TAMPA — Everyone at One Buc Place knows Doug Martin is the man when it comes to running the football.
But through two preseason games, the men behind Martin are busy making defenders miss and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches take notice.
Rookie Mike James and veterans Peyton Hillis and Brian Leonard are some of the most impressive players on the roster heading into Saturday night’s third exhibition matchup at Miami, where Martin and many Tampa Bay starters figure to see extended playing time.
Leonard, who played for Bucs coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers, showed his versatility in the preseason opener against Baltimore, gaining 23 yards on six carries, including a 3-yard touchdown. He also showcased his blocking skills by deftly picking up blitzers and giving quarterback Josh Freeman more time in the pocket.
On Friday night against New England, with Leonard sitting out at Gillette Stadium, James and Hillis gouged the Patriots run defense repeatedly in a 25-21 setback.
“It was a solid game,” said James, a sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Miami who has been compared to dependable former Bucs running back Earnest Graham. “I was where I needed to be at times, but there are still some things to grow from. It was good to be out there and get an opportunity to show what I can do.”
The Bucs traded up to make James their final 2013 draft selection and he ran for 81 yards on 15 carries at Foxborough. He also caught three passes for 23 yards and scored on a 2-point conversion run, displaying a knack for making the first defender miss.
Hillis, signed only a month ago to a one-year deal as a free agent, is only three years removed from a 1,177-yard rushing season in Cleveland, where he added 61 receptions.
He ran over and through the Patriots on Friday for 73 yards in 18 carries, showing the Bucs braintrust the punishing style that marked LeGarrette Blount’s stellar rookie season in Tampa in 2010.
Blount, traded to New England in April, carried three times for 10 yards against Tampa Bay.
“I thought Hillis and James both had productive games running the football,” Schiano said, “which coincides with some good blocking in the run game.’’
Martin, who finished third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage as a rookie, played sparingly again Friday. He carried once for a 4-yard gain before taking a knee to the helmet late in the opening quarter and leaving the game.
Schiano said Martin showed no concussion-like effects on the flight home from Foxborough, which didn’t land in Tampa until 4:30 a.m.
With fullback Erik Lorig also in the mix, the Bucs have some tough decisions to make regarding their offensive backfield.
“It’s a man’s league,” said James, “and there are a lot of great players out there. The offensive line was doing a great job of opening up holes. I have to work every day, do what I have to do, do all that I can on special teams and run as best I can. Then, I’ll just let the coaches decide the rest.”
With Martin expected to play more on third down this fall, his backups don’t figure to receive many touches while the games are close.
James, Hillis and Leonard know they have to contribute on special teams to maximize their value and earn a spot Aug. 31, when 53-man rosters are finalized.
While James is just trying to get noticed, Leonard and Hillis are attempting to resurrect their NFL careers.
A second-round pick by the Rams in 2007, Leonard has rushed for only 646 yards in his stints with St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Hillis is coming off a forgettable season in Kansas City.
“I’m here trying to do the best that I can,” Hillis said. “I’ve been humbled over the past couple of years. I’m just happy to be in a place they want me and a place where I can try to produce again.”