The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have used 97 different combinations of 11 players on offense through the first six games. Forty-six of those have been used for just one play, a situation that gets exacerbated when a usual starter, particularly an offensive lineman, misses a game. Still, there are definitely combinations the Buccaneers use a lot more than others, and O.J. Howard is almost always included.
Tampa Bay's four most common offensive lineups, accounting for 114 plays, all include Howard, as do 11 of the top 12. Even though Howard's reception totals are down from last year, which appeared to herald a breakout for the young tight end, he's been on the field for the vast majority of the team's offensive efforts so far this season. That will change on Sunday in Tennessee.
Howard is one of three players who have already been ruled out for the Week Eight game in Nashville, along with starting right guard Alex Cappa and reserve inside linebacker Jack Cichy. The Bucs still have good numbers at the tight end position, with Cam Brate and Antony Auclair like to pick up a lot of snaps and first-year man Tanner Hudson available to join in if necessary. Hudson was the Bucs' top pass-catcher in the preseason but has yet to be active for a regular-season game. Auclair is strong blocker and Brate has a good rapport with Jameis Winston in the passing game.
"Yeah, [Auclair] has done a lot of the heavy work for us and done a heck of a job," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "So, between Cam, Antony and Tanner Hudson, we'll see what happens."
The Buccaneers could also shift some of Howard's snaps to a player at a different position. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is returning to action this week after missing two games – and getting the benefit of a bye week – due to a hamstring injury. Tampa Bay could choose to run with "11" personnel more often, which features one tight end and three receivers. Perriman was getting virtually all of the third-receiver snaps before his injury in Week Four and through the first three games had 128 snaps, out of a possible 212 plays.
Perriman didn't end up with much production in those three games, with three catches for 16 yards as the offense had difficulty getting the ball in his hands. Those three catches came on 11 targets. But that's a small sample size and Perriman showed the potential to produce a lot more down the stretch in Cleveland last year, when he caught 16 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Whether he's targeted frequently on Sunday will depend not only on the packages the Bucs use but what coverages the Titans choose to play.
"It all depends on who you're playing," said Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. "You want to put yourself in the matchup, you want to have the better matchup, so personnel is going to always be according to who you're playing. Now, there's an element of our offense where the opponent doesn't really matter – we've got to go out and execute. We've got to go out with who we've got on the field and we execute. We're really an 11, 12, 13-personnel package. That's what we are. I think that's what we do the best, so we'll just continue putting these guys in position. But we'll have awareness of where everybody [is]."
As it is, Perriman might have an opportunity on Sunday against the Titans. According to Football Outsiders, the Tennessee defense has the seventh-best DVOA against both the number-one and number-two receivers on opposing teams this year. However, Tennessee is also dead last in DVOA against "Other WRs," which is the category Perriman would fall in with both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin already on the field. In addition, Tennessee ruled third cornerback Adoree' Jackson out of the game on Friday's injury report due to a foot injury.
Outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul is not on the Buccaneers' Friday injury report, but that's because he also is not yet on the 53-man roster. Pierre-Paul was not limited at all in practice this week but he has spent the first seven weeks of the season on the reserve/non-football injury report due to a neck injury suffered in a May car accident. Pierre-Paul is practicing now under a roster exemption but he would need to be activated from NFI to the 53-man roster if he's going to play on Sunday.
That will apparently hinge on one more doctor's examination.
"If doc says go, we'll go, and we'll see," said Arians.
Arians called Pierre-Paul "absolutely amazing" in terms of his ability to stay in shape during rehab but obviously doesn't expect the veteran pass-rusher to return immediately to his usual practice of playing almost every defensive snap when he does return.
"Yeah, he won't get 90 snaps or anything like that," said Arians. "Hopefully, nobody on defense ever plays too many."