Jacquizz Rodgers is stepping up in the absence of Doug Martin and Charles Sims. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually hope he follows in the footsteps of Fozzy Whittaker, Christine Michael, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson and LeSean McCoy.
That first pair of backs represented the Buccaneers' outstanding 1-2 punch returning from 2015, as Martin and Sims were the only pair of running back teammates to each surpass 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year. However, Sims is now on injured reserve with a knee ailment and Martin is out indefinitely after aggravating a hamstring injury that has kept him out of action since Week Two.
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That second, somewhat eclectic group of backs are the last five lead ballcarriers to face the San Francisco 49ers' defense. Each one topped 100 yards on the ground in his respective game, with each back nearly outdoing the one before. In Week Two, Whittaker was pressed into service when Carolina starter Jonathan Stewart went down and ran 18 times for 100 yards against the Niners. In Week Three, Seattle's Michael recorded a career-high 106 yards on 20 totes against San Francisco. Elliott, a rookie and the NFL's leading rusher, touched the 49ers for 138 yards on 23 carries in Week Four, followed four days later by Johnson's 157-yard effort on Thursday Night Football with San Francisco in town. This past Sunday, Buffalo's LeSean McCoy keyed a 45-16 Buffalo win over the visiting Niners with 150 yards on just 18 carries.
Tampa Bay is next on San Fran's ledger, with the two due to meet on Sunday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. Originally, the Bucs had hoped that Martin would return from his injury after the bye week, but now the job falls to Rodgers, who only signed with the Buccaneers on Sept. 13. Fortunately, Tampa Bay's coaching staff has reason to be confident in the sixth-year back, given that he took the lead in the Bucs' win over Carolina before the bye, rushing 30 times for 102 yards. Both were career highs.
"That was the first time in my career I had that many carries," said Rodgers with a laugh, adding that he used the bye week to get three muscle-soothing massages. "I was a little sore, but it was a good thing we had a bye week following."
On paper, Martin's setback and Rodgers move to the top of the depth chart looks like the kind of situation that would have fantasy football owners scrambling. After his impressive showing against a stout Carolina front in Week Five, Rodgers would seem poised to have another big outing against a defense that is allowing a league-worst 174.3 rushing yards per game, as well as 5.0 yards per carry. Only New Orleans, with 11, has allowed more than the nine rushing touchdowns given up by San Francisco.
However, it's rarely as simple as it seems in the NFL. The Panthers looked far more susceptible to the pass than the run when the Bucs visited thanks to a banged-up secondary, but Tampa Bay chose to emphasize the ground game. In Week Two, the Los Angeles Rams brought what was statistically the league's worst passing attack in 2015 and the first part of 2016 to Tampa but the Bucs had difficulty slowing down quarterback Case Keenum. Rodger is definitely not assuming he's going to have an easy go of it on Sunday in Santa Clara.
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"It's crazy because by watching on film, their defense is actually pretty good," he said. "The NFL is always week to week, so you have to approach each and every week with a new mindset. We're going out there, we're not going to take them lightly go out there and execute our game plan."
Rodgers, whose previous career high in a single game was 18 carries, is unlikely to get 30 handoffs and 35 total touches again on Sunday, as he did in Charlotte. Head Coach Dirk Koetter said after the game that the team had not planned to lean on Rodgers that heavily but ended up riding the hot hand to victory. The Bucs have since added fifth-year back Antone Smith, a former Falcon who knows Koetter's offense, and could choose to integrate rookie Peyton Barber into the offense a little more.
Pictures of the Top 10 Niners in Week 6, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
Still, there's little doubt that the majority of the work in the backfield will go to Rodgers, and the Bucs' coaching staff is confident he's up to the challenge.
"We brought him in here because he's a good football player and it's week-to-week [in the NFL]," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. I thought he had a good week of practice leading up to that [Carolina game] and our guys have embraced that the reality is, nobody cares. Nobody cares who's playing, they want you to figure it out, that's part of what we do as coaches, is figure out the puzzle."
After Martin suffered his initial injury in Arizona on September 18, Rodgers got his shot in the Bucs' backfield just five days after joining the team. Sims took over as the primary back when Martin went down but Rodgers played, too, logging 17 snaps and turning a pair of handoffs into 29 yards. He wasn't particularly worried about making a quick impression as a runner, in part because of his familiarity with Koetter and his staff and in part because he knew he could stick around by contributing on special teams.
Nor is Rodgers surprised that his role has instead grown rapidly.
"[There are] good people that are not playing right now," he said. "So, you just have to do what you've got to do; make plays and when you get that opportunity, just take advantage of it. My first game [with Tampa Bay], I actually ended up getting thrown in on offense and it was crazy from there. The good thing, I am familiar with this offense, so it helped make my transition a lot easier."
- After enduring a rash of early-season injuries that had a particularly rough effect on the running game and the pass rush, the Buccaneers probably hoped to get a bunch of contributors back all at once after the bye week. Instead, it appears to be happening in stages.
The offense got the first bit of good news on Monday, when wide receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring) and tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) participated in a bonus practice for the first time since Week Two. When the real week of work began on Wednesday, Shorts was listed as a limited participant, but he was upgraded to full participation on Thursday's injury report.
Also on Wednesday, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy returned to the practice field after missing the Carolina game due to a calf injury sustained in Week Four against Denver. He has been limited on each of the last two days of practice but appeared to be in good spirits on Thursday.
"I'm alright," said McCoy. "It's Thursday, and I'm here, I'm alive and I get an opportunity to do a little bit at practice again today. So I'm doing good."
Fellow D-Line starters Clinton McDonald (hamstring) and Robert Ayers (ankle) were held out on Wednesday but McDonald returned to the field in a limited capacity on Thursday. If either McCoy or McDonald – or, best-case scenario, both – are able to suit up on Sunday it would be a significant help against a 49ers' offense that runs the ball more frequently than every team in the league except Dallas.
There were two other changes to the Bucs' injury report on Thursday. Starting center Joe Hawley, who was limited to start the week, returned to full participation. However, cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, who has recently taken over as the primary slot corner, was added to the report as a limited participant with a knee ailment.
- The Buccaneers will head to California seeking their third road win of the 2016 season. They could also duplicate an unusual turn of events that has only happened one other time in team history.
If Tampa Bay does beat the 49ers on Sunday, it will mean that each of its first three victories of the season have come on the road. The only other time that has happened in the franchise's four-plus decades of play was in 2003, during the Bucs' Super Bowl-defense season. That campaign opened with a rousing 17-0 victory at Philadelphia but Week Two brought a 12-9 loss to Carolina in the home opener in which a potential game-winning extra point was blocked, sending it to overtime.
The Bucs came back with a 31-10 drubbing of the Falcons in the Georgia Dome but then, after a bye week, endured the infamous Monday Night Football comeback by the Indianapolis Colts in Week Five, losing 38-35 in overtime. The Bucs moved to 3-2 the following week with a 35-13 victory in Washington, but a rash of injuries contributed to a downturn after that and the Bucs finished 7-9.
Tampa Bay will also be seeking its first West Coast victory since 2012, but that is not nearly the drought it is often made out to be. The Buccaneers have only played one West Coast game since that win over Oakland in November of 2012, and that was something of a shocker when an 0-7 Tampa Bay squad took the 7-1 Seahawks to overtime in an eventual 27-24 loss in Seattle. (If one chooses to include Arizona in West Coast games, the Bucs also lost to the Cardinals in Week Two of this season.)
Prior to that 2010 win over the Raiders, the Buccaneers also won at San Francisco in that same season in 2010 and at Seattle in 2009. (Again, if you wish to include Arizona, the Buccaneers won there in 2010, as well.)