TAMPA ― Jamel Dean wanted a visual reminder of his goals for his third pro season. So he got a whiteboard for his home and scribbled down five interceptions on his wish list.
Dean dropped one pass in his breadbasket thrown by Matthew Stafford in a Week 3 loss to the Rams.
But he has recorded an interception in each of his past two games to go with six passes defensed, most in the NFL during that stretch.
The write stuff is coming easier to Dean, now one of the Bucs’ healthy cornerbacks after missing two games with a knee injury.
“It feels good knowing that I’m able to do what I’ve been telling myself: You need more interceptions,” Dean said. “ ... I’ve got a whiteboard. I can erase the one and put two out of five now. I’ve got three more.”
Considering all the injuries in the Bucs’ secondary, Dean’s ascension has been as timely as it’s been welcome.
Veteran Richard Sherman, playing his third game in 12 days since getting off his couch to sign with the Bucs, suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter Thursday and will likely miss several games. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. already was out with a concussion, and starting cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting (elbow) and Carlton Davis (quad) are on injured reserve.
Dean has taken advantage of his return to the lineup. Long and athletic, he simply has lacked experience and confidence. He still tends to panic when the football is in the air a long time rather than continue to play his technique and locate the pass.
On Thursday, Dean was flagged for pass interference, resulting in a 45-yard penalty that led to an Eagles’ touchdown. He was in good position on the play but failed to locate the underthrown pass.
“The only thing with him is just play the ball better,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He gave up one play. It was such a poor throw, but he got his head around too late. Just continue to improve in that area. Great interception — he played that perfectly. When he’s playing man-to-man, he’s a tough cover. He’s got those big, long arms and he gets pretty physical with the guys. He’s getting better and better.”
Dean agrees. He’s capable of making huge plays, like the pick-six last season against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who led 10-0 in the Oct. 18, 2020 game before Dean’s 32-yard return for a touchdown sparked a 38-10 Tampa Bay victory.
Safety Mike Edwards also was flagged for pass interference Thursday, a play that led to an Eagles’ touchdown.
“We’ve got to go back to the fundamentals,” Dean said. “Technique. Really, it’s all technique for me.”
Bringing the Juice
Tight end O.J. Howard has been pressed into a bigger role the past two games with Rob Gronkowski nursing fractured ribs.
Howard is coming off a ruptured Achilles he suffered early last season against the Chargers. Each day, his confidence improves, and on Thursday he was targeted seven times, catching six passes for 49 yards and his first touchdown of the season.
Stay updated on the Super Bowl champs
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Gronkowski could miss at least one more game, giving Howard additional playing time to knock off more rust.
“I wouldn’t say he’s 100 percent of where he was, but he’s real close,” Arians said. “I don’t know if his 40 time is the same as it was. We have all those tracking devices on him, (so) I’m anxious to see how fast he was running (Thursday) night. He hit a couple good ones in practice, about 18 miles per hour.”
It’s a long season, and Gronkowski is 32. Howard, 26, is playing under the club’s fifth-year option and has been a bit of an enigma since the Bucs drafted him 19th overall out of Alabama in 2017.
But Howard is a better long-term option. If Gronk can’t return to the lineup soon, he may be the Bucs’ best short-term option at tight end, as well.
Leftwich will be in demand
Anyone who caught the Fox broadcast of Thursday’s game heard analyst Troy Aikman predict that Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will be in demand as a head coaching candidate when the 2021 season ends.
Of course, Leftwich did not receive a single interview for a head coaching job after winning the Super Bowl. But success with Tom Brady often translates into head coaching opportunities. Just ask Charlie Weis, Bill O’Brien and Josh McDaniels.
Leftwich and Brady finally have meshed, and they both see the game and play-calling the same way. Thursday, the Bucs scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and three of their first five.
“You couldn’t ask for a better start in that game,” Arians said.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.