TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have needed a spark to ignite their ground game this season. Could Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin be the answer in his return from suspension this week? In three games without him, the Bucs have averaged 84.7 rushing yards, 26th in the league.
Some of that has to do with the Bucs' running the ball only nine times against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago, but prior to their Week 4 performance against the New York Giants, they were averaging 3.33 yards per carry, which isn't very good. After a strong performance Sunday night, that number shot up to a more respectable 3.85 yards per carry.
Jacquizz Rodgers has been getting the bulk of the carries (60 percent), with Peyton Barber getting about 20 percent and the rest going to Charles Sims, who contributes on third down and in the short passing game.
Martin expects to play Thursday night, but he's unsure of the number of snaps he'll have. The Bucs have been noncommittal on whether he'll regain his starting job. There's a feeling within the building that his best performances have come only when there's a carrot in front of him.
That can all change quickly if Martin can break some big runs in the coming weeks. The problem this week, though, is that he likely won't get to practice in pads before he plays, so expectations should be tempered. He also hasn't been through an actual football practice in a month.
"The first thing I did when I got back was to go see the trainers to make sure that I was physically OK, and I passed that with flying colors," Martin said. "I feel great. I had a good plan over there in California. The guys that I was working out with, they definitely helped me out a lot, and I believe that I am ready to go."
Rust or not, Martin brings some much-needed explosiveness. In the second preseason game, he was averaging 6.0 yards per carry and was bouncing off defenders.
The Bucs average 1.7 yards per rush after contact this year, which is 17th in the league. Last year, they were 11th. Two years ago, in Martin's last full season healthy, they averaged 1.97 yards after contact, second only to the Seattle Seahawks.
"He's got burst," said guard Evan Smith, who also praised Martin's patience. "Doug is one of those guys where he makes a jump cut, and when his feet hit the ground, he's going top speed 1-2 steps. Those guys are few and far between."
In 2015, the Bucs also had 42 explosive runs (2.62 per game). They had produced six through their first three games that year. The Bucs have four right now, and they're averaging 1.33 per game.
Defenses have shown that they will line up differently against Martin. In the 66 snaps on which a rushing play has been called this season, the Bucs have seen eight defenders in the box 9.9 percent of the time.
In the first three games after Martin returned from his hamstring injury last season, the Bucs saw the box stacked 20 percent. Think about how many more opportunities DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans would get downfield with the mere threat of Martin.
The Bucs get an opportunity this week against a New England Patriots defense that has given up 5.06 yards per rush this season, second-most in the NFL.
The Patriots are fully aware of what Martin can do, too.
"He's a very explosive player," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Great balance, he's had some long runs in his career. He definitely has the ability to make the big play. He's a tough guy to tackle, good in space, a tough in-line runner. I really have a lot of respect for him. He's an excellent player."