In 2011 the Buccaneers shied away from an element that had been a stabilizing factor in their 2010 success, their run game. The drop-off game as the coaches lost faith in the ball-handling of LeGarrette Blount and the team became increasingly undisciplined. A lack of capable, able-bodied backs and the inability to stop opposing offenses from scoring took the Bucs ground game and made it irrelevant on the way to ten straight losses.
This year is going to look a whole lot different. Starting with an overhaul up front and continuing with a new-look backfield and a different coaching staff.
Early on the Buccaneers will need this offensive line to gel and the run game to carry the Buccaneers while Josh Freeman and the revamped receiving corps mesh. Let’s take a look at the Bucs 2012 ground game…
Offensive Line Becomes a Strength
Long gone is Jeff Faine, replaced by Jeremy Zuttah, who will be an upgrade at center. Speaking in terms of adjusted stats (coming courtesy of PFF) Zuttah is one of the more underrated linemen in football, and his not starting last season was inexplicable if not for Faine’s leadership intangible. This year, the talent speaks and Zuttah steps in to upgrade the middle of the line.
On Zuttah’s right is Pro-Bowler Davin Joseph and on his left is newly-signed Pro-Bowler Carl Nicks, that forms one of the best interior offensive lines in the league. Donald Penn should play better with a consistent battery mate at left guard and Jeremy Trueblood (provided it’s him who starts) will round out a very good unit. Last season the Buccaneers line was a liability, with a little reworking and one big addition this line should both protect Josh Freeman’s derriere and open lanes for the runners.
Martin Likely “The Guy”
Like it or not, Doug Martin is likely the bell-cow bell come the start of the season. I have said before I think LeGarrette Blount is perfect for this offense, but questions about his fumbling persist and Greg Schiano wanted his own back.
Doug Martin reminds a lot of people of Ray Rice, one of which is Schiano who could could Rice in college. If that’s the case the Bucs are in good shape. But it’s also important to look at the dimensions Martin adds, he’s a much better blocker and receiver than Blount. He’s a true three-down back and he’ll give the Bucs a lot more flexibility.
He also could be a ROTY candidate, given the Bucs powerful line and stated desire to be a run-first team. Much was made of Trent Richardson, and he may be the better of the backs when all things are even, but they’re not. Joe Thomas is a fine tackle but that Cleveland line is porous and Richardson will have to make a lot of his own space. Martin gets to run behind a group of maulers from day one. Advantage: Martin
From there, I still expect Blount to factor. He’s a nice downhill runner to help milk clock down the stretch with a lead and he’ll definitely be able to change pace for Martin and provide some power for the Bucs between the tackles. Depending on how much the team splits carries, he could still be looking at 600-800 yards this year. I also expect Michael Smith from Utah State to see a little bit of time on the field this year, his speed is undeniable.
The Buccaneers will need to lean on the run-game early as the more nuanced parts of their offense in the passing game gel. But down the stretch it could begin to detract from the potential of this offense. The run-game will be solid for this team all year, but with the talent in the receiving corps and with Josh Freeman at the helm it’s the air attack that has some real potency.
Down the stretch, if Greg Schiano becomes too conservative it’s going to make everything fall apart. Both the pass and run will be highly predicated on balance this year, the team will need to do both evenly to make either a threat. At first, early in the season it will be OK to use the run game as a crutch but down the line it’s going to be essential to unleash the pass, and potentially even become pass-first.