Only two NFL teams didn’t have a 500-yard rusher last year. New England won a Super Bowl without one. Tampa Bay won two games without one.
The Patriots can get by without one. The Buccaneers not so much, which is why new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter channeled his Jacksonville Jaguars past by opening the preseason with four consecutive running plays against a Vikings team that ranked 25th (121.4 yards per game) against the run a year ago.
A leaner Doug Martin, who led the Bucs in rushing with 494 yards and a 3.7 average a year ago, used his cutback ability to gouge the Vikings with consecutive runs of 5, 8 and 7 yards.
“It was a little bit of a concern because you don’t want to start like that,” coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday. “But we had the point of attack taken care of. They were just cutbacks and we overpursued a little bit.”
On the first run, Martin’s initial target was over left guard. Nose tackle Linval Joseph occupied two blockers while middle linebacker Audie Cole stood up the fullback in the hole.
Martin cut right and found an opening because weak-side linebacker Chad Greenway had moved too far into the strong side of the play and was tied up when the left guard came off Joseph.
“I don’t think I want to read too much into those first set of plays,” Greenway said. “But obviously we don’t want to give up that kind of yardage either. Our discipline was pretty good. And at the end of the day, we gave up one first down in those first two drives” with all the starters, except Anthony Barr, in the game.
The second run started straight ahead. Joseph again was stout at the point of attack, causing Martin to improvise with a cut off left tackle. Defensive end Everson Griffen had played the initial point of attack well but was trapped inside on the cutback as Martin slipped free for 8 more yards.
“We’re not concerned about those runs at all,” Joseph said. “We had the right defense. The running back had to abort the mission and try to make yards on his own.”
As with all defenses, Zimmer’s schemes account for the possibility of the cutback with weak-side help that requires patience.
“There’s got to be guys who stay at home,” Greenway said. “There are rules built in for that.”
The third run was targeted off right guard. Once again, Joseph held firm and forced Martin to cut to his right. Left defensive end Brian Robison was lined up wider than normal, creating a gap that strong-side linebacker Gerald Hodges had to fill. Hodges was blocked by the right guard and Martin gained 7 yards.
Tuesday, Zimmer spoke about a fairly significant change he has made in an effort to help the run defense improve up front. It could explain the large gap to Robison’s right on that third run.
“We’ve tried to give the defensive line a little more freedom in some of the things we’re doing,” Zimmer said. “So sometimes when they have a little more freedom, they create a little more space for other guys to have to make up. It’s a fine line right now, but we’re working on a lot of these things so that we can try to create a few more plays.”
Martin’s fourth straight run had no chance from the get-go. Joseph crushed the fullback and Greenway shot in untouched for a 1-yard loss before Martin could react.
So the good news: Joseph, a linchpin in the run defense, played very well, even on the first three runs. And after those three runs, Martin had only two carries for minus-1 yards while the Bucs managed just 69 yards on 23 carries the rest of the game.
“I like how we’re going on run defense right now,” said Zimmer, whose team ranks eighth in run defense (78.5) this preseason. “I think we’ll get some of these things cleaned up and go from there.”