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Bucs hope Doug Martin relieves pressure on Jameis Winston

Bucs Doug Martin (22) breaks free for a 30 yard gain in the 1st qtr setting up Jameis Winston's diving TD two plays later during the Bucs NFL Preseason Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa 8/24/15. JIM DAMASKE | Times
Published Sep. 12, 2015

TAMPA — So much of the buildup to Sunday's Bucs-Titans season opener is about two rookie quarterbacks meeting in their NFL debuts, and Doug Martin is fine with that.

"That's how it is. It's a quarterback-driven league," said the running back, eager to get back to his rookie-year form (1,454 yards rushing) after two seasons in which he was limited by injuries. "But if all the other guys play well, it's going to be an easy game."

But if Sunday is to preview real improvement in the season ahead, the Bucs would like that to start with a reliable running game that takes the pressure off quarterback Jameis Winston and keeps him from feeling like he has to win games on his own.

"Jameis shouldn't have to do it all," Martin said. "There are 11 guys on the field, and if we all play together as a team, it should be easier on everybody. We want to run the ball, and that's what we're going to do to keep the pressure off Winston."

The Bucs struggled to run the ball last season, ranking 29th out of 32 NFL teams in rushing yards per game. They finished the season with four rushing touchdowns by running backs, matching the lowest total in the league.

For all the excitement around Winston's arrival, coach Lovie Smith has made it clear this is a run-first team, and an offense that starts with a strong running game can go a long way.

"In order for us to have success this year, we need to get our running game going," Smith said. "We are going to rely on the running game. We get off the bus, we would like to know we can run the football. … Doug Martin is our starting running back. I don't see any reason why we should think we can't run the ball."

Asked for one player who could be an X factor in the offense, new coordinator Dirk Koetter said "easily" Martin, whom he saw from the other sideline in three years running the Falcons' offense.

"I can't tell you when (receivers) Vincent (Jackson) or Mike (Evans) is going to get the ball. … I know when Doug is going to get it," Koetter said. "All we have to do is turn around and hand it to him. Any player that has the ability to create explosive (plays) on his own, that guy is an X factor. I also think the two guys behind him can do that as well."

The Bucs' commitment to the run game is seen on the roster, where they are carrying five running backs, with backups Charles Sims, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, and fullback Jorvorskie Lane. For them, hearing Smith talk about a run-first mind-set isn't rhetoric but inspiration.

"It makes us feel like somebody. He's putting it on us," Lane said. "It's motivation going into a game to know they're depending on the run game. Like Doug said, the run game can open up a lot of things for other players."

To establish a consistent run game, the Bucs need improved play from the offensive line, which will have three new starters, including rookies Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet at left tackle and right guard, respectively. The line not only must protect Winston but also clear holes for the running game.

"Us out front, we have to give everybody a chance to be successful out there," center Evan Smith said. "It's a team game. It doesn't take one guy; it takes 11."

It could help the Bucs that Tennessee's defense ranked 31st against the run last season, giving up an average 137.2 yards per game. Opponents ran the ball an NFL-high 32 times per game against the Titans last season, and if Sunday goes to plan, the Bucs could easily exceed that total.

Martin has returned healthy this season, has dropped weight and welcomes as big a role as Smith will give him. As a rookie in 2013, he carried the ball 319 times — just under 20 carries a game — the most by any Tampa Bay running back since 1995. If Smith wants a bell cow to lead this offense, Martin is happy to take on that role.

"I do consider myself a workhorse," Martin said. "I feel I am able to carry the load, and the other running backs in the room that are able to do the same thing. We're confident in our run game, and we can't wait to see what we're going to do."

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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