After making a big play on special teams, Todd Yoder showed off his hands on a leaping sideline catch Sunday in Cincinnati
When the oblong ball hit the mushy turf at the 11-yard line in Paul Brown Stadium Sunday, it could have bounced in any direction.
What it did do was spring directly into Todd Yoder's hands on one hop, setting up a cakewalk into the end zone for Yoder's first career NFL touchdown. The play occurred on special teams in the first half of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 16-13 win over Cincinnati, after cornerback Ronde Barber had blocked Nick Harris' punt, but it may be a sign that things are starting to bounce Yoder's way on offense.
In the spring of 2000, the Buccaneers drafted James Whalen, a prolific pass-catching tight end at Kentucky, in the fifth round and signed several other tight ends with pro experience, including Henry Lusk and Lovett Purnell. The team also signed a pair of lesser-known rookie free agents, Oklahoma's Jason Freeman and Yoder, from Vanderbilt.
When the Bucs reported for camp, Yoder was seventh on the depth chart at tight end and it was virtually assured that numbers one and two, Dave Moore and Patrick Hape, would be back. Yoder made the team, however, and saw action in nine games, an accomplishment that made his rookie season a success by default.
However, only one play of the regular season really highlighted Yoder's presence, and it was not a happy one for the Buccaneers. On a bit of fourth-down trickery late in a near-upset at Minnesota, fullback Mike Alstott took a handoff and started left, then pulled up and threw across and down the field where Yoder, and only Yoder, was waiting. What could have been the go-ahead touchdown in a 27-23 game became the night's biggest disappointment when the pass sailed over Yoder's head. The Bucs lost, 30-23.
That game was played in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football. A little over a year later, on the Bucs' next Monday night road game, Tampa Bay had a 24-17 lead in St. Louis midway through the fourth quarter when a botched Rams punt gave Tampa Bay possession at St. Louis 19. The Bucs went for the jugular, lining up in a two-tight end set but releasing Yoder, who found himself all alone again, in the end zone. This time, the pass from QB Brad Johnson, who had been extremely accurate on almost every other throw, was well overthrown. The Rams picked off Johnson's next pass, and the Bucs had to come up with two more interceptions to seal the victory.
Another potential leap from obscurity, another pass out of reach. Yoder has played extensively and very well on special teams this season and has improved his blocking steadily since becoming the number two tight end, but he has not been involved much in the passing game, with no catches through the Bucs' first 10 games. He had one reception for one yard as a rookie.
Then the ball in Cincinnati bounced right to Yoder, who was the first one to figure out what direction it was going and react to it. His first career touchdown, which had eluded him on offense, came on special teams. It was also the only time the Bucs' reached paydirt all day in Cincinnati, so Yoder's recovery will go down as one of the most critical moments in the team's playoff stretch drive.
"You don't know who the guy is that's going to make the big plays," said Head Coach Tony Dungy the next day. "Dwight Smith downed a punt at the two-yard line. Todd Yoder picked up a blocked punt and scored. It can be anybody, and that's the way you have to prepare in December. That's the way you have to be ready to play. The games are going to be tight and it could be one play from a guy that doesn't get many chances."
That would seem to describe Yoder. On the other hand, his chances may be about to increase dramatically. On Monday, Dungy reported that Moore, the team's starting tight end and fourth-leading receiver (26-183-3), was one of two injured players whose availability for Sunday's game against Detroit might be in jeopardy, along with linebacker Jeff Gooch.
"We don't know yet," said Dungy of the extent of Moore's hip injury, adding that he was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam on Monday. "We hope it's not much, but we don't know at this point. He could possibly be out."
Dungy then confirmed that Yoder would step into the starting lineup if Moore was unavailable to go. The Bucs would also probably find a way to bring practice squad tight end Mike Roberg up to the active roster. The only other tight end on the roster is long-snapper Sean McDermott.
Though Yoder's role in two-tight end sets has been mostly as a blocker this season, he came out of Vanderbilt with a reputation as a prolific receiver, recording 80 career catches for 1,267 yards and eight touchdowns. He has displayed soft hands in practice and the Bucs are confident he could handle the starting job if Moore is unavailable. As if on cue Sunday, after making a name for himself with the special teams touchdown, Yoder recorded his first reception of the season on an impressive, leaping, sideline grab.
For the record, the gritty Moore has started 59 consecutive games and not missed a single contest since 1994. The Bucs' training room was cautiously optimistic that Moore would overcome his injury in time to keep those streaks alive, but was reserving judgment until seeing the results of the MRI, which can reveal fluid buildup or significant ligament damage. An X-ray administered earlier showed no fractures. Moore was hurt not on the bone-rattling hit from S JoJuan Armour in the third quarter but on a subsequent catch on which the Bucs' tight end got a first down but also took a helmet to the hip.
Even if Yoder and Roberg can handle the job in Moore's absence, that would still leave the team frighteningly thin at that spot. The Bucs got a first-hand look at what a lack of depth at tight end can do to a team's offensive plans on Sunday. Cincinnati TE Tony McGee suffered a game-ending knee injury near the end of the first half and, with backup Marco Battaglia already on injured reserve, the Bengals were down to just long-snapper Brad St. Louis at that position. The Bucs took advantage of McGee's absence in dominating the third quarter.
"I think it did (affect the Bengals' approach), to a certain extent," said Dungy. "They ran the same plays but they ran a lot more to the weak side. It was going to be tough for them to run to the tight end side, and we kind of knew that in the second half, so I would say that probably did hurt them."
Yoder's biggest challenge should he step into the starter's role would be to prove he can offer the consistent run-blocking that Moore has given the Bucs for years. That will be particularly important considering Tampa Bay's current struggles on the ground. In fact, the team was considering making greater use of Yoder even before Moore's injury.
"When we go to two tight ends, most teams kind of stabilize what they're going to do defensively," said Dungy. "They defend it a certain way and you have a good idea of what's coming. Cincinnati was doing a lot of blitzing. We kind of got them in a base defense when we went to two tight ends. We had a little success running the ball that way. That's something that we'll look at as well."
First, though, they'll look at MRI results, and at Moore's flexibility on Wednesday and Thursday. If the sturdy veteran is unable to go, it will be time for Yoder to take another turn in the spotlight.