TAMPA — Only through a keyhole have we viewed the Bucs offense under Bruce Arians, the full scope constricted in the first two games by the disappearance of the tight ends in the passing game and a slow start by Breshad Perriman.
A year ago, the Bucs led the NFL in passing offense with 320.3 yards per game. But so far, they are 25th in the league with an average of 181.5.
There are some obvious reasons for the regression. It’s a new system for quarterback Jameis Winston and his receivers, putting a lot more emphasis on involving the running backs in the passing game. The big chunk plays just haven’t happened as often.
There’s only one football and the passing game runs through receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, as it should.
Here’s a look at what’s not happening:
O.J Howard — One of the real emerging stars in the NFL, Howard simply isn’t playing well. The 2017 first round pick from Alabama has struggled blocking and receiving.
Against the Niners, he had a catchable pass deflect off his hands for an interception. Then he lost a fumble.
On Thursday night, Howard wasn’t much better. He got abused by the Panthers’ Gerald McCoy, who dropped running back Ronald Jones for a 2-yard loss. He also had an offensive pass interference penalty and a false start.
Howard was expected to have an expanded role in the passing game with DeSean Jackson traded to the Eagles and receiver Adam Humphries signing with the Titans. But he’s sixth in targets this season, same as last season. He has four catches for 32 yards on five targets, with a long of 16-yards.
Why isn’t Howard more involved?
"You'd probably have to ask him," Arians said. "He's got so much talent and he can play a heck of a lot better than he's playing."
Arians said an ankle injury Howard suffered in the season opener has not been a factor. "That's just the way the game goes," he said.
Cameron Brate — The veteran tight end had a touchdown reception erased twice on the same drive against the 49ers due to holding calls on tackle Demar Dotson. So everything has to be tempered by that fact.
Brate is playing behind Howard, which limits his snaps. He went from playing 31 snaps against the Niners (44 percent) to only 18 versus the Panthers (28 percent).
Howard’s rookie deal won’t expire for three more seasons, including a club option. Brate is in the second year of a 6-year, $40.8-million contract. But none of his $6-million salary for 2020 is guaranteed, making him a likely candidate for a trade or release down the road.
Breshard Perriman ― The speedy Browns free agent was supposed to replace Jackson as the receiver who can take the top off the defense. But so far, Winston has had no success throwing to him. Despite nine targets, Perriman has only two catches for 10 yards. He also let a perfectly thrown pass slip through both hands in the end zone in Thursday’s 20-14 win over Carolina. That drive ended with Matt Gay missing a field goal attempt.
If Winston gets that TD and a second that Mike Evans only got one hand on, he could’ve had a huge passing day at Carolina.
“Yeah, I thought he was going to – that was a great throw into the end zone and I thought he'd make that catch,’’ Arians said of Perriman’s whiff. “He slipped on a couple routes, but we're going to keep targeting him because he was wide open (on a different play) and we underthrew him. It is some new chemistry but it was funny because in the spring it just clicked automatically. Jameis never missed him deep. But in real bullets it's different."
Minter not just a mentor
Rookie linebacker Devin White is off to a brutal start and it’s his health that’s betrayed him. A bout with tonsillitis before the season opener led to a trip to the hospital two days before his first game.
Then on Thursday, White suffered a grade one sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his knee and left in the first quarter. He is day to day but the Bucs expect him to miss a game or two.
Fortunately, the Bucs have a veteran like Kevin Minter to answer the call. He had eight tackles and a quarterback hit in Thursday’s win.
Minter played for Arians in Arizona and was cut by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles with the Jets. But he played big Thursday at Carolina.
“He’s the ultimate pro,’’ Arians said. “Playing special teams – and even after he played every single snap on defense (he said), ‘I’m not coming off special teams. I’m still staying out here.’ Deone Bucannon’s the same guy; he did it for Lavonte (David) when Lavonte was down. That inside linebacker depth — Jack (Cichy) came in and made a nice play in that goal-line stuff — it’s a good room, a really good room.”
Before Winston connected with Mike Evans on a 41-yard pass Thursday, the Bucs’ possessions had ended in four punts and a field goal.
Evans makes the passing game go. But nobody plays off the attention he receives from the defense better than Chris Godwin. He had eight catches for 121 yards and a touchdown on nine targets Thursday and leads the team with 11 for 174 yards.
"Obviously, you saw his stats, but he blocked as good as any wide receiver I’ve ever seen in a game, blocking linebackers, defensive ends, safeties," Arians said. "He was a huge part of our running game."
Suffice to say the Bucs have never had a receiving tandem like Evans and Godwin.
Arians decided to give the play-calling duties to Byron Leftwich in part because he expected it to help him manage the game better.
But that really hasn’t happened. The Bucs penalties have piled up, but some are on the operation of the game. The Bucs had 12 men in the huddle Thursday, turning a third-and-1 into third-and-5 which they failed to pick up. Then in what would’ve been a cataclysmic mistake, the Bucs called back to back timeouts, turning a fourth and 2 at the Tampa Bay 3-yard line into a fourth and 1 at the 2-yard line.
Only Vernon Hargreaves’ stop of Christian McCaffrey manage to wipe the omelet that would’ve been on Arians’ face.
A look ahead at Bruce Arians’ first year in Tampa Bay and a critical season for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.