The Buccaneers offense has been struggling through the first six games of the season and they have yet to get some kind of rhythm going. With running back Doug Martin likely missing some significant time, the process of getting anything going will be tough.
When head coach Greg Schiano was first hired he emphasized how important the running game is. He has yet to waver from that philosophy and since Martin will be missing from the backfield, Schiano says that opposing defenses may or may not load the box against them – which will actually make the decision more difficult for the opposing defenses and not the Bucs.
"'Load the box' is for the run, it's not for the pass,” Schiano said. “When you load the box, you're doing it to take away the run and then the quarterback need to be able to beat single coverage. So, when you bring an extra guy in to the box - if you just start on the premise that you just have two safeties covering the field, and then when you load the box, one goes to the middle and one goes down. That's the most common way, and you've got eight guys versus the box or seven guys versus one back-box. When they go single-high [safety], it puts corners one-on-one, in some form or fashion. What the quarterback needs to do, and what you need to be able to do is, when they go single-high, be able to throw the football. Then you throw the football, then they say, after a while, 'let's go back to two-high' and whether its quarters or half or whatever the coverage is.
“When you're talking about loading the box, that's to stop the run, so with Doug gone, you wonder will they not load the box as much? Do they respect our back-up two running backs and our run game or are they going to lie back more in two safety high and make you beat them with the run? I don't know. You've got a rookie tailback and a rookie quarterback so let them pick. We'll just react to it."
Although defenses have loaded the box against Tampa Bay, Martin ranks in the top 10 of the league with 456 yards rushing. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan touched on how they will attempt to replace the guy who just a year ago gained 1,454 yards on the ground while scoring 11 touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl.
"Mike James did a great job stepping in last Sunday, both [in] execution in the run game as well as pass protection,” Sullivan said. “We don't get that long touchdown pass to [wide receiver] Vincent [Jackson] if not for him picking up the corner blitz. He's been able to catch the ball well, very versatile, works extremely hard. We're pleased with where he's at. I think a combination between he and [running back] Brian Leonard is something that, moving forward, if [running back] Doug [Martin] is not available for us, those two guys will have to step up."
Turning an offense ranked 31st in the league without the leagues ninth ranked runner is easier said than done. Tampa Bay’s offense has been unable to react or adapt to anything the defenses they face throw at them. Each week it appears they go up against different looks that they are never prepared for. That may not be on the Bucs, but the ability to play around it falls squarely on the coaches and Sullivan hints that balance may be what finally gets them through their struggles.
"In a perfect world, you'd love to be right around 50-50 in terms of the number of runs, that you're keeping the defense honest with regard to not being able to - they're trying to protect your threats outside, they don't want to give up the big passes - so you're able to establish the run and all the good things that come with that,” Sullivan said. "Unfortunately, there's some times when they're having added defenders down in there. You've got to try to make them pay for it as far as throwing the football. I think situations, sometimes, can dictate if we're able to run the ball, if we're in a situation where the score is still relatively close and we can maintain that balance. That's always going to be good for us, that's always the goal, but I think the situation dictates that, sometimes, you may end up running a little bit more. Sometimes you may end up - this is what's happened recently - we're throwing a little bit more where you get into those end-of-half, end-of-first-half, end-of-the-game situations where we're trying to put some points on the board. That might skew the numbers a little bit.
“You talked about Mike James earlier and some of the opportunities that he's had, even in the previous game [against Philadelphia] to this most recent one versus Atlanta, where a couple runs were negated with penalties. He's shown the ability to be productive, so, I think - it's been mentioned time and again about complements to Doug and other guys that can carry the load - and I think we're fortunate with [guys] like Mike and Brian that can be guys that can handle the run game responsibilities if Doug's not able to make it there for us.”
Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon would also play a huge role in a balanced offensive attack. In Week's 4 and 6, Glennon had issues with Martin on getting a clean exchange on the handoff but even with those issues, Glennon wouldn't know what it would be like not having Martin in the backfield full-time.
"I'm not exactly sure, because we haven't had to experience that, but with that being said I think [running backs] Mike James and Brian Leonard show that they're able to play well also," Glennon said. "Obviously, we would love to have Doug because Doug is a great player, but I think as an offense and as a team we feel really confident in Mike and Brian to really step up. I think Mike really looked good yesterday and Brian as well."
Ultimately, the staff has to put the players in better positions to win. There has not been enough of that on Sundays. From miscues on both sides of the ball to penalties that have put them in bad spots, Sullivan – like Schiano – points those issues right back to the coaches and away from the players.
"Everything starts with, "It's on the coaches,” Sullivan said. “I've said it before, I'll say it again: Everything that this group does not accomplish, any shortcomings, I put it right here [on himself] and I'll continue to do that. Obviously, I have not gotten that point across as well as I should. I think that, as competitors - I'm a competitor, the assistant coaches are competitors, the players are competitors and they want to win; no one likes this bad, nasty taste in our mouth with how we're playing and where we're at with our record. You have enough of that and you decide we're going to do something different, with penalties being a part of that, that's something that we've got to reinforce. The group has been solid and there's been no finger-pointing despite the disappointment and frustration. The resolve, hopefully, will be there on Thursday night and, moving forward, we can make those things an issue of the past."
In order to get those things behind them, they have to get through Carolina in just a couple days. The Panthers have been playing good football as of late so while the players have to account for everything on the field, the coaching staff has to figure it all out – in less than 48 hours.