Every week when preparing for the upcoming opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff prepares a tape of "game-wreckers" to show to their own players. These are the opposing players on either side of the ball that the Buccaneers need to plan for most diligently, to attempt to stop them if they're on offense and keep them from wreaking havoc if they're on defense.
When those same opponents study the Buccaneers, who do they define as the "game-wreckers?" In a best-case scenario, when it comes to the Bucs' offense, that would be a difficult question to answer simply because there were too many choices.
Mike Evans was the clear focal point of Tampa Bay's offense in 2016 and a player who saw constant double-teaming from opposing defenses. Doug Martin was the driving force in the Bucs' attack in 2015, with nearly 1,700 yards from scrimmage. Cam Brate is emerging as one of the NFL's most consistent red zone threats. The Buccaneers added big-play aficionado DeSean Jackson hoping to take the top of defenses and give everyone else more room to operate. Adam Humphries quietly keeps putting up numbers working the middle of the defense when attention turns elsewhere. First-round rookie O.J. Howard is waiting to fully unleash his talents.
"I think the more weapons you have, I think the more readily capable you are of designing things for others," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "When you add in O.J. Howard to the mix, you get Doug back, you add DeSean, so you're not constantly designing where can we put Mike…in the past that's what you did. You said, 'Okay, we need to move Mike over here and Mike over here.' We don't have to do that nearly as much."
Indeed the Buccaneers offense with its newly-deep array of weapons is off to a good start, particularly in the passing game. Tampa Bay has put up more gross passing yards (1,198) through the first four games of this season than any one before and four players are already over 200 receiving yards, also a franchise first. What was not part of the plan, however, was for the Buccaneers to reach the quarter pole having thrown 65.3% of their plays. Last year, the Bucs ranked sixth in the NFL in percentage of plays that are runs; this year they are 28th.
That statistic is only misleading if one forgets about cause and effect. The Bucs' numbers are skewed largely because of a game in Minnesota that got lopsided early on the scoreboard and forced the offense to throw almost exclusively in the second half. Tampa Bay's nine runs in that game tied for their lowest ever in any regular-season contest. In contrast, when the Bucs won by three touchdowns over Chicago in Week Two, they ran on 34 of 67 plays, and 21 of those 34 runs came in the second half. With 12 games to go, there is plenty of time for that skewed ratio to get back to normal, which for the Buccaneers under Koetter has been about 42 or 43% rushing plays.
"We keep track of that stuff and we try to stay balanced because we still believe that is the hardest thing to defend," said Koetter. "Hopefully that number does come down."
Doug Martin may be able to make the difference. In his first game after finishing a four-game suspension that started late last year, Martin looked very sharp, running 13 times for 74 yards and a touchdown. He was only on the field for 26 of the team's 72 plays, however, partially because it was his first game back and he was still working into NFL game shape, and partially because the Bucs continue to have faith in their other running backs.
"Again, playing football is different than training for football and I'm sure he will catch up fast because he has played," said Koetter. "He is a veteran player. I think that will present itself and we have no problem with any of our other backs. Every back I've ever been around thought he could take the ball 65 times a game. It's just easier said than done."
But it will get easier for Martin as he gets used to the demands of the game again, and it's reasonable to suspect that his carries will climb gradually in the weeks to come. With peak Doug Martin – such as the one that finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2015 – the Buccaneers have a different kind of weapon that helps everyone around him.
"I think any time you add a talented player like Doug or any of the guys you've got, [on] either side of the ball, it changes your team," said Monken. "There [are] certain individual players that have the ability to make plays that others can't. Doug has that ability – the ability to see things and to jump cut. That's why he's been to a Pro Bowl before and that's why he's had over 1,000 yards. Having him back obviously gives us a lift. We obviously have some other talented guys there, but everybody knows what Doug can do when he is right."
Not surprisingly, Martin feels like he's ready for a full load right now. Before the New England game he suggested that he had "fresh legs," and it certainly looked that way he got on the field. He also had little trouble getting back into the flow of the offense, perhaps even less than he expected.
"First off, it felt really good going back in there. I was surprised how quickly some of the stuff came back. In the middle of the game, I kind of did feel like I had not played ball in four weeks, but it did feel good to get out there and help the team in the beginning.
"I just wanted to go out there and show everybody that I'm back. I have fresh legs. Like I said, I was actually surprised how quickly the reads came and how the quick twitch was there as well. It was a good feeling to have."
Jameis Winston has enjoyed good protection from the Bucs' offensive line, often giving him enough time to go through his progressions and find the open man. He has spread the ball around well and, like usual, made quite a few exceptional throws in the medium-length range. He has done this while the running game has averaged 86.0 yards per game. If that goes up – and Martin could make that happen – Winston may find himself with even more time and room to operate, particularly if the play-action game becomes more of a threat.
"Doug is definitely a huge part [of] our team because that's one of the things we focus on – dominating in the running game [and] dominating the line of scrimmage," said Winston. "What he brings to the table is amazing. When he really gets going you see that our offense can open up all different types of ways."
Added Martin: "It always starts with the guys up front. Our O-linemen are a big part of our offense and if we can't control the line of scrimmage, then I'm going uphill. So, our emphasis is to beat them at the line of scrimmage, get the running game going, get the play action going and get everybody else involved."
If Martin's first game back was just a taste of what he can bring to the offense the rest of the way, he'll likely be showing up on "game-wrecker" tapes in other teams' headquarters. What the Buccaneers hope is that his presence will allow all of the Bucs' offensive weapons a chance to wreck games.