The Bucs have swarmed over opposing ballcarriers so far, but face a stiffer test in the Jets' Curtis Martin
How important is Curtis Martin to the New York Jets?
Let's look at one midseason stretch in 1998, from September 20 to October 25, in Martin's first season in New York after he was signed away from the Patriots. In that five-week stretch, the Jets played Indy, Miami, St. Louis, New England and Atlanta. They beat the Colts, Dolphins, Patriots and Falcons and lost to the Rams.
Curtis Martin didn't play against the Rams during that run due to a thigh injury. In the other four games, he rushed for over 100 yards each time and averaged 28 carries per day.
In fact, in Martin's two-plus years with the Jets, he has rushed for over 100 yards 15 times and New York has won 12 of those games. He has also scored at least one touchdown in 14 Jets games, and his team is 13-1 on those days.
So don't blame the Tampa Bay Buccaneers if they're singing a familiar refrain in the locker room this week.
Buccaneer safety John Lynch last week, before the Detroit game, in which RB James Stewart was a major concern: "We're going up there knowing that they're going to try to pound the football on us, and a large part of our success will be determined by how effective we are stopping that."
Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp, this week: "The thing that we have to do is come out and get this running game under control, because they're committed to running the ball. This guy has 70 rushes in three games. You don't find that with many backs in this league. That's got to be our challenge to come out and turn this running game away and then go out and rush the passer."
The Bucs were very successful with that plan in Detroit, holding Stewart to eight carries on 13 yards and forcing QB Charlie Batch to drop back 43 times. That played directly into the Bucs' hands, who then swarmed over Batch to the tune of seven sacks.
However, Tampa Bay does not expect the Jets to abandon the run as quickly as the Lions did.
"They clearly put a big-time focus on running the football," said Lynch. "He's carried the ball in one game 30 times and in another game 28. So they've made a commitment to the run and you have to commend them on that. Unlike Detroit, where they ran the ball eight times, these guys are going to try to keep running the ball, and we've got to be able to stop that.
"We feel like if we can do that, make a team one-dimensional, that really bodes well for us as a defense."
And, further, while the Lions clearly were happy to upgrade their running game with the offseason addition of Stewart, Martin has an even more impressive resume. The former third-round pick of the New England Patriots in 1996, Martin rushed for 1,487 yards as a rookie and has never looked back. After three games, Martin is the second-leading rusher in the AFC and has pushed his career total to the brink of 7,000 yards.
The Bucs have a healthy respect for his abilities.
"Curtis is a guy that can make the long run at any time with any type of play," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I think that's what I like about him the most. He can run inside, he runs outside, he runs the toss sweeps, he can run over people. He doesn't choose to do that very often, but he has that ability. He can make you miss in the open field. Whatever the play dictates, he can get the job done. He's a very determined guy, so I think he really makes their offense go." Can they stop him? The Bucs haven't faced a back of his caliber yet this season, but they did, in last year's playoffs, effectively limit the Rams' Marshall Faulk and the Redskins' Stephen Davis. No team has scored a rushing touchdown on the Buccaneers since last December 19 in Oakland.
The Jets are expected to do whatever it takes to break the Bucs' rush defense, a strategy that is conceivable simply because Martin has the skills and strength to go the distance.
"He's a workhorse, no doubt about that," said Sapp. "He gets stronger as the game rolls on. He has all the attributes of a great runner: the vision, the speed, the cuts and the power to run through some arm tackles. That's our challenge, to get him under control."