After O.J. Howard’s barehanded catch during the Rays’ playoff game against the Astros on Tuesday night, the world wants to know: Is the Buccaneers tight end the next two-sport superstar? Is he the next Bo Jackson?
Well, his first love was baseball ...
That we noticed Howard more during a baseball game this week than during a football game is telling. This was supposed to be his breakout season. He was supposed to catch footballs, not foul balls. Instead, he has all but disappeared from the Bucs offense.
Or so it seems.
Howard’s role hasn’t diminished at all actually. Yes, he’s catching fewer passes, but you can’t catch passes that aren’t thrown to you.
“It’s just a matter of opportunities,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s going out for passes. It’s just whether he’s getting open.”
The Tampa Bay Times SportiFact fact-checking cabal convened to investigate that statement. Our ruling: Half-true.
As it turns out, public perception is wrong: Howard is playing more this season. He has played 83 percent of the offense’s snaps. Through the Bucs’ first five games last season, he played 57 percent of the snaps.
It’s true that Howard is going out for passes, but only technically.
The difference this season vs. last season is that he’s running fewer routes — and by a significant margin. Instead of using him primarily as a pass catcher, the Bucs are choosing to use him primarily as a blocker.
This season, Howard has lined up in a blocking role on more than half of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus data. Last season, he lined up in a blocking role less than 40 percent of the time.
This season, he has lined up in the slot or out wide on 22 percent of his snaps. Last season, he lined up in the slot or out wide twice as often.
In other words, Tampa Bay is using him as a traditional tight end who lines up directly next to the left tackle or right tackle.
This raises all kinds of questions, but especially this one: Why?
To run the ball.
Arians has insisted that the Bucs are built to run. (They are not, so say the millions of dollars they’ve allocated to their passing game.) Regardless, that’s the team’s stated MO, and “we’re not changing.”
On occasion, Tampa Bay breaks off successful runs, and Howard is sometimes a key contributor, as was the case Sunday against the Saints. On the Bucs’ first play from scrimmage, he (80) paved the way for a Peyton Barber 7-yard run when he jumped to the second level of the defense and grabbed hold of linebacker A.J. Klein (53).
In the second quarter, he was the lead blocker on Scotty Miller’s 18-yard end-around run.
Though Howard is a willing and capable blocker, it’s not necessarily a strength. Pro Football Focus grades him as a below-average run-blocking tight end, and he has struggled even more as a pass blocker. Late in the first quarter Sunday, he had the unenviable task of blocking Saints All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan (94). It did not go well. Though Jameis Winston eluded Jordan’s grasp, defensive tackle Malcom Brown (90) finished the job and recorded the sack.
Tampa Bay didn’t leave Howard one-on-one with Jordan again. On a fourth-and-1 pass in the third quarter, the Bucs stuck Howard and Demar Dotson (69) on Jordan. Wise move. Winston hit Chris Godwin for a 14-yard gain.
Howard’s usage would be easier to justify if Tampa Bay ran the ball well. It does not. The Bucs rank 20th in Football Outsiders’ rush efficiency ratings. Incidentally, they rank 12th in pass efficiency.
Four yards per carry might seem good enough, and it would be if Tampa Bay could gain that consistently. Running backs, however, have been tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 23 percent of their runs, the ninth-highest rate.
This needs to change, but it probably won’t. Here’s why: 1.) Arians has said as much. 2.) The Bucs lead their conference in points scored, so it’s easy to dismiss the warning signs. 3.) Tampa Bay has lost two of its starting offensive linemen. Right guard Alex Cappa has a broken arm and right tackle Demar Dotson is dealing with calf and hamstring injuries. That Cappa broke his arm during the second quarter Sunday says more about the Bucs’ lack of offensive line depth than his toughness. You’re in trouble when you prefer a lineman with one good arm over a lineman with two good arms.
In the meantime, if Howard wants to see the ball come his way more often, his best hope might be for the Rays to player deeper into October.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.