In last Sunday's loss at Dallas, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers snapped the ball on first down 26 times, and on 14 of those occasions Jameis Winston handed off to either Doug Martin or Charles Sims. Of the 12 times the Buccaneers passed on first down, five came in the final two minutes of either half. In other words, playing in a game that was within one score for most of the night, Tampa Bay made a point of presenting a balanced offense.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers' rushing attack never got into a rhythm and ended with a season-low 52 yards on 20 carries. Those 14 first-down carries created a total of 16 yards, with only three getting one or more. Tampa Bay version 2016 has not been the same consistent running team that it was a year ago, and as Head Coach Dirk Koetter often points out, every season has its own identity. That said, Koetter and company still believe in the promise of the 2016 rushing attack, and that could be critical over the final two weeks of the regular season and, hopefully, in the playoffs.
"I do think that," said Koetter. "I'm not sure I might be in the minority as far as people out there thinking that. Because I've seen us do it before and I've seen what practice looks like. I don't think we're that far off; I do think Doug Martin is running hard and I think Charles Sims is back into his normal role. I think just as an offensive unit we've just got to finish a little bit better, we've got to finish our blocks, we've got to block downfield a little bit better. I think if we can get Doug started we can get in a little rhythm and I do think it can still get turned around."
Added Martin: "Dirk wants to be a run-first offense and that's something that we take pride in, being the most physical team out there. And if we do that, then we can run the table."
Koetter also knows that the Buccaneers have to do better on first down, whether it's via the ground or the air. The value in proving you can and will run the ball on first down, of course, is that it adds bite to the play-action game.
"First down is the most important down," said Koetter. "Third down [is important], but what you do on first down determines how long you're in on third down and we haven't been doing as well as we need to the last few weeks, but that's something that can change at any game. We'll certainly be trying to do our best on that this week."
Koetter clearly remains confident in Martin and the Bucs' fifth-year back has had plenty of strong runs since returning from a long injury absence. What has been lacking are the occasional breakaways, but those could return in a hurry and push the Bucs' offense to another level.
"There are 11 guys on the field and a run play takes all 11 guys to do the job," said Martin. "So we've just got to all come together and everybody needs to be a little more detail-oriented, including myself. If we do all that together, those gains will come."
The Buccaneers may have a change in their blocking personnel in front of Martin on Saturday. Starting right tackle Demar Dotson practiced in a limited fashion for the second day in a row but, as Koetter confirmed on Thursday, he remains in the NFL's concussion protocol. Dotson would have to be cleared before Saturday's game in order to play, a decision that is out of the team's hands. His replacement the past two games, veteran Gosder Cherilus, has not practiced this week after sustaining groin and ankle injuries on Sunday night.
The Buccaneers' are not required to post the full injury report with game-status designations until Friday. There was one change on Thursday's report, which notes the players' practice participation, or lack thereof. Defensive end Robert Ayers, who sat out on Wednesday due to illness, returned to action on Thursday. However, Koetter said that there was a bug making the rounds at One Buc Place.
"Yeah, we've got a little sickness going through our team right now and that's just part of this time of the year," he said. "Your guys' bodies are a little bit worn down when you travel. Just like when you guys travel, bodies are susceptible to picking up a little virus and when you've got this many grown men around each other, it can spread. But again, we're going to be ready to roll on Saturday, and so will the Saints."