Bucs running back Doug Martin's hamstring injury could sideline him for about three weeks, according to reports early Wednesday. Where does his absence rank on the Bucs' list of concerns heading into Sunday's 4:05 p.m. home opener against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Tampa Bay Times' Bucs coverage team weighs in on the team's biggest worry:
The Jameis Winston roller-coaster
Rick Stroud, Bucs writer: Doug Martin's injury could have a big impact on the Bucs as he misses the next three games. He's one of their top three players on offense, and if Dirk Koetter can be taken at his word that this a "run first," offense, well, losing the NFL's second-leading rusher is not the way to go.
But what will really determine the Bucs success moving forward is — surprise — the play of Jameis Winston.
Who is this guy? Is he the quarterback who passed for more than 4,000 yards and accounted for 28 touchdowns (six rushing) and only 15 interceptions last season to win the Pepsi Rookie of the Year? Or do you put more stock into the fact his 58.3 completion percentage as a rookie was the lowest in the league among players with at least 11 starts last season?
Already this year, his 72.7 passer rating is better only than the Rams' Case Keenum among the league's starting quarterbacks.
Winston already has thrown five interceptions – a third as many in two games as he did all of last season. The problem is not decision making. He rarely throws it to the wrong receiver. But the lack of accuracy has resulted in most of his INTs.
If Winston rides the roller coaster, the Bucs will have a tough time hanging on. On the other hand, if he smooths out his mechanics and protects the football, the Bucs could successfully navigate the next three weeks without Martin against the Rams and the Super Bowl 50 participants — Denver (Oct. 2) and at Carolina for Monday Night Football (Oct. 10).
The dread of what Martin's injury could mean
Tom Jones, Times Sports Columnist: There are a handful of players the Bucs can ill afford to lose for an extended period of time. That list includes quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Mike Evans, defensive stars Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David and ... Doug Martin.
The Bucs running back is a key weapon in the team's offensive attack and now they will miss him for an extended period of time. And it couldn't come at a more grueling stretch. Martin could miss the next three games, meaning he would be out for this Sunday's game against the Rams and then back-to-back games against the Super Bowl finalist Broncos and Panthers. Good luck beating those two teams without the guy who is the heartbeat of your offense.
Winston has a tendency to ride the rollercoaster with his play, but he is usually at his best when Martin is pounding the rock. Sometimes even the threat of Martin forces the other team to play honestly, instead of simply playing the pass and going hard after Winston. With Martin out, the Bucs will turn to Charles Sims, who is more of a change-of-pace back, and Jacquizz Rodgers, who just joined the Bucs. Rodgers is shifty, but not the power back that Martin is.
Even more worrisome is that Martin tends to spend every other season hampered by injuries. History suggests this will be one of those seasons. The Bucs can only hope Martin will miss just three games. Even that might feel like a lot.
How about a consistent pass rush?
Martin Fennelly, Times Sports Columnist: Jameis Winston will be up and down. And his accuracy on deep balls is an issue. But it will not doom this season.
Doug Martin's hamstring is a real problem. So is Vincent Jackson's deep, deep slumber. So is the mountainous, run-stuffing presence that is rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald this Sunday.
And the schedule isn't easy, though if you can't beat beatable Los Angeles this Sunday, who can you beat?
But if the Bucs don't get a better, more consistent pass rush sometime soon, you might as well fold the tent.
That won't be an issue this week. The Rams won't be throwing deep. The job this Sunday is for the defensive line, Gerald McCoy and the others, to free up Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David so they can put Todd Gurley on the ground. You can't let him beat you.
But if we're talking long term, it's the pass rush.
You're in a division with Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.
You can't win a division, or much of anything else, if the pass rush doesn't find consistency.
It has shown flashes, but they need to get after it even more. Pressures. Hits.
If the Bucs don't get more takeaways _ say, more than NONE _ this season similarly doomed. Funny, but pass rush and takeaways often go hand-in-hand in the NFL.
The Bucs have been trying to address the pass rush since the beginning of time after Simeon Rice left.
Two games in, while they've made some sacks, they'll need more pressure. Or else.
They're also 27th ranked against the pass.
They've also given up 64 points.
The longer cornerbacks and safeties and linebackers have to cover someone in this league, the odds of receptions go up.
I don't like Brent Grimes and Chris Conte's chances to begin with, or a lot of other guys back there.
"No matter how good your coverage is, the rush is the coverage's best friend," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said Monday.
The Bucs secondary will need help. Lots of it. But all NFL secondaries need help. The rules are stacked toward the receivers in this league.
When the Bucs were masters and commanders of the NFL, all those years ago, it started with defense, with a pass rush.
Isn't that still the key in the NFL, anyway, for every team?
Jameis isn't there yet. His inconsistency isn't unexpected. But would you against his upside?
I'm not ready to bet on this pass rush yet.
That's the biggest concern going forward.
It is nearly every Bucs season, like, for instance, the losing ones.
Surrendering big passing plays
Greg Auman, Bucs/NFL writer: Despite the injury sidelining Doug Martin for the next three games or so, a porous pass defense is still the Bucs' biggest concern in their 1-1 start.
Statistically, the Bucs are worse than they were last season, when opposing QBs were able to find open receivers with ease in completing 70 percent of their passes. Tampa Bay is learning a new defense under Mike Smith, but they need to accelerate that learning with a tough stretch of games ahead.
The Bucs have won without Martin before —- they win at a higher percentage without him since his first injuries in 2013 —- and the running game won't matter much if the Bucs are giving up big play after big play in the passing game, forcing them to play catch up and throw more often.