Don’t judge O.J. Howard by the Bucs’ first two games

And don’t discount the tight end’s blocking abilities. Coaches and teammates expect the breakout moments in the receiving game will come.
Tampa Bay Bucs tight end O.J. Howard (80) warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas.
Tampa Bay Bucs tight end O.J. Howard (80) warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. [ TONY GUTIERREZ | AP ]
Published Sept. 21, 2019

TAMPA — Two plays typified the kind of season it has been so far for tight end O.J. Howard.

The third-year star from Alabama was expected to put up some incredible receiving numbers this season under Bruce Arians’ aerial circus.

But Arians has never had the luxury of having tight ends like Howard and Cameron Brate, and so far, they haven’t been players in the passing game.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Howard hasn’t made an impact.

The Bucs rushed for 100 yards on 31 carries in their 20-14 win at Carolina on Sept. 12.

That included Peyton Barber’s 16-yard touchdown run to give the Bucs a 17-12 lead late in the third quarter.

Howard made a key block to spring Barber on that run and his in-line blocking was a big reason for the Bucs’ success on the ground.

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“I think O.J. is an incredibly talented player,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “Let’s take my game. It wasn’t throwing for 350 yards and five touchdowns. It was a game-managed game. And people in those trenches are working every single time. The offensive line doesn’t get a lot of credit but our running backs have had 100 yards every game.

“You will see him have some breakout moments but right now he’s just in the trenches right now and doing his job. The ball didn’t just go his way Thursday night.”

Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers defense didn’t pay a lot of attention to Howard.

On the 20-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Chris Godwin in the second quarter, Howard and Godwin each ran skinny post routes. But the Panthers decided to play a safety over the top of Howard, leaving Godwin to win his one-on-one battle.

“On that play, we had two posts right there,” Howard said. “Everybody saw the double posts. Chris did a good job of getting open. My guy came to me with two guys doubling on me. That’s part of the game. It happens. We got the touchdown so that’s what matters.”

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Howard set all kinds of expectations the past two seasons. A year ago, he had 34 receptions for 565 yards and five touchdowns before an ankle injury ended his year after only 10 games. As a rookie, he played in 14 games and had 26 receptions for 432 yards and six scores.

Arians was a little critical of Howard following the game at Carolina when asked why he wasn’t more involved in the passing game.

“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.

“The balls will come. We don’t dictate who gets the ball — the defense does, so sometimes it will spread around for different people every week.”

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For the record, Howard doesn’t seem to be losing any sleep over his lack of production in the passing game. He had four catches for 42 yards in the season opener but no targets against the Panthers.

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“It’s one of those things where we had a game plan where the tight end was involved ball but as the game goes on, we make adjustments,” Howard said of the game plan against Carolina. “We were running the ball well. I’ve just got to do my part.”

Sunday’s game against the Giants should afford some opportunities for Howard and Brate. New York plays a similar defense to the Bucs, with lots of press man to man coverage.

“We’ve got opportunities to win one-on-ones,” Howard said. “That’s a big part of my game that I really I do well, winning one-on-ones, getting open, creating space and separation. When those opportunities come, I’m looking forward to the ball and making plays.

“It’s one of those things I did in college a lot. I take pride in (blocking). Anything you can do to help the team win. You don’t want to create bad film.”

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said Howard remains one of the top weapons in the passing game.

“If I was a defensive coach, I would worry about him,” he said.