Bucs starting to back up Smith’s proclamation Doug Martin’s re-emergence has eased the burden on Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. JASON BEHNKEN/STAFF By Ira Kaufman | Tribune Staff Published: October 20, 2015TAMPA — It’s been one of Lovie Smith’s pet phrases, uttered virtually every time the coach of the Buccaneers speaks from the podium.We’re getting better.In his second year on the Tampa Bay sideline, Smith appears to have the ammunition to support his proclamation. Although the Bucs (2-3) remain well behind Carolina (5-0) and Atlanta (5-1) in the NFC South standings, there are tangible signs of improvement from 2014 as Tampa Bay prepares for Sunday’s matchup at Washington.The resurrection of Doug Martin as an elite NFL running back has eased the burden on Jameis Winston, who has been typically inconsistent for any rookie quarterback with only two years of college experience.Running behind an offensive line featuring two rookies and two other starters filling in for injured players, Martin averages 4.5 yards per carry and is on pace for 1,296 yards. After five games in 2014, Martin averaged a paltry 2.5 yards per carry.At that point, Tampa Bay had attempted 106 runs, compared to 176 pass attempts under offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, who was thrust into the job when Jeff Tedford bowed out for personal reasons.That’s not the ratio Smith envisions for success, but this year’s attack is far more balanced under Dirk Koetter, with 151 running plays out of 314 offensive snaps.One priority following the bye week is getting second-year wide receiver Mike Evans more involved in the passing game.A year after setting a franchise record with 12 touchdown catches, Evans has only 13 receptions for 174 yards. Evans is still trying to find the end zone, but Winston doesn’t sound overly concerned.“The great thing about having a guy of his caliber is that we haven’t even given him the ball that much,’’ said Winston, who comes off a turnover-free game against Jacksonville. “It’s a learning process for all of us. But the thing is, he’s like our secret weapon now. People are still going to be game planning for him and I haven’t even given him many opportunities to shine yet.’’With Smith now calling the defensive signals, the Bucs have made some strides defensively.The NFL’s fifth-ranked unit is allowing 5.1 yards per snap, compared to 5.9 yards at this time last season. Still, red-zone defense is an issue and opponents are averaging 29.6 points per game as speedy rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander learns the intricacies of a demanding position in the Cover 2 scheme.The pass rush, led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Jacquies Smith, is on pace for 48 sacks, yet opposing quarterbacks sport a glittering 106.4 passer rating.“We’re not happy about it and there are reasons for it,’’ Smith said of the leaky pass defense. “We’re going to be a heck of a defense this year, but that many points is too many, simple as that. We need to get that down.”Special teams is turning into a team strength, thanks to the return skills of Bobby Rainey. The veteran back is averaging 13.3 yards per punt return and 29.9 yards bringing back kickoffs, giving Tampa Bay an edge in field position.Kicker Connor Barth is providing stability at a troubled position and punter Jacob Schum has been solid.The Bucs are relatively healthy and the week off gave tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (shoulder), right tackle Demar Dotson (knee) and cornerback Johnthan Banks (knee) extra time to recuperate from injuries.“It’s always an exciting time to get to the bye week and have a chance to heal up,’’ Smith said. “When we come back, we should get a lot more of our players that we’ve counted on to be back on the football team. It’s always good to go into the bye on a win. Guys are feeling good about themselves.’’Ikaufman@tampatrib.comTwitter: @IKaufmanTBO
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