TAMPA — A few weeks ago, the Bucs offense was one of the hottest in the league.
Running back Doug Martin was the talk of the NFL with highlight-reel runs. Receivers Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson dazzled with deep routes. Quarterback Josh Freeman continued to be the Comeback Kid, pulling off an overtime win at Carolina.
In Games 5-10 Tampa Bay went 5-1, averaging 34 points.
But as Williams said, their opponents "watch film, too." And Atlanta and Denver made adjustments that slowed Tampa Bay (6-6) in a two-game losing streak.
Martin has seen more defenders in the box, as he's averaged just 2.3 yards per carry in the past two games. Williams has noticed two safeties playing deep to protect the long pass. As a result, the Bucs have averaged 11 fewer points and more than a 100 fewer yards per game than that six-game stretch.
In the NFL's weekly chess match, it's Tampa Bay's move.
"It boils down to continuing to evaluate what we have shown (and) the frequency with which we have shown it," offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "Are … we putting ourselves in a situation where we are predictable? … The concepts and ideas — how often are we able to keep them fresh and rotate them through and yet still try to give enough answers to the quarterback.
"There have been some setbacks. There have been some disappointments, but we as a group are definitely focused on the improvement and have a plan of attack on how we want it right this second."
To coach Greg Schiano, opponents' strategic changes are only part of the issue; it's a combination of coaching, executing and circumstance.
"Some plays we've made by a shoestring in the three previous weeks, (opponents are) making by a shoestring right now," Schiano said. "Maybe we have to finish a little harder. … Maybe someone is finishing a little harder than we have. Maybe we've got to call a little better play. There's a whole bunch of stuff that comes into it."
The same could be said for the ground game. Martin, a 1,000-yard rusher in the first 10 games, has 106 in the past two.
"It's been a rough couple weeks," he said.
The first-round pick insists he hasn't hit a rookie wall, saying he feels great physically and mentally. Sullivan sees Martin getting stronger and "right on track."
Sullivan pointed out that in Sunday's loss against Denver, which has one of the league's best defenses, Martin had 15 carries for 48 yards in the first half. But when the Bucs fell behind 28-10 in the third quarter, they had to pass more; Martin had just three carries in the final two quarters.
"I feel like we get in the positions where we have to start throwing and it takes Doug out of the game," Williams said. "Because we have to throw and get points quick, we can't run the ball. But if we're in the game early, we can keep feeding Doug and that's how our offense seems to succeed."
Martin said he just has to take what the defense gives, and that the whole group needs to pay attention to the details. That's what the Bucs did this week in practice, focusing on fundamentals and working in pads more.
"We've had two very spirited and well-executed practices this week," Freeman said. "And I know that everybody has got the right mentality going forward. We know we have to do things that have got us this far."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]