'Pound this game:' Bucs run Rodgers to 101 yards, victory
In Week 1, Jacquizz Rodgers wasn't even on the Bucs roster. In Week 3, even with Doug Martin sidelined, his role behind fill-in starter Charles Sims was humbly to help out "when Chuck gets tired."
In Week 5, the Bucs leaned heavily on Rodgers, who rushed 30 times for a career-high 101 yards in helping Tampa Bay to a crucial 17-14 victory at the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football.
"The league, you never know what's going to happen," said Rodgers, who had gotten even 10 carries just once in a game in the last three years before Monday's game. "You have to practice and be ready for when the opportunity comes, and take full advantage when your number is called."
For the Bucs, the gameplan was to simply assert the run game, as confidently with Rodgers as anyone else that might carry the ball.
"We made a big emphasis all week that we had to get the running game going," tackle Demar Dotson said. "We had to pound this game. We know the explosion that Jac's got, so we took the mindset that we were going to come out there and pound this ball. I think we did a pretty good job."
Martin missed a third straight game with a hamstring injury, and Sims was placed on injured reserve before the game, so Rodgers will be counted on as at least the No. 2 running back for much of the next two months, if not the rest of the season. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, who had Rodgers for three seasons in Atlanta from 2012-14, had confidence in his ability to step up and make the most of a start, even against a difficult Carolina defense.
"Jacquizz did a heck of a job tonight," said Koetter, confident in his ability to carry a heavy load after remembering that Rodgers had carried the ball "about 50 times" in college against USC -- actually just 37 for 186 yards in a 2008 game. "I think we had a good run game plan. George Warhop, our run game coordinator, did a nice job, and Jacquizz was making yards. When you are on the road adn the way we've been turning the ball over, we just felt like they're playing their backup quarterback, it was take the crowd out of it, slow the game down a little bit. That was the best strategy tonight."
The Bucs made their priority clear on the opening drive -- Rodgers had 10 carries on that first drive for 35 yards, helping the Bucs to a field goal and 3-0 lead. By halftime, he had 17 carries for 71 yards, and he had six touches on the final drive, including an 8-yard catch to convert a third-and-6. On his final touch, he drew a 15-yard facemask penalty from Carolina to help put Tampa Bay in position for Robert Aguayo's game-winning field goal as time expired.
"I appreciate Dirk having the confidence in me, to put the ball in my hands and just trust me that I'm going to make a play," he said. "I'm a little sore right now, but it feels good. We got the win on Monday night, coming into a bye week. That's a little momentum, so when we come back, we'll be ready to roll. That's the spark we needed to get things rolling around here."
Carolina's defense had given up 503 passing yards to Atlanta a week earlier, so it was tempting to throw more and test a struggling secondary, but the Bucs stuck to their game plan, with Rodgers getting as many carries as Jameis Winston had pass attempts. That was no problem to an offensive line that prides itself in being able to establish the run when necessary.
"As an offensive line, we really like to run the ball," guard Ali Marpet said. "It's great when we can play what we think is our game."
Rodgers had 30 carries and five catches in the same game, becoming just the second Bucs player ever to do that -- James Wilder did so four times in 1983-84. Only one player in the entire NFL did that last season in Atlanta's Devonta Freeman. The Bucs have had only one other 30-carry game in the last five years, as Bobby Rainey had 30 in a 2013 win against Atlanta.
Rodgers had enough left in the tank to gain 24 yards from his five touches on the final drive, plus the 15 yards on penalty at the end. Grinding out an 11-play drive in the final 1:49 was a perfect finish to a key win for the Bucs.
"That was a lot of fun. Fourth quarter, that's everything you work for, everything your train for," Marpet said. "Monday Night Football, that's the moment you work for. To actually have that go through is awesome."