Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Doug Martin

Film Room: Doug Martin
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

This has been a hugely unpredictable season.

Few expected the Carolina Panthers to be the last unbeaten team, and even fewer expected them to be unbeaten into the final quarter of the regular season. Peyton Manning was supposed to drop off as age continued to take its toll, but he wasn't supposed to become a hindrance on a team that won seven of its first nine games before benching him. While most were excited about Jameis Winston's prospects to be successful in the NFL from the start of his rookie season, few expected him to produce so much so quickly. Even fewer expected Marcus Mariota to keep pace and arguably outperform him. The rookie class also offered up a running back who entered the season coming off an ACL tear before becoming perhaps the best back in the league.

If Todd Gurley is not that best back, then the contest for that title comes down to one player who everyone expected to be great in Adrian Peterson, and one who has shocked the league in Doug Martin.

Martin has had a peculiar career. He is the only remaining back from the first round of the 2012 draft, a draft that featured both Trent Richardson and David Wilson. The Buccaneers traded up to select Martin ahead of the New York Giants at the bottom of the first round that year. He immediately set about rewarding the franchise for its aggressiveness, finishing his first season with 319 attempts for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also added 49 receptions for 472 yards and one touchdown. Martin averaged 4.6 yards per carry, had a long run of 70 yards, and fumbled just once. He was set to become a staple of the Buccaneers' success. A foundation of their offense. A back who could play every down and contribute in every possible way.

Instead, Martin slumped through his next two seasons. He played just six games in 2013 because of a torn labrum. Before going to IR, Martin had accumulated just 456 yards on 127 carries (3.6 yards per carry) while scoring just one touchdown and fumbling twice. He was barely being used in the passing game, managing just 12 receptions for 66 yards in six games. Injuries would hit again in 2014 when Martin played just 11 games. Despite playing five more games in 2014 than 2013, he carried the ball just seven times more. Martin averaged 3.7 yards per carry for 494 yards and two touchdowns while also becoming less relevant in the passing game (13 catches and 64 yards).

Martin's initial season in the NFL established high standards, and whenever you do that early in your career, onlookers will treat your subsequent failures with more cynicism. Understanding Martin's second-season failures required less cynicism and more appreciation of nuance. The Buccaneers put Martin in a position where he needed to elevate his teammates. His offensive line wasn't capable of consistently creating space for him, so he was forced to work in tight spaces and manipulate defenders to get to and past the line of scrimmage. This was possible against average and subpar defenses, but not against the best run defenses in the NFL.

Martin's season-long numbers for 2013 are misleading because a huge percentage of his carries went against the first- and second-ranked run defenses by DVOA for that year. Martin carried the ball 51 times for 110 yards against the Arizona Cardinals (first) and New York Jets (second). In his four other games he faced the 20th-, 27th-, 11th-, and 26th- ranked run defense in the league. In those games, he carried the ball 76 times for 346 yards. That works out to 2.2 yards per carry against the Jets and Cardinals but 4.6 against the other teams he faced. Criticizing Martin for those unproductive displays would be foolish. More often than not, he literally had nowhere to go in those games.

Although the sample was bigger in 2014 and Martin didn't finish the season on IR, his lack of production was once again largely a result of issues he couldn't control. Optimism from Martin's rookie season had carried through until 2014 for some, but when a player's struggles are prolonged, the context to explain those struggles often become tagged as excuses.

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Martin then entered the 2015 season behind another limited offensive line and in an offense that was shifting its weight onto rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. The Buccaneers were supposed to be more of a pass-heavy team, and there was even talk of Martin being disposable because of the presence of Charles Sims.

New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter planted himself in Martin's corner and the running back rewarded him by losing weight to return to his physical peak. With Martin staying healthy and explosive, Koetter had a back who could excel with his help. Koetter helped by employing a diverse running scheme.

So far this season, Martin has 256 carries for 1,305 yards (5.1 yards per attempt) and five touchdowns, He also has 25 receptions for 205 yards and one touchdown despite not being the team's primary option on third downs. Against the St. Louis Rams in Week 15, Martin and Winston combined for a critical error on a fumbled handoff, but aside from that play Martin was hugely productive. He carried the ball 18 times for 91 yards, which is coincidentally 5.1 yards per attempt, and had one reception for 6 yards. Save for when Aaron Donald was blowing up the backfield, Martin mostly had it easy against the Rams run defense. The Rams rank 12th in run defense DVOA but are less consistent against the run on a weekly basis than that rating suggests. Martin is one of four backs this year who has averaged 5.0 yards per attempt or more against the Rams.

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The Rams are inconsistent against the run because they are largely reliant on their defensive line to disrupt plays. If their defensive line doesn't win, their linebackers struggle to get off blocks. With Koetter mixing up his play calls, the linebackers were exposed even more than usual. In the above play, the Buccaneers use zone blocking with Martin running towards right tackle Gosder Cherilus, who has a difficult block to execute. Cherilus has to get out of his stance and reach the left defensive end, who aligned wide of him at the snap. He successfully locates the edge defender, but is unable to move him. Cherilus holds the edge, but he is being walked backwards as he does, and the defender has enough control to shed him inside.

Martin is quick to recognize that he won't be given a clean running lane inside the right tackle. Instead of working hard to force the ball towards the sideline, Martin smartly cuts back infield. He shows excellent footwork to quickly shift his weight and maintain his balance to advance upfield. He has a clean running lane because the linebacker on the second level, Akeem Ayers, was soft at the point of contact against the Buccaneers' left guard. Ayers shied away from a strong right arm that was thrown in his direction.

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Having run zone to the outside, the Buccaneers came back with a power run from a heavy set formation. In the first play, the Buccaneers had a tight end and fullback on the field, but the fullback was offset. On this play, they come out with the same personnel package but the fullback is now in line behind his quarterback and in front of Martin. When the ball is snapped, the center, right guard, right tackle, and tight end to the right side of the field all block down to leave the left defensive end unblocked. The fullback accounts for the defensive end while left guard Logan Mankins pulls around to act as a lead blocker for Martin. Michael Brockers is the only Rams defender to beat his blocker (something he does with ease) but he is on the backside of the play.

Martin has a completely clean running lane through which to advance because James Laurinaitis is comfortably neutralized by Cherilus and Ayers is cleaned out by Mankins. The running back doesn't hesitate. He immediately recognizes the space in front of him and attacks it as aggressively as you could ever expect him to. That aggression, combined with his acceleration and strength, allows him to keep moving forward through Aaron Donald's arm tackle before falling to the ground for a good gain.

Koetter uses Martin's whole skill set, looking to attack both sidelines as well as working between the tackles with traps and toss plays. His most impressive alterations are more subtle though. The coach takes plays that he has already used and adds a wrinkle to deceive the defense.

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On this zone run, Koetter pulls his center to target box safety Mark Barron. Martin runs towards his right tackle like he did before, but his right guard is sealing off the inside defender instead of advancing forward. Barron needs to shoot the gap in front of him immediately, but he's wary of the line flowing to his side and the potential for the right guard to peel off of his initial block to push him out of the play. As soon as Barron hesitates, he is defeated because he has no chance of taking on a pulling offensive lineman. Again, Martin is really quick to and through the hole in front of him.

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Before the ball is snapped on this play, the Rams have an obvious concern with just three defenders to the left side of the center. The Buccaneers have three blockers to that side plus a fullback offset to the other side who could easily work his way across the field. The Rams have five defenders on the opposite side of the field -- five defenders who will quickly find themselves trapped on the backside of the play. Laurinaitis is the linebacker on the second level within those five defenders. He has his eyes on Martin at the snap and Martin draws him upfield by initially moving in his direction. The running back is setting up a counter run to the other side of the field, though.

The play isn't spectacularly executed in terms of blocking, but Martin is fluid enough to bend away from the initial penetration before using his feet to get past the second defender from the left side of the defensive line.

Martin's blocking has been better this year than in seasons past, but it hasn't been spectacular. He has not being given the same kind of space that DeMarco Murray was receiving from the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line last season. Instead, the running back is often being forced to create yards by breaking tackles or working in tight spaces behind the line. Those plays were rarer against the Rams, but they still existed.

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In the above GIF, the Rams are able to box Martin in by dominating Tampa Bay's tight end to the left and center to the right. The tight end is pushed back so far that he takes away the initial running lane that Martin wants to attack. Martin's second option would have been behind the center's back, but the center's back was on the ground -- Joe Hawley had been completely run over by Brockers. Brockers should get a tackle for loss even as he falls to the ground, but an outstanding jump cut from Martin allows the back to skip across the defender's body. A second and third defensive lineman are able to reach the running back, but he keeps his limbs tight to his body as he accelerates downfield.

Not only does Martin prevent this play from losing yardage, he is able to get to a point where a second-level linebacker is dragging him down from behind to prevent a one-on-one situation in space against the safety.

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The best backs in the league can turn nothing into something with their awareness. However, they can't do it on every single play. They need to have an avenue that gives them a chance to advance downfield. In the above play, Martin is supposed to follow his blocking and escape outside after catching the toss behind the line of scrimmage. However, both of his key blockers to the outside are beaten, and Martin recognizes this immediately. He scans the field in front of him as he completely stops his momentum before locating a cutback lane. Martin never completely stops his feet, which is vitally important because he had to accelerate past Aaron Donald's outstretched arms behind the line of scrimmage. He is able to get to the second level, evading one more defender before forcing his way through the final tackle attempt to finish the play falling forward. Martin gained 8 yards on a play that didn't work.

Martin is breaking tackles at a great rate this season. In Sports Info Solutions charting numbers through Week 12, Martin led the league with 61 broken tackles. Martin turns 27 in January, and he will enter free agency as one of the most highly sought-after backs in the league. The Buccaneers did have an opportunity to prevent him from hitting free agency, but they declined the fifth-year option at the end of his rookie deal. They did that before this season, and it was a decision that made a lot of sense at the time. Martin's performances since then, though, will undoubtedly have them regretting it now.


1 comment, Last at 23 Dec 2015, 1:01pm