When Doug Martin finally found the end zone for the first time in 2016, he was clearly happy and relieved to be there. Still on his hands and knees after scoring on a one-yard plunge against the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon, he bent to give the ground a quick kiss, though his face mask prevented actual contact with the grass. Symbolically, it was close enough.
On Sunday, in his first game action since suffering a hamstring injury early in the second game of the season, Doug Martin was himself something of a symbol to his teammates. For Jameis Winston, it was a sign that the Bucs' offense, which showed so much promise in the quarterback's rookie year, was much closer to being the unit the team had expected it to be in 2016.
"Just his presence being out there, seeing him in that huddle, it means a lot," said Winston. "And you can just tell by the way the guys carry themselves. Him [carrying] that ball in the backfield, it just seems like it's all coming back together. We've got our running back back."
Doug Martin was one of the top offensive players in the entire NFL in 2015, finishing second in the league in rushing, averaging 4.9 yards per tote, racking up 1,673 yards from scrimmage and scoring seven touchdowns as the centerpiece of the Bucs' offense. After signing a lucrative new deal as an unrestricted free agent in March to remain in Tampa, he rushed for 62 yards in a season-opening in Atlanta before getting hurt early the next Sunday in Arizona. A subsequent setback in Week Five pushed back his return date and the Bucs dealt with constant upheaval in their offensive backfield in the interim.
Jacquizz Rodgers, who is currently out with a foot injury, did particularly well as one of Martin's many fill-ins, rushing for more than 300 yards during a span of three starts. But Martin's status among his teammates, their belief in what he is capable of bringing to the offense, is undeniable. He had just 45 yards from scrimmage in his return game, but even if he hadn't kissed that end zone grass he still would have made a difference as the Bucs got their first home win of the season.
"I think that was probably the biggest thing, the emotional lift," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "After being out that long, any player is going to take a little bit to get their legs underneath them. Really, when we were running the ball the most successfully in the fourth-quarter it was Peyton Barber doing the running. But I fully expect Doug to be back pounding that thing full-speed ahead real quickly here."
Martin had his setback in October when he tried to push it, believing he was ready to return. He and the team were thus particularly cautious in bringing him back now, which can't help but create mental hurdle when the player finally returns to full-speed action.
"I think getting his confidence back, I think that's the number one thing," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "[With] a soft-tissue injury, his ability to let it go, get out and run [is important]. And I think that was critical that we got him work Sunday, but didn't overwork him and I think he'll be able to build on that this week."
Monken who came aboard after Koetter was elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach in January, hasn't had much of an opportunity to work with Martin since the games began. And, of course, Koetter remains the play-caller on game days and will determine how rapidly Martin's workload increases in the coming weeks. But Monken knows that the Buccaneers were the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack last year with Martin carrying the load, and he knows how much of a difference that could make for the offense down the stretch.
"You're rarely going to get chunk plays in the league if you're not able to run the football and put defenders in a run-pass conflict," he said. "That what you're trying to do. If you can run it, it puts defenders in a run-pass conflict, gives you a chance to throw it over their head and get explosive plays. It keeps you from turning the ball over, it keeps you ahead of the chains, it keeps the ball away from your opponent."
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers worked through their first bit of offensive-line upheaval last weekend but may be dealing with moving parts again in Week 11. The end result could take the Bucs right back to where they started, essentially.
The quintet of left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Kevin Pamphile, center Joe Hawley, right guard Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson started intact through each of the first eight games of the season. In fact, Smith and Marpet had played every offensive snap at the team's midway point while Dotson and Pamphile had missed a combined 19 plays.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, November 16.
Against Chicago, however, the Bucs were without Pamphile due to a concussion and Hawley due to a knee injury. Rookie fifth-rounder Caleb Benenoch stepped in at left guard while versatile vet Evan Smith started at center but went down to his own knee injury just six plays in. First-year man Ben Gottschalk, who had spent the first half of the season on the practice squad, stepped in to fill the void at center for most of the Bucs' 36-10 victory.
On Wednesday, as the team began preparations for its Week 11 contest in Kansas City, both Pamphile and Hawley were back on the practice field. Hawley was limited but Pamphile was a full participant. Meanwhile, Smith was not able to practice due to that injury sustained early Sunday afternoon. If both Pamphile and Hawley are able to play against the Chiefs, the original starting five would be back on the field after just one game apart, with either Benenoch or Gottschalk (or possibly both) active as interior-line reserves.
Wide receiver Russell Shepard, who missed the last two games with a hip injury, also returned to practice on Wednesday, without limitations. Shepard is the Buccaneers' special team captain and a superb gunner in kick coverage, but he was also emerging as a bigger threat in the passing game before his injury, with seven catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns in his last two outings combined.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers (foot) and tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) round out the Bucs' first injury report of the week. Neither practiced on Wednesday.
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- The Bucs' injury report was conspicuously devoid of defensive linemen, the first time that has been true since Wednesday of the second week of the season. However, the team did tweak that crew with a pair of complementary roster moves on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay has claimed defensive tackle Sealver Siliga off waivers from Seattle, bringing in a player the team had worked out before he signed with the Seahawks on October 18. To make room for Siliga on the 53-man roster, the Bucs waived rookie defensive end Channing Ward.
The 6-2, 345-pound Siliga appeared in four games during his stint with the Seahawks, contributing five tackles. He had also gone to training camp in Seattle this past summer after spending the previous three years with the New England Patriots. In 30 games and 13 starts in New England, Siliga recorded 95 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. The Utah product originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with San Francisco in 2011 and got into one game with the Denver Broncos in 2012.
Ward, who played his college ball at Ole Miss, impressively made the Bucs' 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent. He played in five games and made one start at defensive tackle, pitching in with five tackles.
Due to injuries at various times to Jacquies Smith (season-ending), Robert Ayers, Clinton McDonald, Gerald McCoy, Noah Spence and Howard Jones (season-ending), the Buccaneers have already given regular-season snaps to 12 different defensive linemen. Last Sunday, the Bucs had Ayers, McDonald and McCoy – three of the team's original four D-Line starters – together in the lineup for the first time since Week Two. Still, the addition of Siliga gives the Buccaneers another experienced linemen and another big presence for the interior line.