Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium will feature two of the top 12 rushers in the NFL through the first quarter of the season. Doug Martin, who has been one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' most consistent performers during an inconsistent team start, is tied for eighth in the league with 282 yards. Not far behind is the Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie back, T.J. Yeldon, who is 12th with 259 yards.
Perhaps the more significant number for Yeldon, however, is 70. That's his number of carries through four games – or close to 18 per game – and only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Chicago's Matt Forte have more. Last year, only two teams ran the ball fewer times than the Jaguars, which likely did not help ease rookie quarterback Blake Bortles into the NFL. The Jaguars ranked 27th in rushing yards a year ago, and that was with a pleasant 419 yards from Bortles. Denard Robinson led the way with 582 yards on 135 carries but the team's high hopes for free agency import Toby Gerhart turned into 101 carries for 326 yards.
Yeldon is already more than halfway to Robinson's team-leading total of carries from 2014, as the Jaguars clearly have not been shy about getting their rookie second-rounder into the mix, and the Bucs have taken notice.
"I think probably the one position where a guy can come in and really be pretty much what he was in college is at the running back position," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "That's what we've seen from Yeldon. He can make you miss in the open field. He's run well between the tackles. He has decent size, catches the ball. He's doing some of the same things in the NFL that he did in college. We'll have to be on top of our gaps, gap-sound to try to keep that running game down."
The Jaguars made Yeldon the fourth pick of the second round in May after he had rushed for 3,322 yards and scored 39 total touchdowns over three years at Alabama. Since debuting in the NFL as an expansion team in 1995, Jacksonville has had a history of long-term standouts in their backfield, most notably Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Yeldon isn't there yet, obviously, but he's already drawing favorable comparisons to NFL stars.
"He looked like a smaller version of Le'Veon Bell to me," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Has a little power to him, but he can make you miss. You can be standing right in front of him and you'll miss. Still a little raw though, got a lot to learn, but he's a good back."
Yeldon hasn't found the end zone yet, nor have any Jacksonville ballcarriers, but he did get his first 100-yard game last weekend in an overtime loss at Indianapolis. One of the reasons he's drawn so many carries already, even with Gerhart and Robinson still around along with tailbacks Bernard Pierce and Corey Grant, is that he's versatile enough to fit into any situation. As much as rookie backs generally have an easier transition to the NFL than most positions, they still have to block well in order to stay in the game on obvious passing downs.
READ: JAGUARS SCOUTING REPORT
"He had a big game last week," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier. "He carried the ball and did a good job of making people miss. He showed some power, too, to be able to run through some tackles. We saw that when he was in college and now he is displaying it here at our level as well. He has a chance to be a very good back in our league. He's a good blocker also. They leave him in for protection. He does a good job there. He has the ability to catch the ball, he can run the ball well and he's a good blocker. Those are three ingredients in a back that you would like to have and he's displayed that in his short time in the league."
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday.
*The Buccaneers' injury report grew by one player on Thursday, as starting left guard Logan Mankins was added to the list with a groin ailment. Mankins suffered the injury in practice on Wednesday and did not participate on Thursday.
Mankins is the most experienced player on a line that has been something of a bright spot for the Buccaneers in recent weeks. After holding Houston and its aggressive front – led by J.J. Watt – without a sack in Week Three, the front line opened holes for Doug Martin's first 100-yard rushing game of the season last Sunday. It would obviously create a new challenge of Mankins was unable to play; with Evan Smith still sidelined by his own ankle injury, the two players listed as interior-line reserves on the depth chart, Matthew Masifilo and Jeremiah Warren, have zero combined NFL starts.
READ: THURSDAY'S INJURY REPORT
Mankins obviously will have Friday to get back on the field and the weekend to recover further. He brings a streak of 40 straight games played and started into Week Five, including all 20 since he joined the Buccaneers just before the 2014 season. Last week, Mankins played in and started the 150th game of his career.
Last week, a much younger offensive lineman, rookie and starting left tackle Donovan Smith, made progress throughout the week as he recovered from a knee injury. Smith didn't practice Wednesday but then advanced to limited participation Thursday and full clearance on Friday. This week, however, the Bucs have had no similar progressions; all seven players originally on Wednesday's list had the same status on Thursday, as cornerback Johnthan Banks, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, wide receiver Russell Shepard and center Evan Smith were all held out again.
Jacksonville got three players on their list back to full participation on Thursday: safety Sergio Brown, defensive end Chris Clemons and tight end Marcedes Lewis. However, starting inside linebacker and leading tackler Paul Posluszny remained on the sideline due to an ankle injury suffered last Sunday. More on Jacksonville's injury report here, including the possible return of defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, the team's sack leader in 2014.
*The Buccaneers' roster has some new names in Week Five, including one familiar face who will be assuming an unfamiliar role.The familiar face back in Tampa Bay's locker room is kicker Connor Barth, who was re-signed on Tuesday after the team released struggling rookie kicker Kyle Brindza. Barth brings back with him the best career field goal percentage in franchise history, so it's safe to say the Bucs are confident in him in that capacity.
What Barth hasn't done since 2010 is handle kickoffs. Tampa Bay brought in punter Michael Koenen, who was also a very good kickoff specialist, in 2011, the same year the line of scrimmage for the kickoff was moved back up to the 35. As Barth said on Wednesday, Koenen's presence gave him the luxury of not having to kick off, but he considers himself fully capable of doing so. In fact, he's actually relishing the chance to prove once again that he can handle that job well.
On Thursday, Smith confirmed that Barth will be handling kickoffs. The only other potential option had been punter Jacob Schum, who was listed second on the team's depth chart at that role behind Brindza but who has never kicked off in an NFL game.
"Connor will kick off for us this week," said Smith. "I feel pretty good. He's the one guy we have on there that's done it. I feel good about him kicking off."
Barth was the Bucs' kickoff man for the second half of 2009 and all of 2010, and he recorded seven touchbacks in 111 kickoffs in that span. That touchback percentage of 6.3% is far below what the Bucs have become accustomed to in recent years but, again, that was with the kickoff coming from the 30-yard line. Barth's average kickoff distance of 65.7 yards in 2009, according to Statspass, would put the ball in the end zone from the 35.
Photos from the Bucs victory over the Jaguars, 17-16, in 1995.
And if there are more kickoff returns to cover moving forward, the Bucs feel confident in their coverage unit.
"We like our personnel," said Smith. "[We] feel like we upgraded our special teams personnel. We feel pretty confident with it – our coverage units in general. Of course, we're not as strong when we don't have Russell Shepard, but the rest of our group, a lot of times you have to cover kicks. As you put your kickoff team together, you are putting it together to cover kicks, so we feel good about it."