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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Can Martin Rescue The Bucs’ Running Game?
When two-time Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin returns to One Buccaneer Place on Monday morning – merely hours after a win against the New York Giants that will have the team at 2-1 thanks to a six-game home winning streak, or 1-2 should the Bucs lose – the fallout from his four-game suspension, dating back to the final game of last year, will be over.
Is Martin the only one to blame for his month-long absence from the team headquarters? He certainly is accountable for his own actions. For reasons only he truly knows, Martin delved into drugs last year to cope with his struggles and paid the price.
Yet Mother Nature is also to blame for Martin not returning until Monday, October 2 rather than Monday, September 25.
Hurricane Irma screwed Martin.
Martin’s suspension during the 2017 campaign was for three games – not three weeks. When the Bucs’ bye week was abruptly moved to Week 1 when Martin had already been banished from One Buccaneer Place per league rules. He lost some practice time that in hindsight he would have been eligible to participate in.
“That is tough,” said Bucs blocking tight end Luke Stocker. “It’s not necessarily that he got an extra week of his suspension tacked on. He just lost a week of football practice, really. During the bye week he should have been able to practice with us and then leave to serve the suspension, but it was one of those acts of God things where you can’t do anything about it because the decision [to move the Miami game to Week 11] came late. I know he’s been working and staying ready. We’ll be excited when he comes back.”
Not only did Martin get screwed with a four-week suspension due to the sudden Week 1 bye instead of one lasting three weeks, he returns on a very short week with the New England Patriots coming to town next Thursday for a nationally televised game.
“It is unfair, but there’s nothing that he can do about it,” said Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith. “I’m sure Doug is doing well. He’s missed in the locker room, and certainly on the field as well. When we get him back next week it will be fun. He’s going to be Doug when he gets back. Doug is going to be Doug for us.”
Martin wasn’t missed too much in the Bucs’ 2017 season opener when Tampa Bay rushed for 117 yards on 34 carries (3.4 avg.) in a convincing 29-7 home win against Chicago. Jacquizz Rodgers, the Bucs’ leading rusher last year, led the way with 67 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries (3.5 avg.). Backup running back Peyton Barber added 47 yards on 10 carries (4.7 avg.).
But Martin was sorely missed last week in a 34-17 loss at Minnesota that saw the Bucs rush for just 26 yards on only nine carries – the fewest rushing attempts in any game in Tampa Bay history. Rodgers was held to 15 yards on five carries and Barber didn’t get a carry.
“We know Doug and he’s working hard keeping himself in shape,” said Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson. “We miss Doug. He’s part of us. We can’t wait to get him back.
“Without him, we’re just doing what we’ve got to do. We know he’s going to help this football team get better when he gets back. I can’t wait to see him. I know he’s going to come back hungry and with a determination to help this football team.”
As I’m writing this column for Friday, September 28, I have no idea if the Bucs will be able to get their ground game back on track against the New York Giants on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Statistically speaking, Tampa Bay should be able to run the ball at will against New York, which has the league’s worst run defense in the league, allowing 153.3 yards per game.
Yet the Bucs’ rushing attack only ranks 26th in the league, averaging 71.5 yards per game. With one decent rushing performance and one lousy one, it’s too early to draw any real conclusions about how good or bad Tampa Bay’s ground game will be this season.
And Martin’s return against the Patriots on Thursday night will add a whole other dimension to the running game, as he’s clearly the Bucs’ most talented runner.
“The good thing is that he’ll be super fresh,” Stocker said. “They’ll limit his reps in practice next week. Doug is a special type of player. I’m sure that when he comes back he’s going to provide a spark like only he can do just like any other of our top players would. We’re excited to get him back.”
“I don’t know how many snaps he’s going to have,” Dotson said. “I’m sure Coach [Dirk] Koetter is going to have a plan for him. They’re going to take care of him and work him back in. I’m sure he’ll get a few reps and then a little break to get back into the swing of things, and then we’ll get ready for Arizona.”
How rusty will Martin be when he returns? When he takes the field against the Patriots on Thursday night it will have been nearly five weeks since he last suited up to play the Cleveland Browns in the third preseason game on August 26.
“He hasn’t forgotten how to run the ball,” Smith said. “He’ll be ready.”
Martin, who will turn 29 in January, needs to come back as the 1,400-yard Martin he was in 2012 and ’15 in order for the Bucs to make a serious playoff push – not the Martin that has rushed for less than 500 yards during his other three years. If Martin doesn’t return to Pro Bowl form and Rodgers struggles against the Giants the Bucs could quickly turn into the league’s most disappointing team at the start of the season.
“When he comes back we know he’s going to help this football team because we need him,” Dotson said. “We need him to get where we need to go.”