TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were dealt a big blow when running back Jacquizz Rodgers suffered a sprained foot Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. With Rodgers not expected to play against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, the Bucs will start their fourth different running back this season.
That's significant considering how much the Bucs have depended on the ground game. Since Week 5, when Rodgers rushed for 101 yards against the Carolina Panthers, they've averaged 35 rushing attempts per game, second only to the Tennessee Titans for most in the league.
So who gets the nod against the Falcons?
"When you have three guys who have been here short-term -- other than Peyton [Barber], the rookie -- your roles aren’t very clearly defined right now," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "So, we’re trying to patch it together, one week at a time until we get some reinforcements back.”
Koetter was asked if they're doing things by committee this week. He responded, "Very good."
With that in mind, here's a look at the Bucs' running back situation and how each player can best contribute Thursday:
After Rodgers, Smith has the most familiarity in Koetter's system, having played three seasons for him in Atlanta, but in a limited role. That's the same reason Koetter trusted Rodgers to step into action the very first week he signed with the club, and that's why when Rodgers went down with injury late Sunday, Smith stepped into a bigger role.
"We’re using him, I guess if we’re going to put guys in a box, we’re using him somewhat as a third-down back, but that’s not his only role right now," Koetter said. At 5-foot-9, 192 pounds, Smith tends to look better in space, similar to Charles Sims, although he doesn't have Sims' hands. He's not as explosive as Doug Martin or Rodgers in between the tackles, or even Barber. But he's fast. He ran a 4.33 coming out of college and actually clocked a 4.25 in high school. He's a great option in the screen game.
Barber, a rookie who signed with the club as an undrafted free agent right after the draft, is the most inexperienced of the bunch. He's got nice burst, which is why Koetter went with him on fourth-and-1 against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago after Rodgers mustered 1 yard on third-and-2. He came up just short, but had a monster 44-yard touchdown run later in the game. He had the most extensive action in that game he's seen so far this season, where he had 12 touches.
It was somewhat baffling that in the next game, against Oakland, Barber ran the ball only one time. Did Koetter simply not have confidence in Barber when the game went into overtime and Smith touched the ball three times on a single drive that went three-and-out?
"Everyone that’s on our team, I have full confidence in," Koetter said.
When asked if Barber would have a heavier workload this week, Koetter responded, “It’s probably going to happen ... . But, we’ll be playing more than one halfback.” How much does Koetter want to put on the plate of a rookie in a crucial division game? He's a much different back than Smith. He doesn't have the speed you see from Smith in the open field, but he's got good size (5 foot 11, 225 pounds).
James is the wild card here, having just re-signed with the team this week and having his first practice Tuesday after spending nearly a month on the Detroit Lions' practice squad. A sixth-round draft pick by the Bucs in 2013, James saw action in 19 games with the Bucs the past two years, including three starts. In 2013, he had 60 carries, rushing for 295 yards with an impressive 4.9 yards-per-carry average. He also had 10 catches for 43 receiving yards. His best game came against the Seahawks, where he rushed for 158 yards on 28 carries and he threw a touchdown pass to Tom Crabtree.
James had made the Bucs' 53-man roster after training camp this year and was set to be their No. 3 running back. But he suffered an injury and was waived after reaching an injury settlement with the club, which meant that even after he healed he couldn't return to the club for six weeks. But he could sign with another team, which is why he ended up in Detroit.
Koetter wouldn't even acknowledge James was on the roster Tuesday because it wasn't official yet, but he was practicing on special teams, suggesting he will play Thursday. But to what degree? His previous performances indicate he's perfectly capable of handling a heavy workload, but how quickly does Koetter's offense return to him, especially on a short week?
Only four other teams have already started three different running backs through the first eight weeks of the season -- the Lions, Giants, Vikings and Dolphins. It's a tough predicament and one that the Bucs haven't been in very often. In fact, the last time the Bucs started four running backs through eight games was in 2007 with Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham, Michael Bennett and Michael Pittman.
Don't put too much emphasis on who actually starts, though. Koetter might be taking a committee approach. But if a running back gets hot, Koetter will likely ride that momentum. It will probably be a mix of Smith and Barber, with Smith more likely to get looks and getting work in the passing game, too.
If Barber sees work, it will likely be on the tough yards inside. Depending on how quickly he can reabsorb the playbook, James could see action, but his role will probably be limited with more opportunities possibly coming next week.