Why isn’t anyone covering Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard?

In his first five games, O.J. Howard caught five passes for 107 yards and one touchdown. Against the Bills last Sunday, he caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
In his first five games, O.J. Howard caught five passes for 107 yards and one touchdown. Against the Bills last Sunday, he caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published October 27 2017
Updated October 27 2017

Hey, NFL, you might want to start paying attention to O.J. Howard.

Because not covering him isn’t working.

The Buccaneers rookie tight end caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns against the Bills last Sunday. All of which were career highs.

On one of those passes, Buffalo left him wide open, and he scored a game-tying 33-yard touchdown.

It’d be one thing if Darren Sproles was running routes for the Bucs. But we’re talking about a 6-foot-6, 251-pound giant in a jersey featuring alarm clock numbers. How do you lose him?

On the first-and-10 play, the Bucs deftly disguised their intentions. They came to the line in 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends (Howard and Cameron Brate) and two receivers. Howard lined up next to the right tackle, and Brate lined up next to Howard. Anticipating a run, the Bills shifted their linebackers to the two-tight-end side of the formation.

After faking the handoff to Doug Martin, Jameis Winston rolled to the right and looked to DeSean Jackson crossing over the middle. He sold at least four defenders that Jackson was the target.

In the meantime, Howard, who appeared to be run blocking, leaked out to the left side of the field and down the sideline undetected.

Buffalo obviously didn’t mean to leave Howard uncovered. The Bucs laid the trap, and the Bills took the cheese. It’s hard to blame them. Quarterbacks rarely make such throws across their bodies.

But that wasn’t the first time Winston had fooled a defense like that. He and Howard connected on a similar play for a 58-yard touchdown three weeks earlier against the Giants.

The personnel was different — one running back, three tight ends and one receiver — but the disguise and misdirection concepts were the same. Just as in the play above, Howard lined up next to the right tackle and after the snap snuck to the left side of the field.

Because he’s a credible run blocker and pass catcher, Howard has elicited comparisons to another multidimensional tight end — Greg Olsen of the Panthers. Olsen, the only tight end in NFL history to gain 1,000 receiving yards in three straight seasons, has been out of action since Week 2 because of a broken right foot.

Don’t count on Tampa Bay surprising Carolina on Sunday, however. If any team should be aware of Howard, it’s the Panthers. They’re the NFL’s masters of deception, and the plays above are right out of their playbook. They’ve been known to use Olsen the same way the Bucs used Howard.

Here’s a touchdown from a 2014 game against the Bengals.

Same deal. Power-run look. Multiple tight ends. Olsen next to the right tackle. Play-action. Bootleg. Blown coverage.

Olsen’s injury hasn’t stopped offensive coordinator Mike Shula from digging this concept out of his bag of tricks every now and then. Backup tight ends can dupe defenses, too, especially in short-yardage situations, as Ed Dickson proved against the Eagles in Week 6.

On this second and 2, Carolina lined up with two tight ends and motioned a receiver in close to the formation. Philadelphia responded by stacking the box with eight defenders.

If it weren’t for the pressure from Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, this would have been a Panthers touchdown. With Graham bearing down, Cam Newton didn’t have time to step into his pass, resulting in an underthrown ball.

In terms of volume, both Tampa Bay and Carolina have kept opposing tight ends in check this season. The Bucs are allowing 5.5 catches for 43.5 yards per game, while the Panthers are allowing 5.1 catches for 38.6 yards. The NFL averages are about eight catches and 60 yards.

They’ve had some trouble recently, however, keeping opposing tight ends out of the end zone. Tampa Bay has allowed three touchdowns in its past four games, while Carolina has allowed four in its past three.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.