By Max Luckan
It looks like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spiraled into another free fall, as they have now lost four games in a row to average teams after winning four in a row earlier in the season. The Bucs looked like they would be on their way to a playoff berth, but then the four-game losing started with losses to the Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles. And last week, the Bucs embarrassed themselves against the New Orleans Saints, losing 41-0. The Bucs will take on the St. Louis Rams this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and they will look to somehow get back on track.
Defensive Aaron Morgan and tight end Luke Stocker were both limited in practice on Wednesday, but both injuries don't appear to be serious. Morgan is dealing with a banged up shoulder, and Stocker is listed as having a head/nose injury. Both players likely suffered the injuries in last week's game against the Saints.
Against the Rams, the Bucs will look to get back to running the football, which is always a priority. They haven't been able to do that recently because they've been getting behind early in games. As a result, rookie Doug Martin's production has slipped over the past couple of games. Martin has averaged 62.5 yards rushing over the last four games, as opposed to the 148 yards he averaged in the Bucs' four-game winning streak. They haven't been able to run the ball as much as they'd like lately, but Doug Martin's workload has already been significant this year. However, head coach Greg Schiano doesn't plan on limiting Martin in the final two weeks. "One of the things we talked about when we arrived here was establishing a new culture," Schiano said. "Although we've made strides, we're not anywhere close to where we need to be. And I think Doug Martin is part of establishing that new culture.
"I think it would be not a good time in our program's development to say, 'Hey, Doug, why don't you go cool off here,'" Schiano said. "I don't think that's where we are as a program.
"If it was a different set of circumstances, that might be very true. If he was on a veteran-laden team that, for whatever reason, didn't make it to the playoffs this year and had been in it for the last five or six years, we might want to rest him. But that's not the case."
Martin currently has the fourth-most carries in the NFL, and Schiano indicated that Martin won't be slowing down anytime soon. And with the Bucs wanting to run the ball more when possible, Martin's carries may actually increase in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has struggled mightily lately, especially with accuracy. Freeman's taken a lot of hits, but he's generally looked uncomfortable in the pocket, and the Bucs want to fix that before the season ends. For whatever reason, the coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, isn't too worried about Freeman's recent slump.
That's because Sullivan is looking at the season as a whole, and not just at the December struggles. "I think the thing that nobody can argue with is the high level of execution that has been on display at times out there on the field," Sullivan said in his Wednesday press conference. "Not just the deep ball or the game-winning drive versus Carolina. We can go on and on about some of the positives, and you certainly can point (out) some of the things that could improve, that could be better as part of continuing to grow. It's an ongoing process. We are excited (about) the entire body of work."
Certainly, Freeman has had some extremely bright moments, but the fact of the matter is that he's not getting it done as of late. A meaningless game against the Rams might be exactly what Freeman needs to get his confidence back.
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Max Luckan lives in Tampa, FL and is a sports writer covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL. Luckan has been covering the Buccaneers for a few years now. You can find more of his work at Examiner.com.
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