Doug Martin, who injured a knee in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2014 opener and subsequently missed the next two games, said on Friday that the injury is no longer a worry. The health of the Buccaneers' running game, however, is very much a concern for a team that is determined to build its offense around success on the ground.
The Bucs have a head coach who wants to run the ball, an offensive line with heavy free agency and trade investments, a starting tailback not far removed from a 1,400-yard season and a second runner with three 100-yard games in his 15 appearances with the team. The elements seem to be in place for an effective running game, but so far the Bucs have put up just 90.4 yards per game, 24th in the league. Martin, who had 1,926 total yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2012, has been limited by that injury and some adverse game situations to 94 yards on 37 carries.
It hasn't all been circumstantial, however. The Bucs have made some concerted efforts to get Martin going, and it just hasn't clicked yet. As several others have said this week, the problem has usually boiled down to one person out of 11 – different culprits on different plays – failing to complete an assignment.
Get familiar with these key opponents before the Buccaneers take on Ravens Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
"It's just everybody doing their job," said Martin. "Whether it's me as a running back, the O-line, the tight ends, or the receivers blocking downfield, everybody has to do their job. It takes a whole unit to run the ball – it doesn't take one guy. It can't be just the line or the tight ends or the combo blocks with the line and the tight ends. It's the whole unit, so everybody just has to stick to their job and get this run game going."
Guard Logan Mankins, who came over from New England in a late-August trade and has helped solidify a line that has excelled in pass protection, echoes that assessment.
"We just need to play more consistent," he said. "We need to block our guys more consistent, be more consistent in the mental aspect of who do we block. The run game comes down to everyone doing their job together and we just haven't been doing that."
Martin believes the Buccaneers will get it right, and soon.
"Yeah, there's been times where it's definitely been close," he said. "These guys work hard. They work their butts off in practice. Everyone [holds] each other accountable for this. We're going to get it going and I can't wait until it happens. [I'll] Just continue what I do – just run the ball hard, follow my keys and just keep going hard like I do."
The Buccaneers' rushing attack could get another big blocker on the outer edges back if rookie wide receiver Mike Evans is cleared to play on Sunday against Baltimore. Evans is listed as questionable on Tampa Bay's Friday injury report, but he has "looked good" in practice this week, according to Head Coach Lovie Smith. Evans has returned a bit more quickly than expected from his Week Four groin injury, and Smith said the presence of the Bucs' bye week on the horizon does not factor into whether or not Evans gets another week of rest.
It appears the Buccaneers will get starting middle linebacker Mason Foster back this week. He is listed as probable on the injury report and was able to practice without being limited by his shoulder injury all week. Safety Dashon Goldson (ankle) will miss a second straight week and linebacker Jonathan Casillas will be sidelined by a hamstring injury he sustained last Sunday in New Orleans. Quarterback Josh McCown (thumb) is listed as doubtful and is not expected to play.
The Buccaneers' full injury report can be found here. The Ravens have already ruled out starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, who will miss his third straight game due to a knee injury. DL Chris Canty and DT Timmy Jernigan are also out; Baltimore's full injury report is here.
Several other topics were discussed at One Buccaneer Place on Friday. Additional quotes from Smith and Mankins can be found below.
Head Coach Lovie Smith
"First off, I would like to thank all of you, some of you reached out to me and [sent] the card. My father-in-law lived for 91 years, married to the same lady for 68 years and it was a pretty good life he lived. Thanks to all of you. I haven't missed a lot of days of practice so I couldn't wait last to get the video. Nowadays with modern technology you can get that video no matter where you are. We've had a good week of practice and it's good to get some of our players back. Injury list, now that I know you haven't gotten the injury list here we can talk a little bit more in detail about the list. Mason Foster did practice again today, he put in a pretty good week of practice and it's always good to get the – you have the quarterback on offense and your MIKE linebacker on defense, a lot changes when you hear a familiar voice there, so it's good to get him back on the football field. Other players, Michael Johnson is getting better and better with his ankle, Gerald McCoy and those players will be a little bit closer to being 100 percent. Josh McCown is making progress, but he's still not there yet. Dashon Goldson is making progress and he's not there yet. The guys that are out – Jonathan Casillas and Dashon Goldson are both players that we have ruled out right now. Others that haven't been able to practice, Johnthan Banks hasn't been able to do much this week and I mentioned the other players. Evan Dietrich-Smith missed today, but he was just sick, he'll be good to go. Beyond that, the Ravens are a good football team, there are a similar team to the AFC North as far as how they play offensive football and defensive football. It's a familiar front for our offensive guys since they've worked on, again, it's a big challenge for us and I'm excited about playing at home after three on the road. We're a better football team now than the last time we played at Raymond James Stadium and we're excited about letting our fans see that."
On if surgery has been ruled out for quarterback Josh McCown:
"If it was something that we needed to do right away, then we would have done it then. This is one of the options we had as far as dealing with his injury and nothing has changed since then."
On the challenges of facing Baltimore's rush guys:
"Challenging, but it's like that each week. Every team in the league is paying a pass rusher – at least one, normally two – from [Terrell] Suggs to the different guys that they have. They have an excellent front rushing the passer, but also playing the run. With us being a running team we need to be able to open up some different options in our passing game, we need to be able to do that. It will be a big challenge up front for us. Linebacker C.J. Mosely is playing good football for them, the same type of play you've gotten from the secondary throughout – tough man-to-man and whatever else they want to do."
On cutting down on penalties:
"Our guys take accountability for it. We've made some mistakes that we have to clean up and we'll clean up more of those, that's a part of becoming a good football team. The truth of the matter is when you go into a dome, you have more of those types of penalties when you're in a dome, that's just how it goes. We have crowd noise and things like that, but a lot of those things we've hopefully cleaned up and we won't see as many of those pre-and-post-snap penalties or after the play penalties I should say than we did this past week."
On how close the team is to being able to win consistently:
"I think most of you probably know me well enough to see that I feel real good about our football team. I know what our record says, but before those wins come, you have to take care of other things and I realized how many penalties we had this past week, but that's not who we are. I see progress, we're getting healthier and this is probably as close to the team that we started the season off with as we've had in a while, but we're playing better ball in so many areas. Offensively, I'm pleased with what we've done the last couple of weeks, we've put plenty of points up on the board and we've protected the football for the most part. Defensively, we haven't played our best ball, but that's coming and getting a few of our players back, number one our MIKE linebacker will help that and I just feel like my glass is half-full each week, but I think this is as close as we've been."
G Logan Mankins
On the challenge of facing Baltimore defensive lineman Haloti Ngata:
"It's a big challenge every time you got Haloti. He's one of the biggest guys in the league and strongest and he's actually very athletic, too. So, he presents multiple challenges and you've got to be on your game when you're dealing with him."
On Ngata's two interceptions this season:
"That just adds to his intelligence. He knows where to be most of the time and he sees that other guys at his position don't, and he's able to get in position to make those plays."
On Baltimore's speed off the edge with defensive linemen Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil:
"You've got those guys coming off the edge and their big guys in the middle trying to collapse. They've got a lot of good pass rushers: Suggs, Dumervil, [Pernell] McPhee – number 90 – has been playing lights out this year. He's brought a new element to their defense and he's still got Ngata next to him. So, it's a good front four when they got those four guys in there."
Steve Smith is coming to town again, this time as a Raven, but he may have a hard time putting up his usual strong numbers against the Bucs if Alterraun Verner is at the top of his game.