TAMPA — The men paid to protect Josh Freeman and carve holes open for Doug Martin fell short on both counts in Sunday’s season opener.
The Jets limited the Buccaneers to 250 total yards in an 18-17 victory, deftly carrying out their primary mission: stop second-year running back Doug Martin before he got started.
Martin, who carried only three times in the preseason, was limited to 65 yards in 24 carries while Freeman was sacked three times amid steady pressure.
“We’ve got to play better up front, starting with me,’’ right tackle Demar Dotson said. “There are no excuses. If I was on defense, I’d be trying to stop Doug, too. He’s an explosive running back and we know teams are going to target him. ...We’ve got to block better and give him a chance.’’
Martin’s first six carries gained only eight yards and he rarely had enough of a crease to reach the second level against a New York defense that played well again in Thursday night’s 13-10 loss at New England.
Run blocking has been a chronic problem for the Bucs dating to last year’s late collapse, when a 6-4 start dissolved into a 1-5 finish.
In Tampa Bay’s last seven regular-season games, the Bucs have averaged a mere 3.7 yards per carry. That’s well below the NFL average (4.3), frustrating a veteran offensive line seeking to establish a rhythm.
“We’ve got to get our running game going and help Josh out,’’ said left tackle Donald Penn, who has started 93 consecutive games. “Our defense looked great out there in New York and we’ve got to help them out. We can’t sugarcoat it, we have to step up and get this thing going.’’
Maintaining possession is paramount in Sunday’s home opener against the Saints, who boast the NFL’s No. 1 offense since quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006.
“The main thing from our standpoint is holding onto the football,’’ Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. “We don’t need to give those guys any more possessions than they are already going to have. If we can do that and we’re moving the football, converting third downs and scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, then I think it’s going to be a good day for us.’’
Part of the problem up front is lack of continuity.
Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph missed all of last season with a knee injury and still looks rusty. At left guard, Carl Nicks played well as a key free agent addition in 2012 until a toe injury sidelined him for the final nine games.
Just when Nicks appeared to be recovering from toe surgery, a MRSA staph infection set him back last month.
It was frustrating for Nicks to see his linemates struggle last week.
“It’s still early,’’ Nicks said, “and we’ve got a couple keys that aren’t there, me included. Early in this season we’re a little sloppy and we’ve got to clean it up. It’s simple.’’
Nicks was limited in practice this week and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s matchup against his former teammates.
“Me and Davin haven’t played one game together in the regular season,’’ said Nicks. “That’s bad, but that also could be very great. Hopefully, when I get back out there, we’re just ‘Bash Brothers.’ ”
The New Orleans defense figures to enter Raymond James Stadium with a New York State of Mind, stacking the box to contain Martin while challenging Freeman to beat them downfield.
“I thought Doug ran well and he’ll run well this week,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “No one’s perfect, everybody makes mistakes. Was he 100 percent in his reads? No, not many backs are, but he got a bunch of carries under his belt Sunday and he’s going to get a bunch more this Sunday.’’
Martin didn’t speak to reporters after the Week 1 loss and also declined comment Friday, saying he was too upset to talk after the last-second setback.
“Our performance hurt a lot more with the loss,’’ Dotson said. “If we walked out of there with a win, you could breathe a little better, even though we’d know our line has a lot of stuff to clean up. Not playing up to your capability and a loss? That’s a double shot, man, that’s a double whammy.’’