TAMPA — If anyone can appreciate the value of a team having two standout tight ends, it’s a head coach without one, sorely missing a Pro Bowl tight end who had topped 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons.
Ron Rivera has seen his Panthers offense struggle with Greg Olsen sidelined with a broken foot and has been impressed by the 1-2 punch the Bucs have in Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard. He will try to contain them Sunday.
"You’re looking for guys that complement one another, and I think both Brate and Howard are guys that do," said Rivera, whose Carolina team plays Bucs at 1 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. "If you’re fortunate enough to have a good tandem, you should be able to make some plays."
Brate caught touchdowns in four straight games earlier this season. Howard had a breakout game Sunday with two scores of his own. Between the two, the Bucs have seven touchdowns from tight ends, the most in the NFL this season.
Going back to the start of 2016, they have 18, matching the Chargers for the league high.
"Once we can get that real fluid and consistent, it will be very hard to stop us," Howard said.
Brate tied for the NFL lead among tight ends last year with eight touchdowns. When Howard was drafted, it looked hard for him to repeat that scoring success. He’s on pace to break the team record he shares with Jimmie Giles, and Howard’s presence looks to have helped more than hurt.
"Having two tight ends that are able to both block and catch, it’s pretty hard for defenses to defend," Brate said. "As long as we keep improving, keep pushing each other, we think the sky’s the limit for us."
Only four times in Bucs history has any tight end caught six or more touchdowns -- Brate last year, and Giles three times between 1979-85. Both are on pace to do so this season.
That falls in line with Dirk Koetter’s tight end history, going back to Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta (8 TDs in 2012 and in 2013) and Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville (10 TDs in 2010).
Howard is on pace to get eight touchdown passes and more than 500 receiving yards. Only three NFL rookie tight ends have ever done that: New England’s Rob Gronkowski in 2010, Atlanta’s Junior Miller in 1980 and Chicago’s Mike Ditka in 1961.
The Bucs called a misdirection play that got Howard wide-open for a 58-yard touchdown against the Giants. His 33-yard TD catch Sunday at Buffalo came on the exact same play.
Bills coach Sean McDermott called it a "sneak route" — everything pointing one way and Howard sneaking through.
"It was crazy. I thought ‘This play probably won’t work (again) until Week 15," Howard said.
The emergence of offense with two prominent tight ends has been fashionable since New England drafted Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010. They combined for 16 touchdowns as rookies and the Patriots went 14-2; in 2014. The Colts got eight touchdowns each from Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and Indianapolis won 11 games and reached the AFC Championship Game.
The Bucs and Panthers are now at opposite ends of the tight end spectrum. Without Olsen, Carolina is one of two NFL teams not to have a tight end score a touchdown. Fleener and Allen have moved on from the Colts, the other NFL team without a tight end touchdown.
There’s an opportunity for Brate and Howard Sunday: The Panthers have already given up four touchdowns to tight ends. Only five NFL teams have allowed more.
"Both are good route-runners, both catch the ball," Koetter said. "O.J. has really good speed, Cam has an uncanny ability to twist his body and get open. I just look at it as two tight ends that can really play."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.