Saying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled to establish their ground game during last week’s 20-14 loss to Carolina would be putting it lightly.
Outside of fullback Jorvorskie Lane’s 54-yard burst in the first quarter and a few undersigned scrambles from quarterback Josh McCown, run-game production was virtually non-existent. Backs Doug Martin and Bobby Rainey combined for 21 yards on 13 carries for an abysmal 1.6-yard average.
Making matters worse is Martin’s lingering knee injury suffered midway through Sunday’s Panthers game. Martin returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis after sitting out earlier this week and a position once viewed as a strength during training camp is now flooded with question marks. Promising rookie Charles Sims went down in mid-August with an ankle injury requiring surgery and a lengthy recovery process, speedy Jeff Demps has been relegated to the practice squad and second-year back Mike James’ progress continues to be slowed by a shoulder injury suffered during camp.
The positives as of Friday are that James is off the injury report, adding needed depth to a thinning position, and the Bucs brass is reaffirming its confidence in Martin as the lead back. Speaking after practice on Friday, Martin said last week’s injury was minor and that he’s good to go. “I’m out here, it’s just a knee. I’ve been out here getting back to it slowly and we’ll see on game day. I feel a lot better than the past couple days and I’m just going to keep getting rehab on it and do the best that I can.”
As late as Thursday afternoon, though, head coach Lovie Smith wasn’t exactly stating similar confidence in Martin’s readiness to carry the load Sunday against St. Louis. Martin was limited again Friday.
“I’ve talked about how important Doug is to us,” Smith said on Thursday. “Just our running game in general, we were trying to get it going with all of our guys. Doug is our lead guy. We weren’t able to for whatever reason this first game, but we’ll stay committed to it. As soon as Doug is healthy and ready to go, he’ll still be leading our troops.”
Whoever’s lining up behind McCown, Bucs backs will be attacking a Rams defensive front that ranked ninth in the league last year against the run. Without Martin, Rainey managed only 37 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in Tampa Bay’s 2013 loss.
St. Louis yielded 185 total rushing yards against Minnesota last week, but 102 of those came from receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. All-Pro Adrian Peterson was somewhat kept in check for 75 yards on 21 carries.
A large part of Tampa Bay’s success on the ground Sunday will also be predicated upon the improved play of its uncertain offensive line. Left guard Logan Mankins left last week’s game with a knee injury and remains questionable for Sunday’s game. The porousness of depth at the position was exposed by the immediate insertion of Garrett Gilkey, a second-year player who signed with Tampa Bay less than a week before kickoff.
Mankins was a limited participant at Thursday and Friday practices and the 10-year pro has started all 131 games he’s appeared in, including this past Sunday. “He did all of the work that we asked him to do, same as yesterday. He was in pads yesterday on a limited basis. He didn’t take every rep but he looked pretty good so he’s right on course for how we saw this week playing out.”
In the continued absence of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, de facto play caller Marcus Arroyo said cohesiveness on the O-line will hopefully pay dividends Sunday in terms of running-game success.
“[Carolina has] a really good front seven, obviously,” Arroyo said. “I think our scheme was to go in and run the football and to see exactly where that’s at and it’s still a work in progress. I think a few of those [offensive lineman] who played last week got there in seven days or close to it — maybe a little bit over a week between Logan [Mankins] and [Garrett] Gilkey. I think that unit just gelling together every day is another piece. Getting that gel is going to be a piece of putting this run game together, but I’m optimistic that we’re going to have a plan for that and continue to get better in that phase.”
In addition to ground-game production, Smith and Arroyo were also questioned this week about their confidence in Martin as a pass protector. Martin, who hasn’t been available to the media so far this week, missed on two pickups last Sunday before leaving in the third quarter with his knee injury.
“Doug has done a great job for us,” Arroyo said. “I think over the course of the offseason and going into this, I think that we all took our parts last week. I wouldn’t say that Doug is a disadvantage to us in the blocking at all. He’s not proved that. We all had our chances in that game, coaches included – and I should say me included – to make a better play in one instance. I don’t think that we’re going to go back to the drawing board and say that in a certain situation that Doug can’t get it done, I don’t think we’ll do that at all.”
Didn’t the Bucs work out some backs? Will James be able to play Sunday?
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