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Could Peyton Barber be Bucs' long-term answer at RB?

GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Somewhere beneath the rubble of coughed-up fumbles, communication issues and blown coverages in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 26-20 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers, running back Peyton Barber again emerged as a diamond-in-the-rough -- a salvageable part on an otherwise totaled vehicle.

The second-year undrafted free agent out of Auburn rushed for 102 yards on 23 carries, the first time a Bucs' running back has eclipsed the 100-yard mark all season. He also led the Bucs with four receptions for 41 receiving yards and finished with 143 yards from scrimmage -- second-most of any Bucs running back in the past two seasons, suggesting he might be the future in Tampa.

"Peyton Barber played an amazing game," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "He was magnificent. When you're running the football and are able to get yards off of screens, the offense has success."

Last week, his two touchdown runs were the lone bright spot in a 34-20 loss against the Atlanta Falcons. He did that stepping in for starter Doug Martin, who missed this week with a concussion.

Where has Martin been?

Martin, a two-time Pro Bowler, hasn't matched levels of his production in previous years, with 376 rushing yards in eight games (47 yards per game). Barber matched Martin's scoring total of two touchdowns for the season in just one game.

The ground game's struggles have frequently been pinned on the offensive line, and many times, deservedly so, as the Bucs have been frequently dominated at the line of scrimmage when running the ball.

The struggling unit lost two starters -- right tackle Demar Dotson and center Ali Marpet -- this week and lost backup center Joe Hawley to illness before Sunday's game. It resulted in in major breakdowns in protection and they surrendered seven sacks.

Yet Barber somehow had success behind this mangled bunch.

"Peyton was unbelievable today, making guys miss, making plays that weren't there," said tight end Cameron Brate. "That was really encouraging that we were finally able to get the ground game going and hopefully build on it."

On Sunday, Barber had 55 yards after contact -- the best of any Bucs running back all season. Barber has also stood out with extra defenders in the box. Against eight or more defenders he has averaged 2.44 yards per carry, a team high. Martin is fourth on the team in that area, with 1.31 yards per carry. To be fair, Barber has only seen stacked boxes nine times while Martin has seen them 29 times. Barber hasn't necessarily had an opportunity to do it though, until now.

Looking toward the future

The 4-8 Bucs can now look toward the future to see if the pieces they have fit. It also helps having Martin out, although you never wish injury on anyone. Sometimes you can't fix what's broken until you can get under the hood and tinker with some things, which is what the Bucs did Sunday.

They gave Barber the bulk of touches, with Charles Sims III and Jacquizz Rodgers getting three carries apiece. Sims contributed two catches for 35 yards and Rodgers returned kickoffs. Had Martin been in there, Barber wouldn't have gotten much work, except maybe in short-yardage situations. Instead, he was an every-down contributor and played a significant role in the screen game, logging 52 snaps.

The last time Martin rushed for 100 yards was Nov. 29, 2015 -- more than two years ago -- and has played 22 games since. He's making $7 million this season and is to make $6.75 million next season, but isn't owed any guaranteed money in 2018. Sims also becomes an unrestricted free agent. Rodgers enters the second year of a two-year deal worth $3.3 million. So the Bucs could theoretically hit the reset button next year, keeping Barber and also making running back a priority in the 2018 NFL draft, hoping to have a similar one-two punch like the New Orleans Saints with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.

Look at the impact rookie running backs are having on their teams and in the league right right now, with Kareem Hunt rushing for 930 yards for the Kansas City Chiefs and Leonard Fournette rushing for 822 for the Jacksonville Jaguars -- both among the top 10 in the NFL. Kamara is leading the league with 7.05 yards per carry, is thriving in the screen game and is tied for a league-high 11 touchdowns from scrimmage. Last season, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard both made the Pro Bowl as rookies, too.