In Week Four of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2013 season, running back Doug Martin carried the ball 27 times in a three-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals. It was the 12th time in the first 20 games of Martin's NFL career that he had logged at least 20 rushes. He hasn't had a single 20-game carry since.
Injuries cost Martin 15 games in 2013 and 2014 combined, and an overall offensive malaise plagued the Buccaneers last fall. During the 2015 offseason, the Buccaneers brought in Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter, spent two high draft picks on new offensive linemen and watched as Martin got into the best shape of his career. Martin clearly convinced Koetter and Head Coach Lovie Smith that he should be the workhorse back again with an impressive training camp and a strong preseason. In the 2015 regular-season opener last Sunday, Martin ran eight times for 41 yards in the first quarter, including a pair of back-to-back 14-yard jaunts that fueled a 68-yard touchdown drive.
"We had a good drive going," said Martin. "That's the type of drives that we expect the offense to execute throughout the whole season. That's what we're going to get better at. That's what we're going to do throughout the season."
Statistically, Martin looked well on his way to 20 carries at that point. Unfortunately, the specifics of the game situation took the Buccaneers away from that approach, as they fell behind by four touchdowns and. Martin had just 10 carries by halftime and 11 by the end of the game as the Bucs either threw in catch-up mode or turned to Bobby Rainey when the outcome was decided in the fourth quarter.
Whether it's Martin's running that keeps his team out of such early deficits, or a closer game that keeps the ball in Martin's hands – that is, whether it's cause or effect – the Buccaneers are going to continue to feature their fourth-year back. His streak of sub-20-carry games will probably not last much longer, perhaps not throughout the weekend.
Photos of the December 2009 Bucs-Saints game. The Bucs won in overtime, 20-17.
"We've talked about Doug since the offseason type of camp," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "He was one of the few bright moments we had, but that was the case. He ran hard, the way he's been running throughout. For us to get out of this hole, we need to get the running game going and stay in games where we can continue to run the football."
Given that he averaged 4.7 yards a carry and had two other long runs called back by penalties, it's fair to believe that Martin's 52-yard opener would have been his first 100-yard game of the year under more favorable scoreboard conditions. In 2012, when the then-rookie was at his most effective, he rushed for 100 or more yards five times and the Bucs won four of them.
READ: THURSDAY'S INJURY REPORT
Martin thinks there are more days like that ahead. Those aforementioned rookie linemen, left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, got their feet wet last Sunday and showed enough to give Martin confidence that he'll find room to run throughout the season.
"They played well," he said. "They're progressing and they're getting better. [Like] my first year, [the] first game, get the first-game jitters out of your system. We're going to do a lot better as an offense as a whole, in execution. I can't wait to see what we're going to do down the line."
Martin has found success against the Saints since coming to the NFL. In his five outings against New Orleans he has averaged 96.6 yards from scrimmage and has recorded two 100-yard rushing games. If he can hit either of those marks again on Sunday, the Bucs will have a good chance to prove that their opening-game loss was not a true indication of their talent.
"The last game is behind us," said Martin. "That's not what we wanted, that's not how we wanted to start, but we're focusing on the New Orleans Saints this upcoming weekend. The guys are hungry. These guys want to win, they're competitors. They're ready to go out here and fight."
- WR Mike Evans won't know until Saturday if he is going to be included in the game plan this week.
As he returns from a hamstring injury, the Buccaneers are gradually increasing his workload on the practice field each day and then monitoring how he feels the next morning. If he gets a favorable review on Saturday, before the team takes off for Louisiana, he'll get a chance to make his 2015 debut on Sunday.
What Evans does know is that he feels good right now. Before practice on Thursday, Evans said he was completely free of any discomfort in his leg. He then took part in that practice on a limited basis.
READ: MORE ON EVANS' STATUS
"I've just got to see how I feel Saturday, that's what Coach [Smith] told me, so we'll see then," said Evans. "I'll practice today and tomorrow, we'll see how it goes. I felt great. I feel 100 percent. I feel good, real good."
Evans missed the Buccaneers' game in New Orleans last year, too, and on that afternoon Louis Murphy stepped in nicely with three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown. However, rookie QB Jameis Winston was unable to get the ball in Murphy's hands on three targets last Sunday against Tennessee, and overall the Bucs' receiving corps struggled to consistently get separation from defenders. That's something at which the 6-5, 230-pound Evans excels, and getting him back in the action will help the Bucs handle the press coverage of new Saints cornerback Brandon Browner.
"They're more physical," Evans said of bigger cornerbacks like Browner, the former standout in Seattle. "They're longer, it's harder to get off their jams, but I like going against physical guys. I'm a physical guy myself. If I play, it will be a fun matchup. I think it plays to my favor, more physical guys. The ref will let us play more, hopefully, so I like going against bigger guys."
Browner stands 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, and with veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis out due to hip surgery the other starting corner is the 6-1, 196-pound Delvin Breaux. Of course, the Buccaneers can counter with another 6-5 receiver in Vincent Jackson, and if too much attention goes to him and Evans it could open things up for 6-5 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Seferian-Jenkins led the team in the opener with five receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
"Like I said earlier throughout this camp, we have so many weapons on this team," said Jackson. "We're going to spread the ball around and we're going to be very balanced in the pass game and in the run game. Austin obviously struggled a little bit with injuries last year, but having him healthy out there – what he can do in creating mismatches with safeties and linebackers up the middle of the field is just going to make our offense that much more dangerous and it's very, very exciting to see him play that well."
- Evans technically did not make any progress on the official injury report, as he was limited on both Wednesday and Thursday. However, two other Bucs did move up a "grade."
Photos of the Bucs Cheerleaders during the Week 1 game vs. the Titans.
Bruce Carter, who sustained a ribs injury that kept him out for part of last Sunday's opener, was limited to start the week but he participated fully on Thursday. The Bucs might need Carter in the starting lineup if strongside linebacker Danny Lansanah is unable to go due to his ankle injury. However, Lansanah progressed Thursday, too, as he was limited on Day Two of practice after sitting out Day One.
CB Mike Jenkins remained limited with a hamstring strain. DE T.J. Fatinikun (shoulder) and safety Major Wright (abdomen) were the only two Bucs who didn't practice at all.
In New Orleans, running back C.J. Spiller took part in practice on a limited basis for the second straight day, after missing the season opener due to a knee injury. Spiller was one of the Saints' key offseason acquisitions and he's expected to be a significant part of the team's passing attack when healthy.
"He's an explosive player, great quickness, great speed," said Smith. "He's a guy that you have to deal with and know when he's on the field, when he's healthy. They are a better football team when he is on the field. [New Orleans Head Coach] Sean [Payton] has always had a player in that role. We are preparing for him to play, which will make their offense better than last week."