One play after injuring his left knee against the Panthers last week, Bucs running back Doug Martin returned to the huddle to assess the damage. But a pass play was called for the next snap. And Martin whiffed on the blitz pickup of linebacker Luke Kuechly, who sacked Josh McCown to take the Bucs out of field goal range during a 20-14 loss. "I wanted to see where I stood. Unfortunately, it didn't end up well on my end," Martin said. "I don't make excuses for myself, but I'd like to have that one back." Martin was held to a career-low 9 yards on as many rushes by the Panthers and did not return after the sack early in the third quarter. Last week, a blogger for USA Today, using unnamed sources, tweeted that Martin was benched for the blocking mistake, not the knee injury.
When asked about the report, Bucs coach Lovie Smith went ballistic.
"Whose report? Who is that guy? So do any of you (reporters) know him? I don't either," Smith said. "So how would he know anything about what I did during the game? No truth to that at all. Doug Martin hurt his knee, and we took him out. I need to meet that 'sources says' guy because I don't know anything about him. Put your name behind it."
Martin practiced last week and, although he is listed as questionable for today, is expected back in the lineup against the Rams.
For their offense to get moving, the Bucs know Martin will have to regain the rushing stride that made him an offensive rookie of the year finalist two seasons ago.
Martin, who played in only six games last season before tearing the labrum in his left shoulder, said he's ready to start popping up in highlights again.
"It's been awhile since I've been back on the field and able to do my thing," he said. "And I really do want to be back out there and be that guy again."
The only thing that might stop Martin from running wild is his offensive line.
Since the start of training camp, the Bucs have had a revolving door at guard, where seven players have seen significant time with the first team.
Bad went to worse against Carolina when Logan Mankins, the Pro Bowl player who arrived via trade 10 days before the regular-season opener, injured his left knee early in the first quarter and did not return. He's expected to play today.
For all of the talk of the "Dunk-a-neers," with 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Evans and 6-5 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins drafted to join 6-5 veteran receiver Vincent Jackson, Smith said Martin still is the guy who makes the offense go. As a rookie, he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 49 passes for 472 yards and another score.
Before his injury, Martin averaged 3.6 yards per carry last season, a yard fewer than as a rookie.
"Just our running game in general, we are trying to get it going with all of our guys," Smith said. "Doug is our lead guy. We weren't able to for whatever reason this first game, but we'll stay committed to it."
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Just keep "pounding the rock" is one prescription for ailing running games. But there are other remedies. Getting offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford back to call plays will help. Tedford, who had a heart procedure last month, missed two days of practice last week for tests in hopes of getting clearance from doctors to return to work full time.
Trailing 17-0 midway through the fourth quarter last week, the Bucs might have stumbled upon a formula when they scored on two quick touchdown drives by spreading out the Panthers defense with three and four receivers. Despite the Rams' vaunted pass rush, the Bucs might have to throw quick and establish a passing game to create more space for Martin and the run game.
"I think we got a little more (idea) of what we're capable of doing on the perimeter, which was good," said quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, who called plays from the field last week while Tedford observed from the coaches' box.
Meanwhile, Martin remains upbeat despite being a little beat up.
"I can't wait to see what we do this next game," Martin said, "and in the future."