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Buccaneers vs. Cowboys Scouting Report, Week 15: The difference between Ezekiel Elliott and Doug Martin

Bucs running back Doug Martin, who missed six games this season because of a hamstring injury, has rushed for 379 yards, 331 of which have come after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Martin has five runs of at least 12 yards this season. He led the NFL last season with 27. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

Bucs running back Doug Martin, who missed six games this season because of a hamstring injury, has rushed for 379 yards, 331 of which have come after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Martin has five runs of at least 12 yards this season. He led the NFL last season with 27. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

Want to know why it looks as if Ezekiel Elliott is a step from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Doug Martin is a step from the retirement home?

It might have to do with when they're getting hit.

Elliott could tie his shoes in the backfield. Martin? He's about as safe as a chunk of red meat in a lion's cage. Of Elliott's 1,392 yards, 58 percent have come after contact. Of Martin's 379 yards, 87 percent have come after contact.

Look at it this way: The Bucs' leading rusher, Jacquizz Rodgers, has had to break tackles and move piles to gain 422 yards. Elliott has gained 580 — before getting close enough to smell a would-be tackler's breath.

Tampa Bay's five-game winning streak has masked a critical flaw: Its ground attack looks much different from last season's. When the Bucs ran the ball, they were, on average, halfway to a first down. This season, they're only a third of the way there.

It might not get any easier for Martin and company Sunday night when the Bucs play the Cowboys. Dallas features a run defense that Football Outsiders rates as fourth best.

Part of the reason the Bucs' yards per carry are down is they're executing fewer "explosive" runs, which they define as runs of 12 or more yards. They're on pace to have about half as many as they had last season. The Cowboys lead the NFL with 48. That's a lot of first downs.

Center Joe Hawley said Martin and the Bucs are close to breaking through.

"I think he's ready for a big game, and we're ready to give him a big game," he said. "We just need to clean up little things and get him to the second level because he has the ability to make those big plays, so we just got to give him a little bit more room to run."

When he says Martin is running hard and needs help from the line, you wonder whether he's just talking up his teammate. But he has a point.

Bucs running backs have been tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 23 percent of their runs, the third-highest rate. That's up from 20 percent last season, which was around league-average.

The lack of running room has contributed to a low success rate in short-yardage situations (third and fourth downs with 2 or fewer yards to go, for example), a strength for the Bucs last season, when they converted seven out of 10 such runs. They're converting three out of 10 this season.

"It's a concern," coach Dirk Koetter said. "You should have a very high percentage converting on those third-down runs."

The Cowboys do. It's no coincidence three of their linemen were invited to the Pro Bowl last season. They're dominant. Dallas is achieving a first down or touchdown on 65 percent of its short-yardage runs, the second-best rate.

It's no fluke, either. The Cowboys have converted at that rate in each of the past four seasons.

"We pride ourselves on being a physical football team," coach Jason Garrett said. "That's how we built our team. It starts with those guys up front, and they do a great job controlling the line of scrimmage."

Koetter said there's no one reason for the Bucs' inconsistency in such situations.

"It might be the running back's track off, or it might be we didn't crowd the line of scrimmage," he said. "It might be that we just flat got beat on a point of attack block, or they might have made a good play."

Here's an example from the Bucs' win over the Chargers two weeks ago. On this third-and-2 run, San Diego stops Doug Martin for no gain.

After the snap, right guard Ali Marpet (74) and right tackle Demar Dotson (69) double-team defensive tackle Corey Liuget (94). Marpet has another assignment: block linebacker Korey Toomer (56).

The play breaks down when Liuget sheds the double team and tackles Martin before he can get to the line of scrimmage.

I asked Marpet this week about the play, and he critiqued his technique. Instead of trying to drive his arm into Liuget, he wishes he had driven into him with the top of his shoulder pad, he said.

The third-down stop isn't representative of Marpet's play. He's a confident, dependable run blocker. It does illustrate, however, the narrow difference between success and failure for an offense. When fighting for a yard or two, all 11 players need to execute. The guys on the other side are getting paid, too, and are going to make plays.

Here's a power run that worked, a Martin touchdown on third and goal from the 1 against the Bears.

Marpet pulls from the right side of the line to the left and acts as a lead blocker for Martin, who runs patiently as Marpet helps clear an alley.

Left guard Caleb Benenoch (77) isn't perfectly squared up against nose tackle Eddie Goldman (91), but he got a strong initial push and Goldman lost his balance. It's 11 guys doing their job, Marpet said. "Everyone's where they need to be."

Marpet believes success in short-yardage situations will come. The effort and toughness are there, he said.

"If we've done it before, we can do it this year."

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tbassinger. Follow @tometrics.

Offensive line success rate on power runs

Football Outsiders defines power runs as runs on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go, as well as runs on first and goal or second and goal from the 2-yard line or closer.

Rank Team 2016 success rate 2015 success rate (rank)
1 New York Jets 67 percent 59 percent (26)
2 Dallas 65 percent 66 percent (15)
3 San Francisco 63 percent 67 percent (14)
4 New Orleans 59 percent 74 percent (5)
5 Arizona 59 percent 51 percent (29)
6 Chicago 59 percent 74 percent (4)
7 Tennessee 59 percent 37 percent (32)
8 Houston 57 percent 65 percent (16)
9 Carolina 57 percent 76 percent (2)
10 Atlanta 57 percent 61 percent (21)
31 Tampa Bay 31 percent 71 percent (8)
Source: Football Outsiders

How the Bucs and Cowboys built their offensive lines

Dallas has drafted three linemen in the first round since 2011 — left tackle Tyron Smith, left guard Ronald Leary and right guard Zack Martin. Between them, they've earned seven Pro Bowl nods.

Bucs

Position Player Year acquired How acquired (round-overall pick) Experience Pro Bowls
Left tackle Donovan Smith 2015 draft, 2-34 2 0
Left guard Kevin Pamphile 2014 draft, 5-149 3 0
Center Joe Hawley 2015 free agency 7 0
Right guard Ali Marpet 2015 draft, 2-61 2 0
Right tackle Demar Dotson 2009 undrafted 7 0

Cowboys

Position Player Year acquired How acquired (round-overall pick) Experience Pro Bowls
Left tackle Tyron Smith 2011 draft, 1-9 6 3
Left guard Ronald Leary 2012 undrafted 5 0
Center Travis Frederick 2013 draft, 1-31 4 2
Right guard Zack Martin 2014 draft, 1-16 3 2
Right tackle Doug Free 2007 draft, 4-122 9 0

Buccaneers vs. Cowboys Scouting Report, Week 15: The difference between Ezekiel Elliott and Doug Martin 12/16/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 8:35pm]
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