Doug Martin was expected to carry the load in 2014.
Head coach Lovie Smith began repeating that offensive philosophy during offseason programs and carried it into the regular season.
Then Martin hurt his knee in the third quarter of last season’s opener against Carolina after taking just nine carries for nine yards. That injury kept him out of the next two contests and another to his ankle four games later against Minnesota would sideline him for the following three.
The whole ‘bell cow’ thing never materialized. Martin still led the team in rushing attempts and yardage, but the 134 for 494 and two touchdown totals weren’t exactly what Smith had in mind.
Even when Martin was in the game, though, Tampa Bay never seemed committed to running the football last year. Sometimes that was circumstantial – i.e. getting blown out early – and other times it dealt with the Bucs’ inferior offensive line failing to open holes.
But that was last year and Smith remains adamant that team success still begins with a consistent and effecting ground attack in 2015.
“In order for us to have success this year, we need to get our running game going,” the Bucs’ second-year head coach said. “We’re going to rely on the running game. We get off the bus, we would like to know we can run the football. Getting off the bus, or in our case showing up at Raymond James Stadium, Doug Martin is our starting running back. I don’t see any reason why we should think we can’t run the ball. Doug’s had a great offseason, he’s ready to go, but we do need to establish the run.”
It’s been well-documented since training camp that Martin’s shown up fit and determined to stay healthy and quiet his doubters. Playing for the chance to sit down and sign his name to a large contract next offseason has its motivating abilities, as well.
So to no one’s surprise, the fifth-year back out of Boise State is onboard with his coach’s plans for the offense.
“It’s not a problem for me. I do consider myself a workhorse and I feel that I’m able to carry the load,” Martin said Thursday, adding that it’s not just him that can be relied upon. “Lots of other running backs in the room are able to do the same thing and help carry the load. We are confident in our running game and I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do.”
Tampa Bay averaged only 85.9 yards rushing per game last season, better than only three other NFL franchises. The Bucs’ 353 rushing attempts were more than only lowly Oakland’s 337.
Smith isn’t the only Bucs coach saying he has high hopes for Martin setting the pace for this offense. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter mentioned earlier this preseason how much a quality running game can help in the progression of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.
That’s another opinion that Martin won’t dispute.
“Jameis shouldn’t have to do it all,” he said. “There’s 11 guys on the field. If they all play together as a team, it should be easier on everybody. [Koetter] saying that, wanting to run the ball, that’s what we’ve got to do to get the pressure off of Winston. I believe that’s what we can do.”
Martin has a prime opportunity to prove it to fans Sunday. Tennessee’s 3-4 base defense surrendered 137.2 yards rushing per game last year, an average worse than every other franchise not located in Cleveland.
The Titans return most of its defensive starters from that underperforming unit, too. If their current depth charge holds, three main differences would be newcomer Brian Orakpo at right outside linebacker, Zach Brown at right inside linebacker and newcomer Da’Norris Searcy at strong safety. Orakpo, 29, and Brown, 25, are both coming off season-ending injuries.