The Buccaneers' depth chart for their preseason match-up against the Browns.
Two seasons ago, in Dirk Koetter's first year guiding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense, the team finished fifth in the NFL in rushing with 135.1 yards per game. Doug Martin, the league's second-leading rusher that year, powered that train, but aside from his own promising offseason work, there was little indication that Tampa Bay would have one of the game's best ground attacks. The Buccaneers had ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing the year before (85.9 yards per game) and 22nd in 2013 (100.8).
Furthermore, the 2015 preseason didn't give much of a hint of what was to come for Martin and company. The Buccaneers averaged just 95.5 yards per game on the ground in the summer of 2015, ranking 18th in the league. That's a reminder that there is little in a preseason stat table that you can trust as a true predictor for the regular-season games ahead.
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That said, the Buccaneers would like to see progress in their rushing attack on Thursday night when the preseason resumes in Jacksonville. Tampa Bay's ground game was serviceable in the opener at Cincinnati, with 106 yards on 28 carries (3.8 avg.), though 27 of those yards were provided by QB scrambles. The numbers may or may not prove better on Thursday night but Koetter would like to see good execution in all the parts that make up a successful running play.
"The run game, you have to remember, is more than just the running backs," said the Bucs' head coach, who was the team's offensive coordinator in 2015 before stepping up to the corner office. "Teams have a tendency to put eight guys in the box, so the run game is your O-Line, your tight ends, your lead blocker, your wide receivers on the perimeter, the quarterback getting you in the right play.
"Then, when all that happens, then the running back takes over. A great running back can make all the rest of that stuff look easy. None of those running backs got enough touches to really show what they can do, and that's how preseason is, because those guys take the most punishment and you're trying to protect them."
That, of course, is one of the reasons that preseason rushing statistics are difficult to trust. Many running backs are at their best when they're fed a lot of carries and are able to get into a groove. No Buccaneer back had more than eight totes in the opener, those eight belong to Peyton Barber during the second half. Martin had four carries for 11 yards as the starting back; he certainly did not get a chance to get into a groove. He might get a few more carries on Thursday night but likely will give way to Jacquizz Rodgers before the first half is done.
"We'll play our 'ones' in all phases more in this game, more like a half, so expect to see Doug mostly in the first quarter, with Charles Sims in there maybe on third downs," said Koetter. "Quizz mostly in the second quarter. And then in the second half we'll turn it over to Peyton and Jeremy [McNichols]. The run game is probably always a work in progress because we don't hit live in practice. The only live hitting is on game day. Hopefully that's something that we do better in this week."
Of course, Koetter knows that the Buccaneers have to plan for a three-week span at the beginning of the season in which Martin won't be available. As he finishes up a league suspension carried over from last season, the Bucs will rely on the other backs mentioned above to keep the ground game going. It would be unlike Koetter to abandon the running game during that time; even though the Buccaneers' per-game rushing totals plummeted last year, from 135.1 in 2015 to 101.0, the team still ran it almost the exact same amount of times per outing (28.4 to 28.3).
Barber, a second-year player who made it last year as an undrafted free agent, and McNichols, a fifth-round draft pick, would like to be part of that effort. Their first job, however, is to secure spots on the 53-man roster and then, after that, prove they are worthy of one of the 46 active spots on game days. That latter part of the mission involves more than just running the football.
Actually, special teams will be the key for many of the young players across the depth chart.
"When you get to real games you only have 46 guys on game day, so any player that's not a starter is going to be playing on special teams," said Koetter. You [have] McNichols, Peyton Barber at running back, whoever that fourth and fifth wide receiver are. Chris Godwin's probably going to be one of those guys. Kendell Beckwith and Devante Bond, who won't be playing this week, your backup linebackers, Adarius Glanton will be back, Cameron Lynch, those guys, the backup safeties. Right now, Justin Evans, our second-round pick, he started at personal protector on special teams. He's going to have to be not only a special teams player but a really good special teams player. J.J. Wilcox…if we had to put Keith Tandy and Chris Conte in on special teams they'd do a great job, but as long as they're starters we won't ask them to do as much."
The Buccaneers' defense will be looking for a better performance against the run in Preseason Week Two. Cincinnati managed 140 yards on 36 carries last Friday and had three runs of 13 or more yards. Now Tampa Bay will face the team that featured the best ground game in Week One; Jacksonville rang up 207 rushing yards in a win over New England, including a 79-yard touchdown run by rookie Keelan Cole.
Koetter mentioned run defense as one of the areas from which he was hoping to see improvement on Thursday night.
"On offense, we need to finish drives," he said. "You can't score one touchdown and kick two field goals and think you're going to win games in the NFL. Defensively, we have to fit the run more consistently. I think Jacksonville will test us. I think they'll try to run the ball at us. We can be a good run-defense team. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in pass-rush and how many sacks and that kind of stuff, exotic defenses, but at the end of the day the first thing you've got to do is stop the run."
There are no official inactives during the preseason but the Buccaneers take a relatively healthy roster into Thursday's game. Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Jude Adjei-Barimah will sit out a second straight game, as will wide receiver Donteea Dye and defensive end Jacquies Smith. The latter remains on the active/PUP list. While the team did suffer a few new injuries in Cincinnati – quarterback Ryan Griffin, linebacker Devante Bond and running back Russell Hansbrough, all of whom will sit out the Jacksonville game – it has seen the returns of offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Evan Smith and defensive end George Johnson.
The Buccaneers take on the Jaguars in Week Two of the 2017 preseason on Thursday night, with kickoff scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET. The game, to be played at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, will be broadcast nationally by ESPN and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.