Advertisement
  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Bucs

O.J. Howard hasn’t disappeared. The Buccaneers are just using him differently.

He isn’t catching passes because he isn’t running as many routes. And it’s not helping Tampa Bay’s offense.
Bucs tight end O.J. Howard caught one of two targets for 10 yards in Sunday's 31-24 loss to the Saints in New Orleans. [BUTCH DILL | Associated Press]
Published Oct. 10
Updated Oct. 10

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).

First quarter, 15:00, no score: Peyton Barber run for 7 yards [NFL Game Pass]

In the second quarter, he was the lead blocker on Scotty Miller’s 18-yard end-around run.

Second quarter, 8:22 left, Saints lead 10-7: Scotty Miller run for 18 yards [NFL Game Pass]

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.

First quarter, 1:04 left, Saints lead 3-0: Jameis Winston sacked for loss of 6 yards [NFL Game Pass]

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.

Third quarter, 8:18 left, Saints lead 24-10: Jameis Winston pass to Chris Godwin for 14 yards [NFL Game Pass]

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 tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Feelings about Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem three years ago are still running strong. Protesters showed up for a planned workout at the Falcons facility on Saturday. After disagreements with the NFL, the workout was later rescheduled by Kaepernick at a different locaction. TODD KIRKLAND  |  AP
    John Romano: A suggestion that the Bucs should be interested in Kaepernick if he was still an NFL caliber quarterback was met with strong pushback by readers.
  2. Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP
    Two former head coaches, a Super Bowl-winning GM and red-hot defense await in Atlanta.
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting (26) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards (34) celebrate a tackle during the second quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Bruce Arians said he’s still trying to figure out why weekday preparation isn’t translating to Sundays following a 34-17 loss to New Olre
  4. As Jameis Winston showed late in Sunday's loss to the Saints, he's not ready to give up on the 2019 season. MARK LOMOGLIO  |  Associated Press
    Though the 2019 season hasn’t gone as planned for Tampa Bay, the next six weeks are an opportunity for the team to show us what’s ahead.
  5. Atlanta Falcons offensive cooridnator Dirk Koetter watchs teams warm up before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. JOHN BAZEMORE  |  AP
    Koetter went 19-29 until his dismissal following the 2018 season
  6. Jameis Winston (3) is expected to start Sunday at Atlanta despite the ankle injury he suffered late in the Bucs' 34-17 loss Sunday to New Orleans. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Bucs quarterback, who sprained his left ankle Sunday, should play against the Falcons.
  7. Long faces dominate some of the remaining Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans during the fourth quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, November 17, 2019, in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: What remaining game will Tampa Bay be favored to win?
  8. The interception return for a touchdown by New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams was the eighth pick-six of Jameis Winston's career. That moves him past Vinny Testaverde for second place on the all-time Bucs list behind Trent Dilfer's 10. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    John Romano’s Gimme Five | Now that the illusion of a happy 2019 is all but buried, it’s time to begin looking at where the Bucs go from here.
  9. Eagles' Zach Ertz, right, tries to slip past the Patriots' Danny Shelton during Sunday's game. MICHAEL PEREZ  |  AP
    Plus, Ravens rolling, AFC South tightens and Cowboys surge -- on the road to Miami Gardens.
  10. Even if Bucs players and coaches don't know it, the fans do. They've seen this movie too many times before. Since 2013, the Bucs have averaged 3.3 wins at the 10-game point of the season. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    John Romano | It’s not just the 3-7 record, it’s the helter-skelter way Tampa Bay plays that makes this a good time to start planning for the holidays and the NFL draft.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement