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Could the Bucs rediscover their identity in the desert?

 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) celebrates his touchdown in the second quarter of an NFL game between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) celebrates his touchdown in the second quarter of an NFL game between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.
Published Oct. 14, 2017

TAMPA — The Bucs' ground-breaking moment came against New England, when Doug Martin took a deep handoff and ran into the line behind tight end O.J. Howard. He made a jump cut to his right and sliced left away from Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, slipping the tackle and dragging cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty a half yard shy of the end zone.

"I just wanted to go out there to show everybody that I'm back," Martin said. "I had fresh legs, and like I said, I was actually surprised how quickly the reads came and the quick twitch and all of that so it was a good feeling to have."

Nobody feels better than the Bucs, who were the victims of identity theft when Martin was suspended four games — one in 2016 and the first three this season — for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs.

Balance between the run and pass game, especially on first and second down, and explosive plays has been the Bucs' blueprint under coach Dirk Koetter.

Martin's runs set up Jameis Winston's play-action passes, enabling the Bucs to control the game and keep their defense fresh enough to create turnovers.

That's how the Bucs want to play and how they typically win.

Need proof?

? Since Koetter arrived as offensive coordinator in 2015, Tampa Bay is 0-6 when it runs the ball 20 or fewer times. It is 9-1 when getting more than 30 rushing attempts.

? The Bucs are 13-2 when they finish the game with a positive turnover ratio (4-0 when Brent Grimes intercepts a pass). They are 1-4 when the giveaway-takeaway ratio is even, 3-13 when it's negative.

? Tampa Bay is 4-2 when Winston throws three touchdown passes, but only 3-5 when he passes for at least 300 yards.

On Sunday, the Bucs return to Arizona, ground zero for Martin's 2016 implosion — first professionally and then personally.

He suffered a hamstring strain in the first half of a humbling 40-7 loss Sept. 11, 2016 at Arizona. Four weeks later, he suffered a setback trying to prepare for a game at San Francisco that prevented him from returning until mid-November.

By then, Martin barely resembled the guy who earned two trips to the Pro Bowl. Only once in his six games did he average more than 3 yards per carry. With the Bucs needing one more win to reach the playoffs, Martin was inactive in a crippling loss at New Orleans.

Revelations of his positive drug test and impending suspension followed. He had left the team by the time Tampa Bay beat Carolina in the finale.

Suspended for the first three games this season, Martin hadn't had any contact in about five weeks when he took the field against the Patriots Oct. 5. He was explosive, averaging 5.7 yards on 13 carries.

Koetter said he believed Martin tired in the fourth quarter after 25 plays. That workload is expected to increase Sunday against the Cardinals.

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"If we're getting the Doug that we've seen at his best, and he looked good the other night in the 25 snaps that he got, it gives you an explosive back, a back who can turn a 4-yard gain into a 12-yard gain and once in a while a 12-yard gain into a 50-yard gain," Koetter said.

However, the Bucs' offense has begun to evolve. All three of Winston's interceptions came in a 34-17 loss in Week 2 at Minnesota, a game in which the Bucs only attempted seven running plays.

With Martin out, Koetter seemed unwilling to stick with the ground game, preferring to keep the football in the hands of his best play-maker.

Winston's chemistry with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate, who have 25 touchdown receptions combined the past 20 games, is off the charts. He's still adjusting to some of his new pass catchers.

"The more weapons you have, the more readily you are capable of designing things for others," said offensive coordinator Todd Monken. "When you add an O.J. Howard to the mix, you get Doug back, you add DeSean (Jackson), so you're not constantly designing where can we put Mike? In the past, that's what you did. You said, 'Okay, we can put Mike over here, Mike there. We don't have to do that as much."

Despite those additions and the promise of a more versatile offense, the Bucs rank 20th in red-zone efficiency — the same place they finished 2016 when they scored touchdowns on just over half their possessions inside the opponent's 20.

The enter Sunday's game 2-2 with an offensive identity that has yet to be established.

"Unfortunately, we're kind of in limbo," said right guard J.R. Sweezy. "That's not to say we're playing bad. We're just not playing to our full potential. We realize that."

Like all offensive linemen, Sweezy and Co. want more chances to run block for an elite back like Martin. It won't be easy Sunday. The Cardinals allow only 94.8 yards rushing per game, which is good enough for 12th in the NFL.

"Doug is a special dude the way he runs the football and it's just great to have him back," Sweezy said. "You saw that impact that he made and that was him being rusty. We'll see how he does when he finally gets going."

Because Winston is most effective as a drop-back passer, using five and seven step drops that allow time for routes to develop down field. Martin's presence in the backfield alone slows the pass rush that has to be alert for draws and screens. Meanwhile, his effectiveness entices defenses to move a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, creating the possibility for one-on-one matchups for Evans, Jackson and other pass-catchers.

"Certain individual players have the ability to make plays that others can't. Doug has that ability," Monken said. "He has the ability to see things and to jump cut. ... Having him back obviously gives us a lift."

And just maybe, it gives the Bucs their identity back.

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud