By Dory LeBlanc
For the first two games of the preseason, teams only play their starters anywhere from a few series to the first quarter, but that all changes in Week 3 when most of the one's will play for the entire first half. Although head coach Greg Schiano does not divulge how much playing-time his starters will get, the Bucs should follow the "first-half trend," aside from a few players still healing injuries (Carl Nicks, Darrelle Revis) and more than their starting running back.
Earlier this week in open locker room, Doug Martin told WDAE's Tom Krasniqi that he wasn't sure how much time he would see against the Dolphins, but last week's scare against the Patriots had nothing to do with it.
"I'm not sure it's up to the coaches and what the trainers say," Martin said. "They're going to do what's better for the team and my personal health," then added, "I'm 100-percent healthy.
"I would like to get some snaps in there, but again, it's the coaches' decision and I'm going to go by that."
Martin and head coach Greg Schiano said the Bucs' workhorse did not suffer a concussion in New England, but when you consider what an asset Martin is to Tampa Bay's offense, there isn't a need to beat him before the regular season starts when you have quite the running back battle brewing behind him.
Between rushing and receiving, Martin touched the ball over 350 times in his Pro Bowl rookie season and if history repeats itself, Mike Sullivan's playbook will be Martin-heavy once again. 350-plus touches heavy? That remains to be seen.
Last year, it became apparent as the 2012 season forged along that the coaching staff didn't feel they had a viable backup and the two RBs not named Doug Martin who carried the ball - LeGarrette Blount and Danny Ware - are no longer with the team.
In their place is a talented stable of players, each bringing a different piece of the offensive puzzle; but the key is finding the two right pieces that can be inserted to make a complete picture, complementing the focal point of the run-game, Martin.
This preseason, we have seen Brian Leonard, Mike James, Peyton Hillis, and Michael Smith play, but teams only carry three running backs on the final roster, and with the first round of cuts scheduled for this Tuesday, tonight's game could make all the difference on who those backs will be.
There is a possiblility that all five RBs make it to New York for the season opener, but that depends on how Hillis has developed in the third down/full back-type role, and if Schiano and Special Teams Coordinator Dave Wannstedt feel that Smith is a viable option in the return game.
Tonight in Miami Gardens, some of the answers to those questions should emerge.
Expect Martin to see the field sparingly (if at all), with the brunt of the carries going to Leonard, James, and Hillis, while Smith sees some action in the return game.
Schiano preaches versatility and competition at every position, and the running back corps is no different.
The upside to Leonard and James is that they can also contribute on special teams, something Hillis does not do, so the former 1,000-yard rusher needs to produce at a high level every down, whether running, catching, or blocking.
Luckily for the Bucs, starting running back isn't one of the tough decisions that lies ahead. However, the coaching staff has the daunting task of figuring out which pieces are the most complementary, and the countdown starts tonight.
Backups, you're on the clock.