Ronald Jones rewards Bucs for patience with big day, record-setting play

Bruce Arians wasn’t going to let Ronald Jones off the hook after his opening-drive fumble that set the Carolina Panthers up for their first touchdown of the day.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach saw Jones come walking back to the sideline with his head down. He knew it wasn’t the time to chew his running back out. He could tell by Jones’ body language that Jones was already doing that to himself.

“[Arians] just said, ‘Let it go. The team’s going to need you today, so you got to get back out there,’” Jones said. “That’s what I did.”

Arians didn’t pull him like he did after a missed blitz pickup in Jacksonville last year. Instead, he encouraged Jones. And he kept him in the game, even with Leonard Fournette waiting in the wings. But he could have pulled him. Two weeks ago at the New York Giants, Jones fumbled in the first quarter on a similar checkdown play that set up a Giants touchdown.

“He went in the tank in New York -- it really bothered him, and he thought he really hurt the team,” Arians said. “We told him, ‘Hey, dude, you’re our guy.’ I knew he was going to break one sooner or later.”

That came in the third quarter against Carolina, with the Bucs clinging to a 20-17 lead and backed up at their own 2-yard line. Jones ripped off a 98-yard TD that was the longest run in Bucs history and only the fourth run of 98 yards or more in NFL history.

Lining up in an I-formation with three in-line tight ends and just one receiver, it was obvious they were going to run. Quarterback Tom Brady sent Chris Godwin in motion over to the right side of the formation, which sent Panthers linebacker Tahir Whitehead over into the wrong gap.

“I saw the linebacker shift over, and then I’m thinking, ‘Probably cut back to the left, and then it’s off to the races,’” Jones said.

Blaine [Gabbert] and I looked at each other, and Blaine said, ‘He’s going to take it to the house,’” Arians said. “I said, ‘Good chance on this play.’ And he did.”

At the 10-yard line, Panthers safety Tre Boston dove for his ankles, but he took a bad angle and missed. Safety Jeremy Chinn was next, barreling after Jones to reach 22.09 miles per hour on the play.

“We were all excited,” Brady said. "He was probably at the 50-yard line and I was like, ‘Is he going to make it? Is he going to open up and go?’ Then you kind of saw Chinn close on him, and I know how fast Chinn is.”

“[I] started looking at the JumboTron, and I’m like ‘Dang -- buddy is moving back there,’” Jones said. “So, I changed the angle and keep striding cold turkey.”

Chinn dove for his ankles approaching the Carolina 30 and missed. That meant there was only one more person Jones had to outrun: cornerback Troy Pride, whom Jones had a 5-yard cushion on the whole way home.

“He broke away, and he kept going. That was fun -- it was great to see,” Brady said.

“It was like watching a video game,” wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “We call him ‘27 Greyhound’ -- he can run all day.”

Jones did run all day, slashing his way to a career-high 192 yards on 23 carries -- his fourth 100-yard rushing performance this season after just one in his first 25 games.

“Good play, bad play, you just have to forget about it, and that’s what happened,” Jones said. “[I] still have a lot to improve on. I have to stop making those mistakes, but ultimately we came out with the win, so it feels good altogether.”

None of that would have happened had Arians given up on Jones, a second-round draft pick whom many had written off after he barely saw the field his rookie season and whose personal coach Luke Neal said was so defeated after his first year that the two just sat and talked for the first week and a half.

He has gone from being what Neal described as “in the cellar” after that rookie season to making game-winning plays. And in many ways, Sunday’s game, which propelled the Bucs to a 7-3 record for the first time since 2010, encapsulated Jones’ three-year NFL journey: He stumbled, got back up and kept going.

"He ran great today," Arians said of Jones. "He feels terrible when he makes a mistake, and the fumble in New York really upset him. This one, I wasn’t going to let upset him, and he bounced back really strong.”