TAMPA — NFL teams are full of situational players: the third-down pass-rusher, the deep-threat speed receiver, the short-yardage back.
And as specific roles go, there are worse to be saddled with than being one of the NFL’s most reliable go-to targets in the red zone.
If the Bucs are inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, that team knows Jameis Winston is likely throwing to Cameron Brate in the end zone, and they still struggle to stop it.
"We have a pretty good feel for what the other wants in any situation, but especially in the red zone," the 26-year-old Harvard graduate said of his connection with Winston. "That just comes through more reps together and experience playing with each other."
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Since the start of the 2016 season, Brate has 13 red-zone touchdown catches — across the entire NFL, Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson (16) is the only player with more. When Brate caught a 28-yard touchdown pass Sunday against the Packers, it was the first time in his four NFL seasons that he scored from outside the 20.
"I think Cam is very consistent," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "He spends a lot of time with Jameis, which usually is the case when you develop that rapport. The consistency of his route-running and the rapport he has with Jameis, I think, are the biggest part of it. He’ll make contested catches down there."
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said Brate’s ability to get open in the end zone is a by-product of defenses respecting Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans with consistent double coverage near the goal line, giving Brate a one-on-one.
"For the last three years I’ve been here, basically Mike Evans gets doubled every time we get inside the 10-yard line," Koetter said. "If he gets doubled, unless they rush three, everybody else gets singled. Cam has taken full advantage of that."
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On Sunday, Winston-to-Brate on third down from the 11-yard line gave the Bucs the lead on the Packers with six minutes left at Lambeau Field, but Tampa Bay couldn’t hold on. Eight of Brate’s 17 career touchdowns have come in the fourth quarter, so he’s earned Winston’s confidence in such clutch situations.
"He’s one of the hardest workers out there on the field," said Winston, who frequently sticks around after practice for extra throws with Brate. "We have a lot of reps together. Any time you have a mismatch in the red zone, you want to try to take advantage of it, and Cam Brate vs. numerous linebackers and safeties is a huge mismatch for us."
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No team in the NFL has given up more red-zone touchdowns than Detroit, which comes to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Brate had eight touchdowns last year, tying the team record for a tight end, and he has six now with four games to play.
The Bucs included the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Brate in their promotional materials for the Pro Bowl this past week. Seattle’s Jimmy Graham and Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz have better numbers, but if either can’t go to Orlando on a Super Bowl conflict, you could make a case for Brate as the next-best NFC tight end.
As long as teams make covering Evans a priority in the red zone, Brate will be there to take advantage of the lack of attention on him. The Bucs have thrown 14 red-zone passes to Evans, getting three touchdowns; Brate has gotten 13 such passes and has scored on a team-best five of them.
The idea of Pro Bowl consideration is new enough to Brate that he had to be reminded that the game is now played in Orlando, not Hawaii, but he’d still like to go.
"It would be cool if it was in Hawaii. I’ve never been," he said. "Orlando’s pretty nice that time of year, short drive over, so that’d be pretty cool."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman on Twitter.