Ronald Jones 'a work in progress' but flashes potential in first start

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones struggled so badly last season he was a healthy scratch the first four games and had 44 rushing yards all year.

But his role in Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals -- on the heels of being announced the starter this week by coach Bruce Arians -- showed what’s possible for the 2018 second-round draft pick.

Jones led the Bucs with eight receptions for 77 receiving yards and had 29 additional yards on 11 touches, finishing with 109 all-purpose yards and a touchdown. On the Bucs’ second drive, Jones caught two 17-yard passes -- one of them on third-and-15 -- giving the Bucs an important seven points after quarterback Jameis Winston threw an interception on the opening drive.

“It means a lot," Jones said of getting the opportunity to start. “Working hard every day and competing against my brothers is making me better every day.”

Jones’ contributions in the screen game helped slow down the Cardinals’ rush. He also demonstrated how he and Peyton Barber, the Bucs’ former starter who had 11 rushes for 43 yards, could truly function as a one-two punch, with Barber as the punisher and Jones the home run hitter. Jones averaged 9.63 yards per reception and produced five first downs.

“He just started coming into his own. He started growing and understanding what it’s like to be a professional," offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. "I think he’s a kid that believes now. He’s a kid that believes he’s an exceptional talent. He’s an explosive guy, a very explosive guy, and he’s just working on his game, working on his craft, trying to become a better football player every day.”

Winston added, “He has been making big plays for us the whole year, so it was big for him to be resilient."

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Jones. He inexplicably lost the ball following a catch in the fourth quarter with the Bucs down 27-23 with 6:46 to go in regulation. He tried to retrieve it, but Cardinals safety Budda Baker pounced and made the recovery.

Jones was so dejected running backs coach Todd McNair twice had to grab his helmet so he would look up at him on the sideline. That’s when Winston pulled the offense together.

“[I] singled him out, [saying], ‘Rojo, we have your back, all right? I made a lot of mistakes but you don’t see me hanging my head. You will make a big play for us.’”

The Bucs have seen a huge improvement in Jones' work in the passing game this season. McNair identified that Jones was catching the ball at odd angles, so they worked extensively on getting his hands positioned properly.

He's also tougher to bring down since he put on 15 pounds this offseason, and he said his football IQ has gone up with improved study habits now that he understands what it takes to be a pro, something he believes he lacked last year.

“He’s still a work in progress,” Arians said. “He made a great run for the touchdown, he’s out there catching balls and making people miss. But then, he still misses a blitz pickup that he shouldn’t miss. We get a penalty because he’s supposed to be running a screen and he picks up a blitzer. He’s still a work in progress, but it’s a hell of a good work.”