TAMPA — There’s no secret that the biggest thing holding this Buccaneers team back is turnovers — a total of 29 giveaways which include 23 interceptions.
And those turnovers, in most cases, have left the Bucs playing from behind, placing the burden of a comeback on the shoulders of a passing game that can move the ball down the field but too often makes mistakes that keep it out of the end zone and continues their current cycle of losing.
Every team searches for balance, and the Bucs would love to run the ball more, but their early deficits have forced them to abandon the run game at times. In recent weeks, they’ve successfully begun to incorporate it more into their comebacks.
That’s where Peyton Barber, the team’s third-year running back, comes into play. On an offense full of weapons, his role over the course of the season’s final six weeks could be one of the most important in righting a sinking ship. He’s shown to be a dependable back, trusted with a bigger role in recent weeks. And if the Bucs can get a lead, they trust that Barber can help them dictate the pace of a game.
“I think that’s one thing that people tend to ignore, how much you’re playing with the lead and how much you’re playing from behind,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “And then not just playing from behind, but playing two scores behind. That definitely changes the way you approach things. I think the teams that are on top of the league in running the football are usually teams with a really strong defense or teams that are playing with the lead most of the time.”
As the Bucs host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, Barber is coming off his best game of the season, a season-high 106-yard rushing effort in which he averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the Bucs’ 38-35 road loss to the New York Giants. The game also included his second rushing touchdown of the season.
“It’s been tough for the first part of the season,” Barber said. “Starting off, I guess the reason everything’s been happening is because we’ve been getting behind in the early part of the games, so it’s kind of hard to run the ball when you’re behind.”
The Bucs ranked first in the NFL in total offense (485.5 yards per game) but are 27th in rushing with 97.5 yards per game. But recently, Tampa Bay has started to emphasize the run, even when behind.
“We’ve fallen into this pattern where we start slow, we get behind,” Koetter said. “I thought (offensive coordinator Todd Monken) did a great job (Sunday) of staying with the running game even when we were down two scores. We made some nice plays in the running game.”
Last week’s game marked just the second time over his last seven games that Barber recorded more than 13 carries. But over the past four weeks, he’s beginning to see a bigger role in the Bucs offense, and he’s showing production in the process.
In his past four games, Barber is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, compared to the 3.5-yard average he compiled over the season’s first four games.
In Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium, Barber recorded three running plays of 12 yards or more, commonly referred to as explosive plays, for the second straight game.
That included a season-long 28-yard run in the third quarter, where Barber turner the corner and broke loose into the open field to set up the first of four straight touchdown drives when Jameis Winston entered the game.
“I think he’s been given more opportunities,” Monken said. “I think the biggest thing is opportunities. … That’s happened the last few weeks. There were other times, when we played Atlanta, where it did. It’s been inconsistent. But we’ve tried to be more consistent in the run game, and I think that’s helped us.”
Koetter noted that Barber is running with authority, gaining yards after contact. In last week’s 18-carry game, Barber had just one run for a negative gain, and nine of his carries were for five yards or more.
Barber’s no household name, but he’s shown the ability to extend runs by gaining yards after contact and breaking tackles.
“I think he’s always had that knack,” Monken said. “I think we saw it last year when we were trying to get the run game going. Peyton has a way of turning five-yard runs into seven- or eight-yard runs or two-yard runs into (more). He just has that (ability). He’s powerful and explosive. You rarely see him run out of bounds.”
In last week’s loss to the Giants, Barber compiled more than half — 56.7 percent — of his rushing yards after contact (60 of 106), and over his last two games, he’s averaging 3.35 yards per attempt after contact after netting just 2.69 yards per attempt after contact over his first eight games.
“You want to establish yourself,” Barber said. “You want to be the hammer and not the nail.”
Koetter said if the Bucs are able to avoid playing from behind, Barber should play a bigger role.
“Sure, if we were playing with the lead, I think Peyton could tag on another five or seven carries (a game),” Koetter said.
That’s something Barber is excited to hear.
“It’s definitely a confidence-booster for me and for the o-line,” Barber said. “I feel like it will definitely make us a lot more versatile on offense all the way around. Good running game, good passing game.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.