The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4) have crept back into the NFC playoff picture behind an explosive offense this franchise hasn't since the days of Doug Williams, Ricky Bell and Jimmie Giles.
The Buccaneers rank third in scoring, 12th in total offense and 11th in rush offense. While those yardage totals don't pop off the screen, the fact that Tampa Bay averages nearly 29 points per game is indicative of the explosiveness of the unit. In fact, the Buccaneers have scored 30-plus points in four of their past five games, and their emergence as one of the most explosive offenses in football has sparked the team on a three-game winning streak.
The "Muscle Hamster" is the real deal.
Doug Martin earned rave reviews for his rock-solid game in scouting circles prior to the 2012 NFL Draft, but few expected the former Boise State star to take the league by storm as a rookie. Martin, however, has emerged as one of the top runners in the NFL, ranking fifth in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns. Most impressively, Martin has produced four runs of 40-plus yards.
While those numbers certainly back up the assertion that Martin has quickly developed into one of the NFL's most dangerous backs, it wasn't until I extensively studied the All-22 footage that I developed a true appreciation for his game. In studying the tape, I came away impressed with Martin's combination of strength, power and quickness. At 5-foot-8, 223 pounds, Martin runs with a low center of gravity and uses his leverage to blow through defenders upon contact. The first defender on the scene rarely brings Martin down, which is the mark of a hard-nosed, physical runner.
In traffic, Martin displays sneaky elusiveness and wiggle. He frequently avoids multiple defenders with nifty cuts and stop-start moves. Although his movements appear a bit unorthodox or herky-jerky at first glance, Martin's exceptional balance and body control stand out on tape. It is not uncommon to see Martin escape a crowd with two or three defenders in the hole, and his elusiveness makes him a big-play threat when he reaches the second level.
In the following screengrab from Tampa Bay's Week 8 win shellacking of the Minnesota Vikings, the Buccaneers are in an offset I-formation with Martin at tailback. A draw play is called to the right in the A-gap:
Martin takes the handoff and heads through the assigned hole, but sees a crease available to the left behind a double-team block:
The following end-zone shot shows you the remarkable vision and anticipation Martin displays when making the cut to the backside. He reads the solid block of the double-team and senses the unblocked Vikings defender running over the top, leaving an open lane available:
Martin scooted through that open lane for a 41-yard gain.
Despite the fact that he's only played nine NFL games, there already are numerous examples of Martin finding creases in the middle and exploding for big gains. Click on the video to your right to see another jaw-dropping scamper.
Martin is also a standout receiver out of the backfield. He is a natural pass catcher with strong hands and solid receiving skills. The Buccaneers capitalize on Martin's ability by routinely getting him the ball on screens, swings and check-downs. With Martin emerging as one of the toughest ball carriers to bring down in space, Tampa Bay has been able to produce big plays in the passing game with minimal risk.
Josh Freeman has regained his swagger.
After suffering through a miserable 2011 campaign, Freeman is playing at a Pro Bowl level in his fourth season. He has compiled a 98.2 passer rating and sports an 18:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio through nine games. Most importantly, Freeman has tossed at least two touchdown passes in five straight games (13 total), with only two turnovers during that span.
As I broke down the All-22 footage, the first thing that stood out to me was Freeman's improved physical conditioning. He looks trimmer than he appeared last season, and his improved fitness has resulted in better footwork and quickness within the pocket. Consequently, Freeman is delivering accurate strikes with exceptional zip and velocity. While this isn't reflected in his completion percentage (56.8), it is apparent in film study that Freeman's improved conditioning has led to more consistent mechanics.
Freeman also is making better decisions in the pocket. He is frequently hitting the check-down or safety valve in the route progression, instead of forcing balls to the primary receiver. By avoiding contested throws into traffic, Freeman has reduced his number of tipped and deflected passes, which has led to fewer interceptions.
Freeman has shown a better commitment to working the middle of the field, too. Part of this can be attributed to having two solid options (WR Tiquan Underwood and TE Dallas Clark) working between the hashes, but increased understanding of coverages also comes into play. On obvious passing downs, most teams will utilize some form of two-deep coverage with the corners rolled up on the outside. This coverage prevents most throws outside of the numbers, but leaves available windows in the deep area down the middle and in the underneath void in front of the linebackers. Freeman has exploited opponents' usage of the coverage by repeatedly hitting short and intermediate crossers between the hashes. He also will drop the ball off to the back on a circle route or check-down, allowing the pass catcher to pick up positive yardage after the reception.
With Freeman willing to methodically pick apart opponents with short, crisp throws, the Buccaneers' offense has been able to pick up first downs, sustain drives and consistently score points.
Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams might be the NFL's best 1-2 combo.
When the Buccaneers plucked Jackson off the free-agent market, few expected the Pro Bowler to team with Williams and form one of the most explosive receiving tandems in the NFL. However, the duo has been sensational through the first nine weeks of the season, and opponents have been unable to contain either playmaker on the perimeter.
Jackson, an eighth-year pro with 43 career touchdown catches, leads the team with 769 receiving yards on only 36 grabs. He sports a robust 21.4 yards per catch average and is one of the most feared vertical playmakers in the NFL. At 6-5, 230 pounds, Jackson uses his huge frame and explosive athleticism to snare jump balls downfield. Jackson was a prolific high school basketball player in Colorado, and he relies on that experience to box out defenders on the perimeter. With Jackson adept at using his body to ward off defenders from the ball, Freeman has become comfortable throwing 50/50 balls in his direction without fear of an interception.
In looking at some of Jackson's biggest plays this season, I've noticed that most have occurred on vertical routes against defenders on the outside. Jackson does a great job of setting up his defender at the line of scrimmage and stacking him down the field to maintain excellent position when the ball arrives.
Jackson fights through Huff's jam at the line of scrimmage and heads up the field on a fade pattern:
After winning at the line of scrimmage, Jackson works hard to stack Huff behind him to prevent the defender from making a play on the ball:
With Freeman delivering a pinpoint pass to the back of the end zone, Jackson is able to snag the ball before the safety arrives for a 20-yard touchdown:
Jackson is also an exceptional double-move route runner. He shows rare body control for a big receiver, and the Buccaneers capitalize on his skills by routinely running stutter-go routes to sneak him behind the defense.
Click on the video to your right to see Jackson run a pump route (fake square-in and go) against the Raiders for a 64-yard gain.
Williams, a third-year pro with 161 catches and 19 touchdowns in 40 starts, is a big-bodied playmaker with extraordinary hands and receiving skills. At 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, he boasts an enviable combination of athleticism, body control and balance. Williams regularly comes down with the tough catch while displaying ballerina-like footwork near the sideline. He also shows rare awareness for a young pass catcher. Those skills have allowed him to thrive against defenders on the opposite side of Jackson.
To take advantage of Williams' skills, the Buccaneers will frequently put him in motion and run him on an assortment of crossing routes or out-breaking routes to the sideline. This allows him to utilize his size and strength to bang defenders early in routes before running away from them across the field. In addition, Freeman will frequently throw the ball high and outside to allow Williams to snare the ball away from the outstretched arms of defenders.
In the next screengrab (also from the Raiders game), the Buccaneers are in an offset I-formation with Williams aligned as the flanker. Prior to the snap, Williams will motion close to the tight end to create a crack-block alignment:
On the snap, Williams will burst up the field to execute a corner route against Huff:
Williams makes a hard break at the top of the route and sprints for the pylon at the front of the end zone:
With Williams' imposing size and steep angle to the ball, preventing Huff from breaking in front of the throw, Freeman has a nice window to complete an easy 4-yard touchdown pass:
Williams also displays sneaky big-play ability on vertical routes. Although he isn't a blazer by track standards, Williams runs past defenders on deep routes by using clever stems and fakes in his routes. The Buccaneers often align him on the outside of the formation and allow him to work a double move against single coverage to produce a big play. Click right here to see Williams run past the San Diego Chargers' secondary for a big gain.
With Williams and Jackson serving as a lethal 1-2 punch, the Buccaneers have an effective counter for every conceivable defensive tactic, and that is enough to make Tampa Bay a team to watch heading down the stretch.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.