TAMPA — The Bucs trailed the 49ers 14-0 early in the second quarter Sunday, nearly 3,000 miles from home and relying on three running backs all cut from NFL rosters before this season.
And as much as they'd had success early running the ball — starter Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 48 yards in the opening quarter — they had come up short on third and 2 on the opening drive, then were stopped cold on fourth and 1.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter didn't waver from his confidence that the Bucs could run the ball effectively against a 49ers defense that was the NFL's worst against the run.
"I think it's important … I thought we'd still have a chance to run the ball," Koetter said Monday, back home after a 34-17 win over the 49ers that evened the Bucs's record at 3-3 on the season.
And run the ball they did, piling up 249 rushing yards, the fourth-highest total in team history, led by Rodgers' tireless 154 yards on 26 carries. The Bucs' past two wins, both on the road, have been carried by a running game that has found success despite the continued absence of Doug Martin and Charles Sims to injuries.
That means not only Rodgers, who has back-to-back 100-yard games after having none in his first five NFL seasons, but also backups Peyton Barber and Antone Smith.
"I don't think it matters who's back there," Tampa Bay offensive tackle Demar Dotson said after the win. "No matter who goes back there, we treat those guys the same. What matters is the technique … Jacquizz and Barber and Smith, they did a good job, but the guys up front in the offensive line and the tight end did a good job blocking."
Rodgers had 30 carries and five catches in the win Oct. 10 at Carolina, and Koetter had a plan to rotate three backs in to ease the heavy load on his starter.
On the Bucs' first touchdown drive, quarterback Jameis Winston hit Smith — literally signed off the street last week — for a 30-yard catch to the 6-yard line, more yards in one play than the 31-year-old had in five games with the Bears last season.
"Antone got the big play on the screen and I called him an old man — I think the Antone I remember would've scored on that play, but it was still fun to watch," joked Koetter, who coached Smith and Rodgers with the Falcons from 2012-14.
Barber had totaled 6 yards on three carries in his first four NFL games, but stepped up Sunday as the primary backup.
When Rodgers got loose for a 45-yard run and needed a play off, Barber followed with a 14-yard run, and as the Bucs worked to salt out the game's final minutes, he broke loose for a 44-yard touchdown.
Barber kept the game ball from his first NFL touchdown, saying he would give it to his mother, who was one of his main motivations in leaving Auburn a year early for the NFL.
"Our offensive line was wonderful today," Barber, who finished with 84 yards on 12 carries, said Sunday.
Koetter's commitment to establishing the run as the start of the offensive identity won't be changing as the team returns home for three straight games.
Martin could soon return from his hamstring injury, and whether he does or not, the Bucs will face a Raiders defense on Sunday that is the NFL's fourth-worst against the run.
"That was amazing to get that many yards, to get the running backs some room to run," guard Kevin Pamphile said after Sunday's win. "We knew we could get the offense and get the ball rolling, and it was over at that point."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.