Doug Martin introduced himself to the nation in impressive fashion Thursday night, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the prime-time stage to announce their entry into the NFC playoff chase.
Behind the rookie running back's 214 yards from scrimmage and Josh Freeman's continued hot hands, the Buccaneers throttled the Minnesota Vikings, 36-17 in a nationally-televised battle on the NFL Network. It marked Tampa Bay's first prime-time win on the road since an opening-day victory at Philadelphia in 2003.
The victory improved Tampa Bay's record to 3-4 and marked their sixth straight win against the Vikings, who fell to 5-3. The Buccaneers have now won three consecutive contests in Minnesota, also prevailing in the Metrodome in 2005 and 2011.
Freeman threw scoring passes of 64 yards to Martin, three yards to Mike Williams and one yard to Erik Lorig to become the first quarterback in franchise history with at least three TD tosses in three consecutive team games. Freeman, who completed 19 of 36 passes for 262 yards, those three scores and no interceptions, was at his best during a game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter on which he converted four consecutive third downs of six, 10, 10 and nine yards. That march came on the heels of a momentum-swinging 64-yard TD run by the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, and it covered 87 yards on 16 plays while chewing a critical nine minutes off the clock.
But it was Martin, the 31st pick in last April's draft, who was most responsible for the Bucs' offensive explosion. Surpassing 100 rushing yards before halftime, he finished with 135 yards on 29 carries, both career highs, while also catching three passes for 79 yards. He turned a short pass into a 64-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, then put the game away midway through the fourth period with a rugged one-yard TD run. That made him the first Buccaneer since Warrick Dunn in 2001 (vs. Tennessee, Oct. 14) to score on both a catch and a run in the same game.
Williams led the receivers with 68 yards on six catches, scoring on an impressive toe-tapping fade pass in the second quarter and turning in the biggest play of the fourth-quarter scoring drive with a leaping 34-yarder on the sideline. His big plays helped the Buccaneers rack up 416 total yards, as they surpassed 400 for the third straight game. That had never happened before in 37 seasons of Buccaneer football.
Tampa Bay's defense had a fine outing, as well, especially against second-year QB Christian Ponder. Ponder completed 19 of 35 passes for 251 yards, with 127 of those yards coming on two late fourth-quarter drives after the game was out of reach and the Bucs were in a prevent. Ponder absorbed three sacks – one each by Michael Bennett, Mason Foster and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim – and was hit on four other occasions. The Bucs did give up the 64-yard breakaway to Peterson in the third quarter and a couple of long screen-pass gains to do-everything WR Percy Harvin, but held Minnesota to 252 yards before those last two meaningless drives. Rookie CB Leonard Johnson, who played extensively in the Bucs' nickel package, ended Minnesota's last drive with his first career interception.
Veteran safety Ronde Barber paced the Bucs' defense with nine tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble. Bennett also forced a fumble and had two tackles for loss to go with his sack. The Buccaneers turned those two takeaways into a total of 10 points while building a 20-10 halftime lead.
It took a while for both offenses to find a rhythm. The Bucs' defense forced a three-and-out on the game-opening possession by pressuring Ponder into two incompletions, and Freeman threw high on a third-and-six pass on the Bucs' opening drive. Minnesota's second drive was a carbon-copy of the first, with an impressive five-yard run by Peterson sandwiched by two Ponder incompletions, neither of them even close to a receiver.
The Bucs made good use of their second drive, however, thanks to a shanked Chris Kluwe punt that only went 20 yards to the Tampa Bay 42 and a 41-yard breakaway run by Martin. That put the ball at the Vikings' 17, but the drive stalled at the 10 and Connor Barth came on to open the scoring with a 28-yard field goal.
Another three-and-out forced by the Bucs' defense, with Johnson breaking up a third-down pass to Michael Jenkins, gave the ball back to the offense at midfield. Roscoe Parrish actually muffed another short punt by Kluwe but was able to come out of the resulting pileup with the football. Three plays later, on third-and-10, Jackson leaped high in the middle of three defenders and came down with a 26-yard reception. Freeman's 10-yard dart to TE Dallas Clark made it first-and-goal at the one and the Bucs used play-action on the next play to spring Lorig for his first career touchdown.
The Vikings wisely decided to turn to Peterson on their next drive, and he broke off consecutive 11-yard runs to get it started. However, on the fourth play of the drive a short pass over the middle to WR Jerome Simpson attracted a gang of Buc tacklers and Bennett eventually stripped the football from Simpson's hands. Foster recovered for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 46.
The Bucs also elected to go with their hot hand in the running game, and Martin started the ensuing drive with runs of 12 and eight yards. Martin also converted a key third-and-two with a hard-nosed draw play up the middle, and a pass in the flat to WR Tiquan Underwood produced another set of downs right on the edge of the red zone. A false start before the next play pushed the offense back and the team wasn't able to recover, eventually settling for Connor Barth's 40-yard field goal and a 13-0 lead with 12 minutes left in the half.
The Vikings finally sprung Harvin on their next possession, throwing him a quick screen that he turned into a 32-yard gain thanks to some outstanding blocking at the line of scrimmage. A roughing-the-passer penalty on Roy Miller moved the ball down to the Bucs' 22 and three plays later Harvin made a remarkable adjustment on a high lob by Ponder, hauling it in for an 18-yard score as he crossed the line.
The Bucs struck next, however, after Barber forced the game's second turnover, punching it out of Peterson's grasp at the Minnesota 37. Quincy Black recovered for the Bucs, and Martin promptly swept around left end for a 16-yard gain to the 21. A 13-yard catch by Clark made it first-and-goal at the eight, and Martin got to the two on first down. On third-and-goal, after calling a timeout, the Bucs threw a fade to Williams in the back right corner and he hauled it in for his 18th career TD.
Te'o-Nesheim's first sack as a Buccaneer nearly short-circuited Minnesota's next drive, but Simpson out-battled CB E.J. Biggers for the ball on a deep ball and got 33 yards to Tampa Bay's 37 as the two-minute warning arrived. The Bucs' defense held there, with Johnson denying Harvin on a third-down pass down the sideline, and Minnesota settled for a 51-yard field goal by rookie Blair Walsh.
The Bucs' decision to defer to the second half after winning the opening coin toss paid off quickly, as they needed just four plays to go 80 yards and increase their lead to 27-10. Most of that came on a short pass to Martin in the left flat, on which the rookie back accelerated suddenly between two tacklers and found himself in the open field for a 64-yard touchdown.
Tampa Bay's defense came back with a quick three-and-out, helped by Barber's stop of Peterson two yards in the backfield, and the Bucs wisely elected to keep feeding the ball to Martin. He ripped off gains of six and nine yards to get the ball into Minnesota territory, and a 12-yard grab over the middle by Williams got into field goal range. Barth finished the scoring drive with a 38-yard field goal to make it 30-10.
The Vikings weren't ready to go down quietly, as Peterson finally broke one out into the open. His 64-yard touchdown breakaway was sprung by a key open-field block on Foster by Simpson, making it 30-17 halfway through the third quarter.
Minnesota kept the momentum going in its favor with a quick three-and-out, but the Bucs managed to slow it down with a stop of their own, keyed by Foster's 10-yard sack of Ponder on first down. The teams traded punts one more time, essentially running out the rest of the third quarter. On Tampa Bay's ensuing drive, Freeman twice stood in a collapsing pocket to convert long third downs and keep the clock moving with passes to Jackson and Underwood. Those were tosses into the flat, but on the next third down Freeman went deep down the sideline to Williams and the receiver made another amazing leaping catch while well-covered by the defender. Incredibly, Freeman found Williams once again on the next third down, hitting him across the middle for a first down at the five. Martin pounded it in on third-and-goal from the one, and a failed two-point try made it 36-17 with seven minutes to play.
The Vikings drove into Buccaneer territory after that as the defense pulled back to avoid giving up the big play. However, the drive came up empty when Te'o-Nesheim buried Ponder on a fourth-down pass attempt from the Bucs' 19. Rushes of nine yards by Arrelious Benn and eight yards by LeGarrette Blount were enough to run the clock down under three minutes before the Bucs punted one last time. Minnesota's last drive also moved into Buc territory but ended on Johnson's leaping interception at the five.
- The Buccaneers activated DE Da'Quan Bowers from the reserve/PUP list prior to Thursday's outing. Bowers, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in May, played in the game, primarily on third-down pass-rushing situations. The Bucs' seven inactives were CB Myron Lewis, RB Michael Smith, DB Keith Tandy, LB Najee Goode, C/G Cody Wallace, WR Chris Owusu and TE Danny Noble.
- Minnesota's inactive players were QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, WR Jarius Wright, CB Brandon Burton, S Mistral Raymond, LB Audie Cole, G Mark Asper and TE John Carlson. Raymond and Carlson were out due to injury.
- Rookie CB Leonard Johnson made his first NFL start, opening the game as an extra-DB in a nickel package against Minnesota's three-receiver set.
- Buccaneers punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen extended his streak of touchback to 21 on his first six kickoffs Thursday night before Percy Harvin ran one out from nine yards deep in the third quarter. In all, Koenen kicked off eight times, resulting in seven touchbacks.
- With 135 rushing yards and 79 receiving yards, rookie RB Doug Martin became the first Buccaneer back to have over 200 yards from scrimmage since Warrick Dunn in 2000. Dunn racked up 221 yards against Dallas on Dec. 3 of that season.
- Michael Bennett's fourth-quarter sack of Christian Ponder gave him 5.0 on the season as he continued to lead the team in that category.