TAMPA — Just when things were starting to look up for O.J. Howard, his season again took a slide Sunday. Opportunity slipped out of the Bucs tight end’s hands at the worst time, again landing him in coach Bruce Arians’ doghouse.
Howard was coming off his most productive game of the season. He returned from a hamstring injury and finally found his way into the Bucs offense with a season-high seven targets, catching four passes including his first touchdown pass of the season.
Any momentum he built changed with one strange play late in the first quarter of the Bucs’ 34-17 loss at Raymond James Stadium.
With the Bucs trailing 6-0 and facing a second-and-10 at their 16, quarterback Jameis Winston found Howard open over the middle.
As Howard tried to tuck the ball to his right and look upfield, he pushed it too far behind and found himself trying to make a behind-the-back grab. As he did, Howard tipped it into the air, and into the arms of Saints linebacker Demario Davis for an interception, one of four charged to Winston on the day.
“I had it and I tried to cut upfield and then next thing I know the ball gets loose and I start bobbling it and it gets behind me some kind of way, which is crazy,” Howard said. “It all happened too fast.”
The Bucs defense, which had held the Saints to field goals in their first two possessions, gave up a touchdown on the next play, a 16-yard pass from Drew Brees to a wide-open Michael Thomas for a 13-0 New Orleans lead.
By the 5:19 point in the second quarter, the Bucs trailed 20-0.
“The worst thing happened because a guy could just grab it,” Howard said.
Howard entered his third NFL season primed for a breakout. His 16.6 yards per catch average his first two seasons was one of the best among tight ends, and he scored 11 touchdowns. His main obstacle coming into the season was staying healthy since both of his first two seasons ended early with injuries.
But seven games into the season, Howard has just 17 catches and is becoming an afterthought in the Bucs’ offensive game plan. It’s clear he has yet to gain the trust of a new coaching staff.
Last week’s effort was a step forward. Then Sunday happened.
After that first pass, Howard didn’t have another target for the rest of the day and watched his passes go elsewhere. Tight end Cameron Brate caught 10 passes on 14 targets for 73 yards.
Howard entered Sunday tied for the team-high with three drops, according to Fox Sports stats. He had just one drop in 10 games last season.
"It's hard to say (what's wrong)," Arians said when asked about Howard following Sunday's game. "He's a talented, talented guy, but it's not showing up on Sundays."
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In the Bucs’ Week 1 home loss to the 49ers, Howard made two costly mistakes that led to turnovers. His second-quarter fumble gave the ball away inside the red zone. Later in that quarter he had a pass go off his hands that led to an interception.
On Sunday’s play, Howard admitted he let his surroundings get the best of him. He felt safety Marcus Williams bearing down from the other side and he looked upfield to avoid him. But as he went, the ball stayed.
“I think it’s just me,” Howard said. “I have to do a better job of protecting the ball. All the time I can work on ball security or something else I can do, it all points back to me. I’m a professional, so it all points to me. Sometimes you’ve just got to know when to secure the catch and just go down and protect yourself. Sometimes there’s not an opportunity for a big play. That’s just the way it is.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard