TAMPA — In 16 seasons, safety Ronde Barber has been asked to keep games close, create turnovers and score — if possible — to compensate for some pretty anemic Bucs offenses.
But after watching Doug Martin accumulate 214 total yards and Josh Freeman throw three touchdown passes for the third game in a row in Thursday's 36-17 rout of Minnesota, Barber says he knows which Tampa Bay offense is best.
"There's not been one as explosive as this," Barber, 37, said. "And I've been here for a long time. I'm qualified to answer. It makes our job less stressful, put it that way."
Martin, a rookie running back and first-round draft pick, turned the nationally televised game into his debut-taunt party.
He tormented the Vikings by rushing 29 times for 135 yards and a score, and catching three passes for 79 yards, including a screen from Freeman he turned into a 64-yard score.
"The really special backs … they want it," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "They get in the groove, and they feel it. I could see that Doug was feeling it. He wanted carries."
Martin said he knew after his 41-yard run in the first quarter — his longest run of the season — he and the offensive line were going to be in a groove.
"I could definitely tell the offense was clicking, and the O-line did an awesome job staying on blocks and moving guys," Martin said Friday. "(Fullback Erik) Lorig did a good job of picking up his guy and blocking him, and I knew it was going to be a good night."
Helping create space for the running game have been explosive passing plays produced by Freeman and receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Over his past three games, Freeman has passed for 1,010 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. Thursday he was 19-of-36 for 262 yards. But his contributions go beyond stats, Schiano said.
"(Thursday) was not his most spectacular throwing game, although he made some nice throws," Schiano said. "But some of the things that he did that no one will ever know are what are most impressive: getting us into the right run, redeclaring once we realized what they were doing … getting the whole offense blocking it just a little bit differently. Those are big, big things that no one knows about. But I do, and the coaches do and his teammates do."
The Bucs are tied for ninth in the NFL, averaging 26.3 points per game. Over their past three games, they have averaged 34 points. By comparison, the Bucs averaged 17.9 points in 2011.
And Martin, 5 feet 9 and 223 pounds, is eighth with 543 rushing yards.
"From the beginning, we have been saying I think this guy has got some special abilities," Schiano said. "I think things are slowing down for him a little bit like they do oftentimes for very talented rookies. Between the running game and the vertical passing game … the last couple of weeks it is fitting together better."
The breakout game for Martin set his cell phone ablaze.
"I got a lot of support from back home: family, friends, teammates from college (Boise State) and teammates from high school (in Stockton, Calif.)," Martin said. "You don't realize it until after the game when you look at your phone and see all those text messages and (Twitter posts). It's awesome to have that support. It's nice to be on national TV and showcase our talents."
Barber and the defense did their part. They forced three turnovers, including a fumble caused by Barber.
But the night belonged to Martin and the suddenly potent offense. Schiano — who likens Martin to Ravens running back Ray Rice, who played for him at Rutgers — said the Bucs will closely monitor Martin's workload.
Growing up, Martin copied the moves of some of the NFL's greatest running backs. "What I did was go to YouTube and watch Emmitt (Smith), Walter Payton and Barry Sanders," he said. "It's got to be between Emmitt and Walter Payton."
Barber was asked Friday which running back pops into his head when he watches Martin carry the football.
"He pops into my head," Barber said. "That's good enough."