TAMPA — Doug Martin’s teammates are eagerly anticipating Sunday’s opener against the Jets, when the Little Engine That Could of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begins his quest to top a glorious rookie season.
The Bucs kept Martin under protective wraps in August, limiting him to only three carries in the first two exhibition games. The Pro Bowl back didn’t even get on the field in the final two preseason matchups, including a Week 3 game at Miami that featured most of Tampa Bay’s starters receiving extended playing time.
Martin, who ran for 1,454 yards as a first-round draft pick out of Boise State, took a knee to the helmet in the second preseason game at New England that momentarily dazed him, but he said he was healthy enough to play against the Dolphins.
“I wasn’t concerned about a concussion at all,” Martin said. “There’s weren’t any blackout spots.”
Now, Martin can’t wait to come off the shelf and provide enviable balance for the NFL’s No. 9 offense.
“Doug’s a tremendous player,” said Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson. “He’s short (5-foot-9), but he’s explosive and he hits the hole fast. You don’t have to hold your blocks long because once he sees the hole, he’s gone. Last year, he did a lot of stuff on his own. We’d mess up a block and he’d make up for it by making guys miss.”
After finishing third in the league in total yards from scrimmage, Martin may put up even more impressive numbers this fall.
He played sparingly on third down as a rookie, but Martin is likely to stay on the field on the money down in 2013, contributing as both a dangerous receiver out of the backfield and a willing blocker against blitzers.
“The thing I tell myself is not to look back at last year,” said Martin, who was chosen at No. 31 in the 2012 draft after the Bucs traded up to get him. “I went out and played hard. I played my butt off for my teammates and the rest took care of itself. Now, I want to improve on my route running and my blocking. To be an every-down back in this league, you need to pass protect.”
Martin, 24, will do most of his damage cradling the football and turning small cracks into long gains.
“Doug can hide behind us, pop out in the creases and make a lot of good things happen for this football team,” said Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. “I didn’t know much about him in training camp, but once last season started, he took it to another level.”
En route to posting five 100-yard rushing games, Martin also scored 12 touchdowns. His breakthrough performance came Oct. 25 at Minnesota, where he ran for 135 yards and added three receptions for 79 yards.
The following game, Martin scorched the Raiders for a franchise-record 251 yards on the ground, scoring four times and becoming the first player in NFL history with three carries of at least 45 yards in the same game.
“The Bucs have a running back who nobody talks enough about,” said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, the former Tampa Bay coach who follows the Bucs closely. “What a phenomenal rookie year he had.”
With running back coach Earnest Byner on the lookout for any subtle signs of complacency, Martin has no intentions of hitting the cruise control.
“During the offseason, through the workouts, I have no doubt that I am in even better shape than I was last year,” Martin said. “I’m ready to go. I practice at game speed ... and that’s all I need.”
Martin averaged an impressive 9.6 yards per catch on his 49 receptions last year and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan is determined to get the ball to Martin in space, where he has a knack for deking the first defender.
“As long as we somewhat do our job,” Dotson said, “Doug’s going to make things happen. I didn’t know he had that kind of speed, but now I know. So does the rest of this league. Coach Byner has been pushing Doug every day, and there’s no doubt in my mind you’re going to see an even better Doug Martin this season.”