Bucs get strong mileage out of running back tandem (w/video)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) runs the ball on a first down in the first quarter of the game between the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sunday, September 27, 2015.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) runs the ball on a first down in the first quarter of the game between the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sunday, September 27, 2015.
Published Oct. 24, 2015

History will determine whether the only false step made this season involving Doug Martin was the Bucs' decision not to pick up his fifth-year option worth $5.6 million. They could pivot like their elusive running back and try to sign him to a contract extension and prevent him from becoming a free agent.

For now, Martin is demanding the Bucs give him only one thing — the football.

The former first-round pick, limited to 17 games the past two seasons by injury, is the league's ninth-leading rusher with 405 yards.

But it's the combination of Martin and Charles Sims, arguably the best 1-2 running back punch in the NFL, powering the Bucs offense while keeping the pressure off rookie quarterback Jameis Winston as he learns the ropes.

A year ago, the Bucs surprised everyone by using a third-round pick on Sims. What attracted them to the West Virginia star in addition to his running was his ability to catch the ball and run routes as a fourth receiver if necessary.

After a dismal rookie year in which he missed half the season recovering from foot surgery, Sims has 135 yards rushing and 14 receptions for 193 yards and two touchdowns this season.

"You have to have a starter, your bell cow, and that's Doug for us," coach Lovie Smith said. "From there, there's a lot of football, a lot of hits, you just need a relief (rusher). They're different running backs, they complement each other perfectly. Then it's a feel for when you should take a guy out. (If) they have a hot hand, let them keep going, but don't overdo it."

In Martin (499 total yards) and Sims (328), the Bucs have two running backs on pace for 1,000 yards in total offense (rushing and receiving) this season. Only one other NFL team is on pace to do so — the San Diego Chargers with Danny Woodhead (494 yards) and rookie Melvin Gordon (385).

In the Bucs' 40-year history, only Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott have had 1,000 yards in total offense in the same year — in 1999, Dunn had 1,205 and Alstott 1,188. Not coincidentally, the Bucs won the NFC Central and lost in the NFC Championship Game to the St. Louis Rams.

The Bucs' decision not to pick up Martin's option was based on his lack of durability. The $5.6 million would have included an injury guarantee for 2016.

But in a way, they've seen a short-term benefit. Not only did Martin report to training camp in the best shape of his life, having lost 10 pounds by eating right, he's motivated to run like he did as a rookie when he rushed for 1,454 yards and tied a club record with 12 touchdowns.

Sims' presence and increased role helps. But it's interesting to note the Bucs don't see Sims as Martin's heir apparent, but a change-of-pace back.

In fact, should Martin go down, he would be replaced by Bobby Rainey, not Sims.

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"When I was in Atlanta last year, our defensive coaches feared Bobby Rainey," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "There weren't sure they could tackle Bobby. They thought Doug would just try to run them over, but they were scared Bobby would make them miss."

Martin and Sims bring different attributes. At 5 feet 9, 223 pounds, Martin is powerful enough to move a pile and create yards after contract but can also make people miss in the open field. Sims, 6-0, 211, is more of an upright runner with soft hands and a burst that lets him gain the corner against most defenses.

That speed was on display in the Bucs' 38-31 win over Jacksonville when Sims took a screen pass from Winston, turned on the jets and went 56 yards.

"He's had a full offseason with us, he has been healthy, he's been in every meeting, had every practice and the guy that we saw on video we're seeing right now," Smith said. "A guy that can run in between the tackles, a guy that can make you miss in the open field. We feel very comfortable splitting him out, throwing him the ball, running a wide receiver (route) tree, so that's what we're getting from him."

Of course, the delicate balance of deciding how to split the carries falls on Koetter, who wants to ride the hot back but also change it up with Sims.

"In the Jacksonville game, Bobby and Chuck complemented each other very well," Koetter said. "Doug is a hit-the-hole-fast (runner). He has moves, he has speed, but he's going to hit it and be a physical runner. Chuck is going to dance around a little bit more, has a nice burst, maybe a little bit more outside. Other than the plays we tag specific, they both have to do everything."

Martin doesn't seem put off by the Bucs' increased use of Sims in the two-back system. "Me and Chuck complement each other a lot," he said.

Only San Diego, with Woodhead and Gordon, has a backfield that has produced more yards from scrimmage than Martin and Sims, and Tampa Bay's duo has done it in one fewer game.

"I'm very pleased with what we've gotten with our running backs," Smith said.

Even if, with every yard, Martin might be running up his price tag.