With Doug Martin exiting the NFL's concussion protocol on Thursday morning, following a one-game absence, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would appear to have four healthy tailbacks heading into Sunday's game with Detroit. All four have done very good things for the team in their respective Buccaneer tenures, but Peyton Barber has done so most recently.
Martin, of course, has two 1,400-yard plus rushing seasons on his resume, while Charles Sims had 1,000 combined yards from scrimmage in 2015 and continues to be an excellent pass-catching back. Jacquizz Rodgers posted the Buccaneers' only two 100-yard rushing games last season. Now Barber has the Bucs' only 100-yard game of 2017, and it happened just last Sunday in Green Bay.
Barber's 102-yard rushing attack, which also included a team-high 41 receiving yards on four catches, makes him the one back in the Bucs' stable who has seen a sudden rise in his profile. It's certainly fair to wonder how much more playing time that performance in Green Bay will buy him over the season's final month, especially with Martin back in the picture. For obvious strategic reasons, Head Coach Dirk Koetter isn't giving away the team's approach to that issue. The answer will have to wait until Sunday afternoon.
Obviously, though, Koetter and the Bucs' coaches were pleased with Barber's work in Green Bay, just as they felt Martin had been running well for much of this season, albeit without the same triple-digit results.
"Well, he is certainly a bigger back," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken of Barber. "He is able to certainly bring the capability of yards after contact. I think that's what it was. [It was] something we needed and something that Doug had been doing better at. It's week-to-week, so up until last week it wasn't as if Peyton [was overly successful] for the opportunities he had. [There] wasn't a lot of opportunities, but it wasn't as if he was having that same success. Like I said, I thought he did a really good job. He made a couple of nice cuts, getting it downhill and then the yards after contact."
Barber's 23 carries in Green Bay were a single-game career high, nearly double his previous high. His biggest game before this one came at San Francisco in his 2016 rookie season, when he carried 12 times for 84 yards, most of it after Rodgers had already run for 154. A good amount of that total came on a 44-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. In Green Bay, Barber had one 19 yard run but no others of 10 or more; he was simply consistent throughout the game. He had 10 carries in the first half for 32 yards and another 13 in the second half for 70 more.
"It felt like I had a good chance to get in a groove," said Barber. "I felt like Coach Koetter did a great job helping me out with that. It definitely helps out a lot. I'm kind of one of those backs that gets better as the game goes on."
Martin missed the game due to the concussion he suffered in Atlanta. Before he left that game, he was off to a nice start, gaining 33 yards on seven carries for an average of 4.7 per tote. It's impossible to know if the Bucs' running game would have been as robust – a season-high 165 yards last Sunday – if Martin had taken a majority of Barber's carries, but the Buccaneers are confident in the veteran's ability to put up big numbers.
"Doug is a good football player," said Monken. "Peyton had a good week last week. I thought we blocked well last week. I thought we schemed it up well. All of those things are a part of it. When you're not having success in a certain area, it's all inclusive. It's scheme, it's coaching, it's players – it's all of the above, but you've got to find a way to fix it. When Doug is cleared, we will be happy to have him back."
"We've done it the last few weeks a lot better, getting push and creating some seams for our running backs. That showed up early in the Atlanta game and then last week."
Barber agrees that he got a lot of help from the offensive line in his first career 100-yard game.
"I feel like they did a great job," he said. "I thought we stuck to the game plan and we executed it pretty well."
- Martin wasn't the only Buccaneer to exit the concussion protocol. Defensive end Robert Ayers, who has missed two games, also passed his final test on Thursday, clearing his way to potentially return on Sunday against Detroit. Safety T.J. Ward remains in the protocol and has not practiced this week.
In fact, both Ayers and Martin practiced without limits for the second day in a row, which is obviously a very good sign. The Buccaneers have been a little light in defensive line depth in recent weeks, but the news appears to be getting better. Ryan Russell, who was held out of practice on Wednesday due to a knee ailment, also returned on Thursday in a limited fashion.
Center Joe Hawley, who was sidelined over the weekend in Green Bay by illness, was apparently still feeling some effects on Wednesday, which kept him out of practice. However, he returned to full participation on Thursday. Before he fell ill, Hawley was slated to make his first start of the season after center Ali Marpet was moved to injured reserve. Instead, the team played Evan Smith at that pivot, left Kevin Pamphile at left guard instead of moving him to right tackle and then gave the start at that latter spot to Caleb Benenoch. Hawley's potential return would give the team more options on Sunday against Detroit.
As noted on the Buccaneers' official injury report, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring), defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (back) and safety Josh Robinson (hamstring) all sat out another practice; none played last week in Green Bay. Tampa Bay's injury report is still relatively lengthy, but there's a good chance the team will be in better shape than last Sunday, when its entire seven-man inactive list was made up of injured or ill players.
- Cameron Brate is one of seven NFL tight ends who have at least six touchdown receptions this year; of those seven, Brate is the only one who does not already have at least 50 receptions. Nearly one-sixth of his 37 catches on the season have been made in or carried into the end zone.
Brate is obviously a very good red zone weapon for the Buccaneers, as became clear last year when he tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with eight scores. As good as he is in that part of the field, though, he's even better because he's sharing it with Mike Evans.
Given his size and excellent work on jump balls and contested passes, Evans is very evidently a red zone threat, and Buccaneer opponents know that all too well. Their attention to the Buccaneers' six-five receiver opens up opportunities for Brate, and the team has taken advantage of that.
"One of the reasons that has worked well is because for the last three years that I've been here, basically, Mike Evans gets doubled every time we get inside the 10-yard line," said Koetter. "When he gets doubled, that means –unless they rush three – everybody else gets singled. We've become accustomed to any plays we have in the red zone – they've got an option in there and Cam has taken full advantage of that in case Mike gets doubled.
"I don't think we've played a team yet this year that hasn't doubled Mike inside the 10 because most teams in the NFL are going to throw fade balls to their big receivers. We just haven't gotten a chance to throw very many fade balls because the corner is pressing in with outside leverage and the free safety is rolled over the top. Again, that opens up something else – when you are in a three-by-one set, especially."