TAMPA — The statistics do not paint a good picture of Doug Martin, and yet his coaches and teammates reiterate how close the Bucs' running game is to clicking like it needs to, to be the catalyst of the offense.
"Obviously, the yards per carry aren't where we want them to be," center Joe Hawley said. "We need the run game to be a factor in the game. Doug's running really hard. We need to help him a little more, clean up some of our blocks. We're really close on a lot of things to breaking him out."
The Bucs can greatly help their playoff chances with a win Saturday at New Orleans, which entered Thursday ranked 30th in the 32-team league in points allowed and 26th in total yards allowed. They Saints are more vulnerable through the air, ranking 31st in pass defense, but the Bucs have established all season under coach Dirk Koetter that their offense is predicated on their ground game.
"I'll give Coach a lot of credit," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said this week. "We've continued to try and run it when we haven't been able to run it, because again, that's who we have to be in order to make our play-action game work. So we're constantly working to fix that."
Martin, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in a Pro Bowl season last year, is averaging 2.92 yards per carry, the lowest out of 35 running backs with at least 100 carries this season. In the past 10 seasons, only one back has had as many carries and averaged fewer yards per carry, the Ravens' Bernard Pierce in 2013. Only once has a Bucs player with 100 carries averaged less: Warrick Dunn in 2001.
And the Bucs have stuck with Martin longer than any team has any struggling back this season. Games with 15-plus carries and fewer than 3.0 yards per carry? No other back besides Martin has more than three this year; Martin has five in the past six weeks.
"We haven't been as efficient as we want to be, but it's getting there," Martin said. "It's going to pick up."
His presence has meant something to the team, on the field and in the standings. Tampa Bay is 6-1 when he plays a full game, 2-5 when he doesn't.
Koetter trusts Martin so much that in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, backup Jacquizz Rodgers was inactive, with rookie Peyton Barber dressing as the No. 3 back because he does more on special teams. Rodgers, who stepped up when Martin missed six games with a hamstring injury this year, is still the team's leading rusher with 422 yards.
Martin has had limited success in the Superdome, totaling 139 rushing yards in three career games, but he rushed for 66 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs are confident and hopeful that he can do more Saturday, with so much hanging in the balance.
"He's running hard as usual, same old Doug," tackle Donovan Smith said. "A lot of it relies on us doing our part in the front five, opening lanes for him. Sometimes we don't put ourselves in the right position to give him the best opportunity, so we have to do better as a front five."
The Bucs offense thrived last season when Martin's rushing — 1,402 yards and a career-best 4.9 yards per carry — took some of the offensive burden off then-rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and set up the passing game. Facing the Saints and a prolific passer in veteran Drew Brees, it's important to establish the run, keep Tampa Bay's defense off the field and control the game at the line of scrimmage.
"Dirk wants to be a run-first offense, and that's something we take pride in, being the most physical team out there," Martin said.
"If we do that, we can run the table."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected]m and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.