Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran into a problem at the start of their 10-game slide into oblivion. Well, they ran into a lot of problems, but I want to talk about one of them here: the lack of a quality third-down back. In the first loss of that 10-game streak Earnest Graham was lost for the season, and with him the only reliable third-down back on the roster. The Bucs' offense collapsed even further, as Freeman had built a living on getting the ball to Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham on passing downs. The Bucs aim to re-build that element of his game, and the start is there in the form of Doug Martin.
The key to any running back to become productive on passing downs is to being a good pass blocker. The problem with rookie running isn't so much the technique of pass blocking, although that can use some work, but simply getting the assignments right consistently. Pass protections are complex and hard to learn, and a running back must be able to read his keys correctly and execute within fractions of a second. If he doesn't do that correctly, the quarterback gets hit - and no offensive coordinator wants that.
Doug Martin has a leg up on Legarrette Blount in that regard. Blount wasn't used much on third downs the past few seasons, and although the team never commented on why this was the case, it was clear they didn't use him in that role because they didn't feel they could trust him there. So, they resorted to Kregg Lumpkin - who proceeded to get blown up on a regular basis. Whoops. Now, it's entirely possible that Legarrette Blount has picked up his blitz assignments this offseason (in a new system) and will be able to execute properly. If so, he should see some snaps - but he doesn't have much experience doing so, he doesn't have much experience being productive as a receiver, and I don't think he has the physical talent to excel in that role.
Instead, we'll likely see Martin in that role. He has a tremendous amount of experience as both a pass-blocker and a pass-catcher at Boise State, and those skills should translate immediately to the NFL. That was confirmed by Bucs running back coach Earnest Byner to Pewter Report a few days ago:
"The thing that they struggle with most of the time is pass protection and especially nickel pass protection, but I don't think that's going to be an issue with him," Byner said. "He has done some good things. He has some quickness. Doug is really smart, and eager to grab some of the concepts that we are teaching. He is excited to come out here and play for the Buccaneers."
Giving Josh Freeman a reliable third-down back should help him get back on track in 2012, and it should give the Bucs a little more versatility with their personnel packages. The Bucs failed to get Blount involved in the passing game last season, which largely made him a non-factor whenever the Bucs decided to pass the ball. The Bucs now have a running back who can both run the ball and be a productive receiver, and that should help the team establish a quality passing offense.