TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin took a handoff from QB Jameis Winston, lunged out of the backfield, and exploded off a block from guard J.R. Sweezy for a 17-yard gain.
Moments later, Martin hurled his body over a wall of New England Patriots defenders to taste the end zone for the first time in nearly 10 months.
"I felt like I was back home," said Martin, who watched the Bucs' first three games of the season with family in Southern California. His mother Leslie and sister Gabrielle, along with some close friends, flew in from California for the Patriots-Bucs game.
"I've been away for about four weeks (including Hurricane Irma) and it was just good to hear the fans and just the crowd noise. Just to be in the element again was awesome," said Martin, who missed the first three game this season serving a suspension for PEDs. “It was good to be out there and playing the game that I love."
The "Dougernaut" was back, and aside from a defense that held the Patriots to a season-low 19 points, Martin was the true bright spot in the Bucs' 19-14 loss on Thursday night.
"I was trying to get contact all week," Martin said. "My coach (running backs coach Tim Spencer) brought me out there to punch the bags and I kept asking him, 'Do you want me to put some pads on?' He was like, 'No, don't put any pads on.'"
Martin recorded 74 rushing yards on 13 touches, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. His legs looked fresh. His cuts were cat-quick and decisive.
"That was probably the highlight of today, seeing him in the end zone," said Winston. "We missed him a lot. He toted that ball. The running backs played good, Quizz [Rodgers] came in and he handled his load ... I think we're all happy that Doug is back. That put a smile on my face. Thank you."
It looked like Martin could have done a lot more if the Bucs had continued to run the ball in the fourth quarter. At that point, they were down 16-7 and trying to play catch-up.
The Bucs' passing game struggled all night. In fact, it wasn't until the very end of the third quarter that Winston broke 100 passing yards. At that point, Martin had accounted for more than 41 percent of the Bucs' total offense.
"Oh Douglas, oh Douglas, I love Douglas. We love him," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "That's what he [does]. You can tell he's been working out pretty hard. Came back and didn't miss a beat."
Added coach Dirk Koetter: "Doug looked good; he definitely gave us a lift. He looked fast. Doug, you can tell, he's explosive. He's going to help us."
Tight end Cameron Brate chimed in: "I thought Doug did an awesome job. The fresh legs he had -- you could kind of tell there, right when he got into the game, he had a couple of big runs. He really lifted the offense. It's just unfortunate that we couldn't give it to him more. That's just kind of how the game went."
To be fair, Martin hadn't seen game action since his two touches against the Cleveland Browns in the third week of the preseason, nearly six weeks ago. He had just one actual football practice since his return to the team Monday because of the abbreviated week.
"It felt good to be out there," Martin said. "When I went out there for warm-ups -- just to hear the crowd and hear the fans again and to be out there with my brothers was definitely a good feeling. It's unfortunate that we got the loss, but we also came back. I'm just going to learn from this and come back and get ready for the Cardinals."
Between his performance Thursday night and in the preseason -- when, at one point, he was averaging 6.0 yards per carry -- imagine how much more juice Martin can give, especially next week against an Arizona Cardinals defense that ripped Winston to shreds last season with four interceptions.
The Cardinals are giving up just 302.8 yards per game of total offense -- seventh-fewest in the league. The Buffalo Bills, whom the Bucs play in two weeks, are right behind the Cardinals. The Panthers, who loom after the Bills, are even stingier, giving up just 282 yards per game -- fourth-lowest in the league.
But with the way the Bucs' defense played Thursday night -- and things should only get better once star linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander return -- Martin's efforts may just be enough.
"He's gonna be a huge part of us getting a lot of W's throughout the rest of the season," McCoy said. "We just love him as a person. He just brings so much joy to the locker room. He was Doug. He did what Doug [does]. That's why we love having him around here."