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Bucs-Colts: Quick starts can help O.J. Howard make a strong finish

Encina’s Early Read: O.J. Howard’s season has been mostly forgettable, but last week, he earned his quarterback’s trust. Now he’s has to carry that over.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2019

TAMPA — Finish strong. That’s the best Bucs O.J. Howard can do. He can’t dig too deep into the past to explain what went wrong this season. There are four weeks of football to create something positive to build on.

Howard’s struggles have been well-documented. His bad hands were responsible for two turnovers in the Bucs’ season-opening loss to San Francisco.

After he juggled a ball behind his back and into the waiting arms of a Saints linebacker in the Bucs’ Week 11 loss, he watched most of the game from the sideline, playing a season-low 24 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.

Remember, though, Howard is the player who dropped rookie linebacker Devin White’s jaw the first time he had to cover him. “Tight ends don’t run that fast,” White said.

It’s a mystery why one of the Bucs’ biggest mismatches hasn’t been productive, but Howard is coming off his best game of the season. He caught a season-high five balls from 61 yards. Four catches were for more than 10 yards. Three achieved first downs.

“Just trusting it and me getting open,” Howard said of his performance in the Bucs’ 28-11 win in Jacksonville. “We’ve been working on it constantly in practice, Jameis trusting me on being there and trusting in him throwing. It’s the same plays. We’re just finally trusting it.”

The trust factor has many benefits.

“You make a couple plays, get a couple catches and he’s going to trust you later in the game,” Howard said. “It’s just human nature. He’s got to to to his go-to guys when it’s crunch time. That’s why it’s so huge to make plays for the quarterback when your opportunities are there.”

The Colts keep tights ends in check, holding them to 44 receiving yards or fewer in six of their last seven games. They’ve allowed just one touchdown catch to a tight end the last eight games.

As much as Howard would like to finish strong, he’d also like to finish healthy. Each of his first two seasons ended prematurely due to injury. He was on a Pro Bowl pace last season before ankle and foot injury ended his season in Week 12.

Howard missed three weeks following a hamstring injury coming out of the Oct. 20 open week and hasn’t had any physical issues since.

There may not be another Bucs offensive player with more to gain over the final four games than Howard. He started something positive in Jacksonville and now has the chance to put this season’s struggles.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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