Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Midway through season, Doug Martin already having huge impact on Tampa Bay Bucs

It has only been eight games. You have to keep telling yourself that.

But, gee whiz, it's hard to watch what Bucs running back Doug Martin has done in those eight games and not start making comparisons to every other back in franchise history.

He's stronger than Warrick Dunn. Faster than Mike Alstott. More nimble than Michael Pittman. More dynamic than James Wilder. More explosive than Ricky Bell. A quicker study than Errict Rhett. A better receiver than Cadillac Williams.

He's more exciting than all of them.

Is Martin the best running back this franchise has ever had? Eight games is not enough of a sample size to tell. Does he have a chance to be the best back in franchise history? Those same eight games suggest he's well on his way.

Martin can break big runs. Pound the rock in short yardage. Catch the ball. Pick up blitzes. Play all three downs. Run up the middle. Get to the outside. What, pray tell, can't this guy do?

"He is the second coming of Ray Rice,'' said the NFL Network's Willie McGinest, comparing Martin to the Ravens star who played for Bucs coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers.

Already, Martin is the 20th-leading rusher in franchise history and should be just outside the top 10 by season's end if the second half goes anything like the first.

So halfway through his first season, here's a look back at what Martin has done, what he is doing and what he might do the rest of the way.

What he has done

When Schiano arrived here, he said he wanted a team that could run the ball and take shots down the field. The only way that was going to work was if he had a running back who could pound the ball.

Over the past month, no offense in football has been more potent than the Bucs, and it starts with Martin. In the past four games, Martin has rushed for 76, 85, 135 and 251 yards.

Not so coincidentally, quarterback Josh Freeman has had, perhaps, the best four-game stretch of his career, throwing for more than 1,200 yards with 11 touchdowns and one interception.

What's impressive about Martin is how quickly he has adjusted to the pro game. Schiano says that Martin has learned how to become more patient, waiting for a hole to open up a 40-yard run instead of slamming into a line for a 2-yard gain.

Take Sunday's game, when Martin ripped off runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards. He ran for 251 yards and four TDs in what might have been the best individual performance in Bucs history.

He was so good that even the Raiders were bragging on him.

"One of their (defensive linemen) gave me a lot of props and he said he doesn't talk to any running backs,'' Martin said. "So I took that to heart.''

What's he doing

What Martin is doing right now is keeping defensive coordinators up past their bedtimes and guzzling Alka-Seltzer.

Imagine the Bucs snapping the ball and Freeman turning around like he's handing off to Martin. If you're playing defense, are you loading up to stop the NFL's third-leading rusher? Or are you so wary of the play-action pass that you're dropping back to play pass defense? Or do you cheat and try to do a little of both?

Whatever you decide, you're probably in trouble. Either Martin is going to carve his way through your defense or a receiver such as Vincent Jackson or Mike Williams is going to be sprinting past your one-on-one coverage.

But none of this works without an elite back.

What he will do the rest of the way

See, this is where the Martin story gets tricky. Let's not forget that Martin is a rookie. Counting eight regular-season games and four preseason games and all those practices, he has already played the equivalent of a college football regular season and he still has eight games left. Plus, he's going up against NFL monsters these days, not young lads from the Mountain West Conference.

"I feel fine,'' Martin insisted Monday. "My body feels great. Just got some treatment on all my nicks and dings you get after every game.''

But Schiano admits he's keeping track of the number of touches Martin is getting, both in games and over the course of the season. In the past two games, Martin has touched the ball 61 times. That's a lot for a back any size.

"We have to make sure he doesn't get too far out of whack as far as reps go,'' Schiano said.

That's why the Bucs will continue sprinkling in LeGarrette Blount. That's why Martin will see less action when games become lopsided. That's why Martin will be spared heavy duty in practice.

"He's a guy who gains strength during games (with) the more touches he gets,'' Schiano said. "Doug is physically trained to be a back who can do that. So now we just got to make sure we don't go too far with that.''

That won't be easy, not when you're trying to win games and not when you have a player this special. You don't need eight games to tell you that.

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