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  1. Bucs

Bucs offense has been run to nowhere

TAMPA — Bucs coach Lovie Smith is proud to call himself a "glass-half-full" optimist, even in his team's 1-4 start.

But asked Monday what exactly has continued to go wrong with the running game, Smith was, like so many runs, quite short.

"Not able to run the football. Next question," he said.

There isn't an easy answer, whether it's a new offensive line still building its chemistry, penalties negating big gains or running backs not finding openings as they have in the past.

The Bucs average 90.4 yards rushing yards per game, 24th in the NFL, but that only tells half the story. They averaged a promising 129.5 yards in two close losses to open the season, and in three games since they've averaged 64.3 yards.

"It will be one guy this play, then one guy this play. Ten people will be doing the right thing, but it will always be one person in the running game," left tackle Anthony Collins said Tuesday. "Once we get everybody on the same page, you'll see a difference in us. We're very close."

Fans had hoped to see Doug Martin return to his rookie year form after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury. A knee injury sidelined him for two games, but in the other three he has totaled just 94 yards on 37 carries. His average of 2.5 yards is the worst of the 29 NFL running backs averaging at least 12 carries per game.

His backup, Bobby Rainey, had a 9-yard touchdown Sunday and has 220 yards, with a much stronger average of 4.7 yards. His issue is three lost fumbles — only the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray (four) has more, and Murray has 83 more carries while leading the league in rushing.

"We have to learn not to hurt ourselves," Rainey said, speaking also to numerous penalties that have set the offense back in the last three games. "When we don't hurt ourselves, we're a good football team. We have to stay away from little dumb penalties. When we learn to control those things, we'll be fine."

That's won't be an easy task Sunday against a Ravens defense that ranks in the top 10 in fewest rushing yards allowed (89.4) and yards per carry (3.4). Rainey spent his rookie year in 2012 on injured reserve with the Ravens in their Super Bowl championship season, so he knows that defense well.

"I've got a little upper hand because I know what they like to do, and the players on the other side," Rainey said. "They're still the Ravens defense. But I have to approach this game like any other game."

The Bucs have run often on first down, with very limited success — Martin and Rainey combine for 102 yards on 46 first-down carries. Take away a harmless 16-yard Martin run from the Bucs' 11 on the final play of regulation Sunday, and that's 1.9 yards per carry.

First down in general has been a sore spot for the offense, which has needed an average of 9.32 yards to gain on second-down plays, worst in the NFL. They've failed to gain yardage on 50 first-down plays this season, a slow start that sets up an NFL-worst 9.11 yards to go on third down.

Can the Bucs turn around their 1-4 start without the run in what Smith has touted as a run-first offense? That, you might say, is the next question.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.

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