After suffering a spate of injuries in their Week Two loss at Arizona, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Head Coach Dirk Koetter will hold their cards close to the vest this week in terms of player availability. There is obviously a chance, however, that Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin will be unable to play on Sunday after sustaining a hamstring injury against the Cardinals.
"We have some guys that are banged up this week," said Koetter. "We definitely have some guys that are going to be close on making it this week, and as far as injuries go you're going to have to get the rest of it off the injury report."
If Martin is out Sunday, the Bucs will have three healthy tailbacks in Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber, and likely would deploy them in that order. Sims and Rodgers filled in when Martin went down in Arizona (Barber was a game-day inactive) and the team is confident that tandem can keep the ground game going.
"We're hopeful that we'll get Doug back sooner than [some reports suggest]," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "We're hopeful that we can but we feel good about the other two guys that carried the ball on Sunday. If Doug's not available, we'll move forward with those guys. Really, they're similar in a number of ways – they're both good in pass pro, good catching the ball out of the backfield, can run with power when needed. We're excited. I don't see an issue with us being able to run the ball this week based on who our tailbacks are."
Sims has the most tenure in that group, as Rodgers was just signed last week and Barber is a rookie who made the team as an undrafted free agent. A third-round pick in 2014, Sims missed a good chunk of his rookie year due to injury but quickly emerged as the perfect complement to Martin last year. While his strength may be in the passing game – he caught 51 passes last year and has already scored on a reception in 2016 – he also averaged 4.9 yards per tote in 2015. Presumably, Sims would start in Martin's place and Rodgers would spell him and offer a change of pace.
"Chuck's been here long enough and has earned the opportunity to be the lead back," said Monken. "We expect him to play well, as we do Rodgers."
Rodgers was actually the Buccaneers' leading rusher in Week Two, as Martin went down too early to pile up the yards and the offense eventually had to go pass-heavy as the scoreboard deficit grew. Rodgers broke off a 24-yard run that helped him post 29 yards on two carries.
"I got thrown into the fire last week, but I was ready," said Rodgers, a former Atlanta Falcon who played in Koetter's offense for three seasons (2012-14). "For me, my goal is to get more familiar with the playbook so I can go out there and be able to play full-speed when my number is called. The offense is pretty much the same as when we were in Atlanta. It's just different verbiage; other than that, it's the same for me."
During his four years in Atlanta, Rodgers was generally the second tailback behind first Michael Turner and later Steven Jackson. He averaged about 80 carries and 300 yards during those years, and also had two 50-catch seasons. The Bucs are confident that Rodgers can competently handle any task that might be asked of one of their running backs, from running between the tackles to keeping a blitzer off the quarterback.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Rams.
"Jacquizz is an excellent zone runner," said Koetter. "He's short in stature but he's a muscled-up guy. He's hard to see back there. He's extremely hard to bring down; really good quickness; really nice vision; can catch the ball out of the backfield. And he's got unbelievable pop in his pass protection."
Still just 26, Rodgers doesn't have too much wear on his tires, but he's been in the league long enough to know how to prepare himself for a sudden opportunity. He says he doesn't hope for a chance to play more but rather assumes it's going to happen at some point. It didn't take long for that point to arrive after he got to Tampa.
"It's not hope, it's always staying ready," said Rodgers. "Because if you stay ready you don't have to get ready. You just go out there, you practice hard and you know the game plan so when you go out there you can play with confidence."
Sims and Rodgers will be going up against a Rams' defense that has allowed 108.5 rushing yards per game through two weeks, but only 3.3 yards per carry. Whoever gets the handoff from Jameis Winston on any given snap, he's going to need significant help from a Buccaneers' O-Line that paved the way for a strong running game a year ago. So far, that part of the Bucs' attack has been up-and-down, though the raw numbers (87.5 yards per game) have been somewhat dictated by game situations.
"They have a really good defense, a really good front seven," said center Joe Hawley of the Rams. "Running the ball is going to be big to set up the play action and help Jameis be more comfortable back there. It all works together and we need to be hitting on all cylinders. Obviously, the run game hasn't been where we want it to be. We've got to get our running backs as many yards as possible, get them to the second level."
If Hawley and company can do that, Tampa Bay's backs are confident they can take care of the rest and minimize the impact of Martin's potential absence, however long it lasts.
"You've got to always stay ready because you know coming in that anything can happen," said Rodgers. "You've just got to practice as if you're going to be the starter, so when your number's called it's no let-down or no drop-off.
"We're going to go out there and make sure there's no drop-off from what Doug brings to the table."