Photos of running back Doug Martin from the 2015 season.
As Tampa Bay Buccaneers players enjoy a much-needed bye week, Buccaneers.com is using the break to assess the first five weeks in Roundtable format. Contributors Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and Scott Smith are tackling the following topics:
- Thursday: Who is the team MVP at the break?
- Friday: What has been the biggest surprise of the Bucs' season so far?
- Saturday: Which player returning from injury will make the biggest difference?
- Sunday: Who is the Bucs' unsung hero so far?
Today we're discussing the long list of injured players who will hopefully use the extra rest of the bye week to get back into the mix.
Which player returning from injury will make the biggest difference?
Scott Smith: DE Robert Ayers
The obvious answer here, at least defensively, is Gerald McCoy and I'm guessing one of my colleagues here will make that choice. But I'm going to start this off with defensive end Robert Ayers. Yes, McCoy may be the team's most important lineman, but I think Ayers has proven very difficult to replace and his return will revitalize the front and allow the team to go back to some of its original rotation plans.
Before he was hurt early in Week Two, Ayers had settled into a dual role that saw him playing right end in the base defense and then moving into a DT spot next to McCoy in obvious passing situations. That allowed the team to get more pure pass-rushers into the game, such as Noah Spence and, before he was hurt, Jacquies Smith (which was particularly effective in the preseason). You can't say enough about how well DaVonte Lambert has handled his surge in playing time, or how much of a rock William Gholston has been, but Ayers is the Bucs' best three-down combination of pass rushing and run stopping at the end position. His return is critical to getting back the fierce pass rush the Bucs showed in August.
Joe Kania: RB Doug Martin
When Martin was sidelined with a hamstring injury in Week 2, the Buccaneers became a different offense almost immediately. Martin missed the majority of the Bucs' Week 2 matchup with the Cardinals, in addition to the next three games. Without him, the Buccaneers asked Jameis Winston to throw an unprecedented number of passes, a recipe which has proven to be unsuccessful in the past. Since debuting in 2015, Winston has won just one game when throwing more than 32 passes in a game.
Martin's timetable for return is still uncertain, but after the bye has been the target. It would be a critical time to get him back, with Charles Sims being placed on injured reserve before the Bucs' Monday Night game against the Panthers in Week 5. Tampa Bay failed to rush for more than 85 total yards in Weeks 2, 3 or 4, but finally found a groove when Jacquizz Rodgers was inserted into the starting lineup against Carolina. While Rodgers performed well, it's clear that the Buccaneers need the NFL's No. 2 rusher from a year ago.
Andrew Norton: DT Gerald McCoy
Thanks for leaving me the obvious answer, guys! Obviously the pass-rush and running game have been drastically affected by the absence of Ayers and Martin, but Gerald McCoy has been the rock of this defense and a Pro Bowl selection for the last four seasons.
As one of the most feared DTs in the game, McCoy is consistently drawing and beating double-teams. This allows his teammates more one-on-one matchups and opportunities to get the quarterback. But in addition to his tremendous pass rush up the middle (his 33 sacks since 2012 are the second-most from a DL in that time frame), he also adds a strong presence in the Bucs' run defense. When Gerald McCoy was on the field (first three games and first half against the Broncos) the Buccaneers allowed 3.46 yards per rush, which is the fifth-best average in the league. Without McCoy in the lineup, the yards per rush average is 4.02, 15th in the NFL.
This Buccaneers defensive line is thin across the board, and those called upon to replace the starters have done a remarkable job when called upon. But you just can't replace the captain of this defense and the extra edge he brings to the pass rush and the run defense.