The last time Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin was in the "Break It Down" spotlight, he had just run for 251 yards and four touchdowns against Oakland. Since then, over a four-game span, he's rushed for 312 yards and 2 TDs -- in the Buccaneers' Week 12 and Week 13 losses, Martin averaged 53 yards per game.
That drop-off left Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano to answer questions about Martin possibly hitting the proverbial rookie wall. Schiano shot that notion down, instead crediting the Falcons and Broncos' defenses (and blaming Tampa Bay's deficits against both those teams) for Martin's slowed production.
Martin, meanwhile, said after Sunday's 31-23 setback in Denver that the Broncos' defense "seemed to have a better scheme than us."
So, is the explanation for Martin's recent struggles as simple as all that? Is it just a combination of playing better defenses and pass-heavy play calling that is limiting the rookie back?
In an attempt to get that figured out, we're breaking down Martin's Week 13 game against Denver ...
Martin's first carry of the second quarter gives us a pretty solid idea of what he and the Bucs' offense were looking at all day. Denver likes to shift its defensive formations (more on that from another past "Break it Down"), but their base is a 3-4, often with Von Miller (No. 58) and Elvis Dumervil (No. 92) lined up wide in rush positions.
From the perspective of the Bucs, a team that would prefer to be run-first, that's a tough setup to deal with -- not only does it put five defenders up on the line and seven in the box, but it sets the edge with two athletic linebackers.
The blocking when Martin took the handoff on this play was decent, but things go south in a hurry for Tampa Bay. Before Martin can even rev up his engine, Wesley Woodyard (No. 52) had flown inside and filled the hole, while Keith Brooking (red X below) was fighting for position with Buccaneers center Ted Larsen.
That hole that Martin was headed toward vanished.
By the time Martin reached his spot, it had vanished, with three Denver players beating their blocks and Justin Bannan standing his man up to fend off any cutback lane.
Martin has done a lot of his damage this season by finding that second option -- bouncing outside or cutting back inside once his initial gap closes. However, he did not have time to find a possible opening to his left, and wound up with nothing inside.
Is this purely a blocking problem? Remember that the Bucs lost starting guard and 2011 All-Pro Carl Nicks to injury late in October, forcing them to reshuffle along the interior.
But that Oakland win (and Martin's huge day) came without Nicks in the lineup. It's not as if Denver was the first team to stack up against the run when playing Tampa Bay, either. Notice the difference, though, between the play above and the one below, from that Oakland game.
There were seven Raiders defenders in the box, plus an eighth coming on a blitz wide. All but one was cleared out with a block, giving Martin his choice of avenues into the secondary.
Let's jump back to Sunday and take a look at Martin's first carry. The Broncos lined up with their 3-4, complete with Dumervil and Miller wide on the line. They then brought a safety blitz to Josh Freeman's blindside -- which should have provided Tampa Bay a boost, seeing as how their toss headed away from that blitz.
The same issues as on Martin's run up the middle presented themselves, though:
1. Tampa Bay's blockers only do an adequate job -- TE Luke Stocker (No. 88) didn't get over fast enough to seal off his man, meaning there were multiple defenders crashing to Martin's backside.
2. RT Demar Dotson (69) pulled out in front of Martin ... but failed to even chip Miller (red X), leaving arguably the NFL's top defender to string Martin out wide without having to fight through a block.
3. Martin missed the cutback lane off Jamon Meredith's (No. 79) left -- there was not a lot of space there, but Martin has made big plays out of less.
The result: Three yards.
Compare that to ...
That's one of Martin's long TD runs from the Raiders game, and it came as the Buccaneers ran away from a blitzing defender out of the secondary. The difference: It's blocked perfectly, with Tampa Bay sealing the edge and multiple Bucs teammates paving the way in front of Martin.
On a similar play against Denver, Tampa Bay did not close off any of Denver's pursuit angles, closing Martin in.
One of Martin's bigger runs Sunday -- a measly 9-yarder -- occurred not at the planned point of attack, but rather on one of those cutbacks. This has been a killer weapon for Tampa Bay's run game all season, because when the linemen, fullback and tight ends win battles up front, it frees the extraneous blockers to pave a secondary path.
Case in point:
The white arrow is where the play was designed; the yellow arrow is where Martin ran. Tampa Bay generated a push up front, driving Denver's defenders back, while also sealing off the Broncos to Martin's right.
While Martin did not gain nearly as much yardage, that type of blocking is what led to this TD run against Oakland:
Those opportunities were few and far behind last Sunday, which brings us back to Martin's comments about the Bucs' scheme. In the second half, as Schiano pointed out, Tampa Bay faced too big of a deficit to properly use Martin -- he had just three carries over the final two quarters.
In the first half, though, the Bucs put the ball in Martin's hands with only average results. The play calling was not noticeably different than in past games.
But what did stand out was how Denver reacted to it.
Here's a run play to the right, with Tampa Bay in the I-formation and a tight end in that direction. The Broncos' entire front seven crashes hard to their left (where the play headed) immediately at the snap, with no hesitation.
Did they know the play was coming because of the formation? Did they just guess right?
Whatever the answer, Martin was dead to rights.
Denver aggressively attacked Martin and Tampa Bay's front all day, with almost no regard to the pass -- the Broncos were content to play man coverage with one deep safety almost all game.
That approach allowed them to do things like this, where the five-man front is aided by matching blitzes from a linebacker and safety:
And again, Denver simply overwhelmed Tampa Bay's front from all angles, thus taking away Martin's targeted run zone up the middle and preventing him from finding a plan B.
Maybe Martin missed a hole or two in Sunday's loss to Denver or maybe he was a little more tentative getting to the line, but in reality, he did not appear to be running on fumes. Certainly not enough to proclaim that he's run out of gas in his rookie season.
His argument about "scheme," however, holds water -- mainly because that term is so all-encompassing.
Tampa Bay's run blocking was mediocre on Sunday (with some credit due, obviously, to Denver's talented defense), from the interior linemen on out to Stocker. But more than that, the Broncos seemed to have a terrific feel for what Tampa Bay planned to do on the ground, not only at the initial point of attack but the secondary ones as well. As a result, in addition to losing the battle at the line of scrimmage, the Buccaneers also failed to catch Denver off-guard at any point via the run game. Perhaps some more creative play calling could help there, but unless Tampa Bay rediscovers its mojo as a blocking unit, Martin may continue to have issues.