turnovers and sacked Russell Wilson six times while holding the Seattle quarterback without a touchdown pass, have been dealing with a bit of a schedule quirk of their own.
Monday night will be the fifth time in nine games the NFC West contenders have played on the East Coast. The Rams are 2-2 in those, with losses to Buffalo and Miami and wins over Philadelphia and Washington.
Now, the Rams take aim at Brady and a talented group of Tampa Bay playmakers that includes Gronkowski, Fournette, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown.
And don’t forget Jones.
“I think this is the best collection of skill-group players that we’ve faced,” Staley said.
Jones, 23, played sparingly as a rookie, gaining 44 yards on 23 carries, before rushing for 724 yards and six TDs as a part-time starter last season — Arians’s first with the Bucs.
“The credit goes to him. He’s really matured since last year when we first came in,” running backs coach Todd McNair said.
“He’s shown a lot of maturity, a lot of growth,” McNair added. “People forget how young he was, even coming in last year. He hadn’t really played the year before, so he was like a rookie and he’s rookie age. So, a year in the system and I think the offensive coaches sticking with him, giving him a lot of positive reinforcement, I think he’s just blossomed.”
Arians isn’t surprised.
Even though the Bucs signed McCoy as a free agent early in training camp and added Fournette after Jacksonville surprisingly released him just before the season began, the coach insisted all along that Jones was his guy.
He reiterated that by sticking with the third-year pro after Jones lost a fumble against the Giants three weeks ago. He did it again last Sunday, when Jones lost a fumble on a reception on the second play of the game against Carolina.
Arians was the first to greet him on the sideline.
“When he had the miscue in New York, it really put him in the tank because he thought he let the team down. We talked a lot about that: ‘One play doesn’t change games,’ ” said Arians, who notes Jones was just 20 years old when he was drafted.
“When he came to the sideline it was all encouragement,” the coach added, “and I really liked the way he bounced back and had a hell of a ballgame.”
Jones, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry in three seasons at USC, appreciates the support he’s received from Arians.
“He just said, ‘Let it go. The team’s going to need you, so you got to get back out there.’ That’s what I did,” Jones said. “Good play, bad play, you just have to forget about it, and that’s what happened.”
McNair said Jones is beginning to get a better understanding of the running game, blocking schemes and what it takes to be successful.
“I don’t even think ‘Ro’ understands how good he could be. He does stuff by accident, and it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ He probably can’t tell you what he did when he gets back to the sideline, but he’s got a tremendous amount of ability in his body,” the running backs coach said.
“He’s so unassuming of a person, so I think all that stuff is just starting to click with the age and the maturity,” McNair added. “He’s starting to see what he can truly become.”
Monday’s game will be the first in NFL history worked by an all-Black officiating crew.
Referee Jerome Boger will lead the crew, also featuring umpire Barry Anderson, down judge Julian Mapp, line judge Carl Johnson, side judge Dale Shaw, field judge Anthony Jeffries, and back judge Greg Steed.
“Way too long coming. I know a lot of those guys, and they’re great officials,” Arians said. “Jerome Boger, we’ve had that crew twice this year — he and Barry Anderson. They’re great officials. It’s a historic night, and I think it’s fantastic.”