When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted West Virginia running back Charles Sims in the third round in 2014, they saw him as a player who could both complement and relieve Doug Martin, as needed. Sims's well-developed receiving skills would give the team a new kind of weapon on passing downs and his underrated ability to run between the tackles would give the rushing attack added depth. That was important for a coach that wanted to make the ground game the center of his offense.
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One injury kept Sims out of the mix for the first half of the 2014 season, however, and two others robbed Martin of five outings. In addition, the Buccaneers' offense fell into a general malaise early and never really found a groove, spending too many games trying to come back from late deficits. It wasn't until the season finale that the Bucs saw some semblance of a one-two punch with Martin and Sims, as the former ran for 108 yards on 19 carries and the latter picked up 75 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 19 touches against the New Orleans Saints.
But that was in a relatively meaningless loss at the end of a 2-14 campaign. This past Sunday, once again with the Saints on the other side, Martin and Sims combined for 150 yards from scrimmage and the Buccaneers won, holding on to a 26-19 victory in the Superdome. Tampa Bay had 59 offensive snaps in the game, 35 of which were runs and 24 of which were passing plays (including sacks). It was closer to a split down the middle before the Bucs began grinding out the clock with a series of runs in the fourth quarter.
"It's a good balance," said Martin. "I believe we had about 35 carries total and it was a well-balanced day. If you could take pressure off of [QB Jameis] Winston, that's something that we've got to do. We've got to stay in the game, of course. They can't get ahead for us to [be able] to keep running the ball, but it was definitely a good, balanced game."
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What was particularly noteworthy about the efforts of Martin and Sims was how well each one did at the part of the game in which the other one was known for excelling. Sims turned his eight carries into 38 yards, much of it in the middle quarters of the game, and ran very hard in the middle of the field. Martin turned a pair of screen passes into 20 yards and it would have been more if not for a late penalty on an apparent conversion of a third-and-16 late in the game. That kind of versatility and crossing up of duties should make it harder to predict what the Bucs are going to do based on who is in the backfield.
Photos of Texans' projected starters as listed on team's depth chart.
It should also keep the screen game as a significant feature in Dirk Koetter's attack.
"Our screen game worked pretty well in the Saints game," said Koetter. "Unfortunately on two of them, they came back because of foolish penalties."
It's fair to say that the screen pass has not been a particularly significant part of the Buccaneers' offensive attack in recent years, and the team hasn't really had a prolific pass-catching back since Michael Pittman. But that could change under Koetter and Lovie Smith is fine with that.
"A screen is a tough play to deal with and of course we have every imaginable type of screen," said Smith. "And not just us, I mean every team now a screen is a big part of every game plan you have to deal with. And I think we can be a good screen team, in general. You want to get your running backs in the open field, that's what you would like, running back, wide receiver, whoever. You want to get them in there where it's not real cluttered, and you can get that, of course, with screens. They're hard to deal with on the other side."
- The Houston Texans have many talented players on their roster, but only one of them is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Defensive end J.J. Watt is the kind of player who occasionally takes over a game on his own – sometimes even on the Houston offense – and so it makes sense that the Buccaneer coaching staff would put him at the center of their game-planning.
It also makes sense that those coaches would be asked about Watt repeatedly during the lead-up to Sunday's game. That has definitely been the case this week at One Buccaneer Place, and at some point there's not much more that Smith, Koetter or any of the other coaches can say about a clearly transcendent player.
"You can be asking 31 offensive coordinators [that question]," said Koetter. "He's an elite player. He's at the top of his game. I'm not going to throw out any more than you already know about him. He's an excellent player and we're well aware that we need to game plan for him."
The Buccaneers may or may not keep Watt's damage to an acceptable level on Sunday – the Panthers praised tackle Mike Remmers after he helped hold the Houston lineman to "only" five tackles, a sack and two passes defensed – but it obviously won't be for a lack of identifying the problem.
Photos of the Buccaneers game against the Texans in 2003. The Bucs won 16-3.
"You talk about J.J. Watt, you name it, we've done it," said Smith. "We've looked at every possible way to deal with a special player. I'll just say that."
There are specifics to the game-planning against Watt that are worth discussing, however. The Texans know as well as anyone that their opponents are going to plan ways to get extra blockers in Watt's way, and in turn they work hard to avoid that. As such, while Watt is listed as the right end in Houston's 3-4 front, he could at times be the task of any of the blockers along the Buccaneers' line.
"[He has] great size, great strength, great quickness, great athleticism," said Koetter. "Plenty of guys have some combination, but he is elite in all those areas, ball skills and then tremendous motor. They also design all their stunts so they are running a stunt to take all the attention away – they are always trying to get him singled. They know we are going to try and double him and they're going to try and figure out ways to get him singled. They do a good job of getting him singled. He can be a power rusher, he can be a speed rusher. He's got really good hands. He has a lot of pass rush moves.
"Any time you move a great player that makes it tougher for us to zero in on where he's at."
- The Buccaneers and Texans submitted updated official injury reports on Thursday, but neither team changed a thing.
Both clubs added their players' Thursday practice status to the report, of course, but in the case of all 18 players the designations remained the same as they had been on Wednesday. For Tampa Bay, that meant neither tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins nor center Evan Smith nor safety Major Wright – all starters – returned to the practice field.
The Buccaneers are working to replace Seferian-Jenkins' contributions with the trio of Luke Stocker, Brandon Myers and Cameron Brate, and who or how many of them would start if Seferian-Jenkins can't go probably depends upon the team's first package of plays on Sunday. Veteran Joe Hawley, just signed last week after being let go by Atlanta, replaced Smith when he injured his ankle in New Orleans and is thus the obvious choice to start in his place of he can't play Sunday. Wright already missed a game with his abdomen injury and was replaced by Chris Conte, who had an interception and a critical forced fumble in the win over New Orleans.
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Meanwhile, the Texans still have five players sitting out practice and another three who are limited. While running back Arian Foster (groin, limited) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (concussion, did not participate) are the headliners, the report raises quite a few questions about the offensive line the Texans will be able to field on Sunday.
Duane Brown, who has started 107 games at left tackle for the Texans and is considered one of the league's standouts at that position, started the first game of the season but was inactive last week due to a thumb injury. He has not practiced yet this week. Chris Clark, the former Bronco, was acquired in a trade on August 31 and was Brown's replacement last Sunday, but he's on the injury report as well. Clark has knee and elbow ailments but was able to participate fully in practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Jeff Adams started the first game at left guard and the second at right tackle but sustained a knee injury Sunday against the Panthers. Houston's team website indicated on Monday that Adams would miss the remainder of the season, but he has not yet officially been placed on injured reserve, as of early Thursday afternoon. Derek Newton, who opened Game One at right tackle and Game Two at left guard, is also on the injury report due to an elbow issue but was a full participant on Wednesday and Thursday. Xavier Su'a-Filo, the 33rd-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, might be in line for more action after Adams' injury, but Su'a-Filo has been inactive for the first two games and he's been limited in practice this week due to a calf concern.
As for Hopkins, Texans Head Coach Bill O'Brien said that the team's top receiver "looks pretty good" as he continues to go through the league's concussion protocol.