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Week 5's rendition of Thursday Night Football didn't quite offer what the public expected. The talented Buccaneers offense welcomed an always potent Tom Brady-led scoring unit that had been dragging along a defense allowing the most yards per game in the NFL through four weeks. Natural thought led to a projected high-scoring affair.
However, one encouraging development on Tampa Bay's side of the ball was the return of running back Doug Martin from suspension. And it was a triumphant one. Our eyes can sometimes play tricks on us; we believe we can discern truth just by what we see when, in reality, we are affected by layers of observational biases. Thursday, the eyes didn't lie when it came to Doug Martin. Anyone watching this game could tell he was a true difference-maker for the Buccaneers offense.
Martin was tackled for a loss on just one of his 13 carries. Otherwise, he offered a steadying presence for a Buccaneers offense that, despite all their talent, has yet to truly hit its stride. Steady isn't the adjective often associated with Martin's career, whose ups and downs might be more pronounced than any NFL player in recent memory. Yet, if there's one truth we know for sure it's that his peaks are up in the stratosphere of the best running backs in the game. After a strong showing in the preseason and what we witnessed tonight, it looks like Martin's in for one of his peak seasons.
The Buccaneers' run system and offensive line are well set for a successful rushing attack. In his first three games as the starter, Jacquizz Rodgers averaged 0.68 yards before a defender closed within one yard of him, the seventh-highest mark among backs with 25-plus carries (NFL average - 0.32). It was even better for Martin tonight. He averaged a whopping 1.5 yards before defenders closed, his highest mark since the start of the 2016 season. It's also the 16th best "yards before close" average in a game this season among backs with 10-plus carries.
While Rodgers is a capable fill-in who can function in a well-conditioned running game, he doesn't unlock the high-end potential of this offense that Martin can. The good backs get what's blocked for them. The best backs create for themselves. Martin was excellent in doing so tonight, averaging 4.2 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him, his second-best game over the last two seasons (NFL average - 3.85).
Martin's pristine play also creates a presence that defenders know they must respect. He saw a stacked box on 69.2 percent of his carries Thursday night. It didn't matter much, however, as Martin averaged 5.8 yards per carry on those plays. It was his second-best performance over the last two years against stacked boxes.
It's inarguable; the real and dominant Martin is back in the saddle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's excellent news. Yet, the trouble for the Bucs is that it didn't amount to an overall strong offensive performance or result in a win against New England. When one of your top offensive players is in a groove and you hold Brady and company to under 20 points, you expect to win. Tampa Bay has to be disappointed.
The Patriots' stop unit provided a get-right game for Cam Newton a week after getting touched by a rookie in Deshaun Watson, despite playing in Foxborough for both contests. Their biggest issue through the first four games was their complete inability to rush the passer. Coming into Thursday night, New England's pressure rate of 35.1 ranked 28th in the NFL. Tonight's effort was just as fruitless, posting a pressure rate of just 14.9 against the Buccaneers. Jameis Winston still let those limited heated moments get to him, as he went just 2 of 6 for 19 yards under pressure (defenders within two yards at time of sack or throw). Those plays killed drives and sacrificed forward progress.
Winston also left too many plays on the field, particularly when it came time to take vertical shots. He attempted a deep pass (20-plus air yards) 11 times in this game, the most for any of his games the last two seasons, but completed just three for 71 yards.
The Buccaneers also need to either work with Winston to take more checkdowns or provide him more layup-type throws in the playbook, as the amount of low-percentage throws he's trying is simply untenable. Winston came into this game throwing 29.6 percent of his passes into tight windows (NFL average - 24.2) and sporting a 64.7 passer rating on those throws, ranking 22nd among starting quarterbacks. Against the Patriots, 33.3 percent of his throws checked in as a tight-window attempt. Winston completed just 46.7 percent of those throws for 105 yards, with the one highlight being the fourth-quarter touchdown to Cameron Brate.
The Buccaneers, whether by altering Winston's approach or their own offensive design, must find a way to loosen the rope constricting this pass game to low-percentage plays.
A player who could assist is one Doug Martin. The one-time first-round pick does have the chops in the receiving game, but the Bucs didn't deploy him as such late in this game. Martin was on the field for 11 pass plays in total but saw himself completely phased out in the fourth quarter, going out for just one play. Martin had at least one gaffe at the catch point tonight, but Tampa Bay must hope that's just rust that needs knocking off. The team and its quarterback will need him to be an asset not just as a sustaining runner for this offense, but one who helps open up easier throws.
Thursday, the triumphant return of peak Martin wasn't enough for the Buccaneers to secure a home win. It wasn't even enough for the offense to offer up one of their better outputs. Going forward, given his excellent performance coming off a three-game absence, Tampa Bay can have hope it just got a true difference-maker back in the mix.