TAMPA — As soon as the Bucs found themselves eliminated from playoff contention Sunday night, the offensive line quickly shifted its focus to a new motivation: making Doug Martin the first Bucs player to lead the NFL in rushing.
"This whole line and everybody in this building loves Doug," said Demar Dotson, the lone holdover from the 2012 line that helped Martin to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. "It's something we want to see him accomplish. To see Doug become the NFL's leading rusher, I don't know a better guy to do it. Anything this o-line can do to help him do it, we're going to do whatever it takes to get that record. He deserves it."
With two games to play, Martin is only 9 yards behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the NFL rushing leader with 1,314. What's more, Peterson is nursing an ankle injury that has limited him in practice this week. So while Martin has the honor of being named to the Pro Bowl for the first time since his rookie season, he is excited about the chance to be the NFL's top rusher.
"It would be awesome," Martin said Wednesday. "Coach (Lovie Smith) brought that up (Tuesday). We're not going to the playoffs, but to have a running back get the rushing title is awesome, a great accomplishment. We're working for that. They're excited for it. We're going to do what we can do."
In addition to this year's rushing title, Martin is chasing the team's single-season record of 1,544 yards set by James Wilder in 1984. Martin needs 240 yards in two games to reset the record but would likely do so on at least 100 fewer carries — Wilder had 407 in 1984, while Martin has just 256. His 5.1 yards per carry is the best ever for a Bucs back with 200-plus carries.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter knows such a pursuit can be a strong motivation. In 2011, he saw Maurice Jones-Drew lead the NFL in rushing on a 5-11 Jaguars team, rushing for 169 yards in a close win in the season finale to break Fred Taylor's franchise record.
"You can't deny that," Koetter said. "That's important to those guys, and it's important to everybody involved with our running game. … It's second to winning the game, but it is something that's there."
The Bucs offensive line has taken major strides forward this year with four new starters — rookies Donovan Smith at left tackle and Ali Marpet at right guard, and two players added after the start of training camp in right tackle Gosder Cherilus and center Joe Hawley.
"It would mean a lot just to see him accomplish that. To be part of it would be very nice," said left guard Logan Mankins, an alternate for the Pro Bowl. "(Martin) has had a great year."
Said Hawley: "That means a lot to us. Offensive linemen don't have a lot of stats, but one thing you do have is the running back stats. That's kind of directly attributed to us. So yeah, it would mean a lot for us to get him that. That's probably going to be one of our main goals going forward."
The Bucs line is one of the league's most improved in sacks allowed — after giving up 52 last year, it has allowed only 24. That 28-sack improvement is the fourth-best in the league, helping keep rookie Jameis Winston upright and healthy.
The Bears will give the Bucs another incentive to run the ball often Sunday. They rank 26th in the NFL against the run, allowing 125.9 yards per game, as opposed to their pass defense, which is third-best in the league, allowing 216.1 yards per game.
Martin has had a close relationship with his line this year, going to its weekly Thursday night dinners and buying for the group on several occasions. He surprised his linemen with hoverboards — and no, Bucs fans, you need not worry about any explosions under their prized riders.
"Doug looked out for us," lineman Kevin Pamphile said. "He got the heavy-duty ones, able to support our 300-pound weights."
On Sunday, the linemen will be the ones carrying Martin, driven to give him a rare honor they can share in. Martin on Wednesday said this year's group is "the best line I've ever played behind" — the kind of praise that could help the Bucs keep Martin, who can be an unrestricted free agent in the spring.
It isn't a playoff push, but the Bucs have a motivation to get out to a strong start, which will allow them to continue their game plan of establishing the run. Tampa Bay is 5-1 this season when Martin gets 20-plus carries, and if that helps him finish the year as the league's rushing champ, the line will be every bit as proud as Martin.
"Letting the NFL know we have a No. 1 running back would be a huge boost," said Pamphile, frequently used as a sixth lineman. "We want to establish that Tampa Bay, even though we're not going to the playoffs, we're a serious contender for next year."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.