DENVER — Starting with the Peyton Manning signing, almost every big decision the Broncos front office has made since John Elway took over has worked out.
One exception: the time they tried to draft the “Dougie.”
While zeroing in on Doug Martin in this year’s draft, the Broncos traded away a late-first-round pick, thinking the running back from Boise State would still be there when they picked a few spots later. Their trading partner: Tampa Bay, which used the Broncos’ pick to take Martin 31st in the draft.
The teams meet today with the Broncos (8-3) needing a win to wrap up the AFC West title and the Buccaneers (6-5), with their prize rookie, Martin, trying to stay in the thick of the NFC wild-card chase.
“He was very high on our board,” Broncos coach John Fox says. “He’s a guy that I know our personnel people liked, our coaching staff liked. His success doesn’t surprise me whatsoever.”
Propelled by Martin, fourth in the NFL with 1,050 yards rushing, a strong comeback season from quarterback Josh Freeman and the tough-love approach from first-year coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers are among the league’s biggest surprises.
They have won four of their past five and are tied with Minnesota and Seattle for the NFC’s last wild-card spot.
It was at the end of October that Martin’s potential went on full display. He had 214 combined yards in a 36-17 win over Minnesota on Oct. 25, then ran for 251 yards – the highest total in the league this year – in a 42-32 win over Oakland on Nov. 4.
Schiano says his rookie running back reminds him of Baltimore’s Ray Rice, the 5-foot-8, 215-pound two-time Pro Bowler who Schiano coached at Rutgers. Martin is 5-9, 210.
Though the Broncos failed to land Martin, they still made some productive picks in the draft.
The second-round choice they received from Tampa Bay turned into defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, who has started every game and picked up three sacks.
The Broncos filled their running back needs in the third round by choosing Ronnie Hillman out of San Diego State; Hillman has given the Broncos depth and provided a change of pace. Meanwhile, Knowshon Moreno, a former first-round draft pick out of Georgia, filled in for the injured Willis McGahee last week. He rushed for 85 yards in a 17-9 win over Kansas City and is expected to start again Sunday.
Before starting last week against the Chiefs, Moreno spent eight weeks as a game-day inactive, mostly working on the scout team.
The forgotten back? Hardly.
“He wasn’t forgotten with us,” Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard says. “He’s been kicking our tail on defense. That’s part of the reason why we’ve been so good in our run defense, because the looks that he’s been giving us, it’s like ‘Dude, as soon as you get your chance, you’re going to explode.’”
It doesn’t appear Martin will be relegated to the scout team anytime soon, though last week in a 24-23 loss to Atlanta, the Bucs’ running game was held to 50 yards, its poorest showing of the season.
Tackle Donald Penn said it’s a priority for Tampa Bay to get its running game revved up again against the Broncos. Nobody wants to try to match Manning and the Broncos’ offense pass for pass.
“It’s very important, especially when you look at it in the context of, we kind of took a step back last week and you want to take two steps forward this week,” Penn said.
Of course, Manning and the Denver offense took a step back last week, too.
The Broncos managed only 17 points, the result of two missed field goals, an interception and an inability to string together much momentum against a stubborn Kansas City defense.
The Buccaneers have the league’s last-ranked passing defense, but one that takes big chances and makes big plays. The defense leads the league with 94 plays that have gone for negative yardage. Led by 16-year veteran Ronde Barber (4) and undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson (3), Tampa Bay ranks third with 16 interceptions. The Buccaneers have produced 22 turnovers and converted those into 89 points, fourth most in the league.
“I see a team that’s causing turnovers and their offense is turning those turnovers into touchdowns,” Manning said. “They’re not giving it right back to the other team or settling for field goals. Sometimes it’s 14-point swings.”
The last time Manning faced one of the league’s worst pass defenses was Oct. 28 against New Orleans, then ranked No. 30. He threw for 305 yards and three scores in a 34-14 win. It’s the last time the Broncos’ offense has really clicked for an entire game.
“You’re always trying to play that perfect game,” Manning said. “Whether you can or you can’t, you still strive for that.”
The Broncos could still lose this game and wrap up the AFC West. If San Diego loses to Cincinnati, Denver would win its second straight and 12th overall division title.
Win or lose, the Bucs will have no guarantees, though their next three games are against Philadelphia, New Orleans and St. Louis, none of which has a winning record.
Tampa Bay has taken the league by surprise even if its star rookie, Martin, hasn’t.
“There was a collective agreement,” Schiano said, “that this was a guy that fit what we wanted to do.”