Through four weeks of football, Doug Martin has rushed the ball 100 times, which is eight more attempts than Adrian Peterson, 22 more attempts than current yards leader LeSean McCoy, and 70 more attempts than Ray Rice, who’s played one fewer game, but still, come on.
With all that opportunity to thrive, Martin has instead taken a noticeable step back in his sophomore season. He’s averaging 5.4 fewer yards per game, 1.2 fewer yards per carry, and is on pace to catch a little over half as many balls as last season (his yards per reception is down to 5.0 from 9.6).
So, what’s the deal? With an improved offensive line and a year of experience as a lead back under his belt, this was supposed to be a (even better) breakout season for Martin. Why, instead, has he been so inconsistent?
The most obvious reason has been frustrations from the quarterback position. Josh Freeman was arguably the NFL’s biggest disappointment so far, and has since been benched, and his replacement, Mike Glennon, isn’t exactly Joe Montana.
Having an inexperienced quarterback and no threat of a passing attack allows defenses to stack eight in the box and put increased pressure on all activity at the line of scrimmage. Making the situation even worse, it’s unlikely Glennon has the foresight, confidence, or authorization to audible out of hopeless running plays when the defense is obviously geared towards shutting Martin down.
It basically leaves him hanging out to dry, and no running back (save Adrian Peterson) can withstand a defense that has one more tackler than the offense has guys blocking.
Second, and equally important, are the teams Tampa Bay has played so far. Sixteen game seasons give analysts an extremely small sample size to work with from the start, so it’s often unfair to grade a player or a team based on only four performances. In Martin’s case, this is quite significant due to the extreme talent he’s had to go up against.
The Buccaneers have faced the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, and New England Patriots. According to Football Outsiders, three of these defenses have been nightmares for running backs this season, in different ways.
The Jets rank first overall in Adjusted Line Yards, which measures all running back carries and attributes value based on how successful he is against a defensive line. The Cardinals rank fourth here, and the Patriots rank 29th. However, New England is third best in Open Field Yards.
Open Field Yards measures how well a running back is able to fare after he’s 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, meaning New England’s linebackers and safeties are probably very good tacklers in pursuit—which they are.
The fourth team that hasn’t been mentioned yet is New Orleans, which ranks 26th in Adjusted Line Yards and 30th in Open Field Yards. Through four games they haven’t been very good, and Martin proved that theory correct by ripping through their defense to the tune of 144 yards in 29 carries.
Another obvious concern is the sheer amount of touches on the ground Martin is getting. He isn’t the burliest runner, and after a rookie season with 319 attempts, he’s on pace for 400—49 more than Arian Foster had last season, which led the NFL.
It’s tough to imagine Martin taking that many attempts and staying healthy enough for 16 games. Especially now that defenses are strictly focused on stopping him and him alone whenever they play Tampa Bay. Things might get worse before they get any better.