Tom Brady doesn't have Rob Gronkowski as a security blanket anymore and on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons he didn't have sure-handed veteran Cameron Brate either due to Brate's Week Four concussion. But in a game that demanded a lot of short passes in traffic and a lot of tight windows to move the chains, Brady found a tight end that could help him move the sticks.
That would be rookie Cade Otton, a fourth-round draft pick out of Washington playing in just his fourth NFL game. The visiting Falcons largely bracketed the Buccaneers outside receivers and loaded up the middle to stop the run, leaving Brady to work the short edges and intermediate routes underneath. As usual, Brady took what the defense was giving, and that led to 19 of his 35 completions going to tight ends and running backs. Otton finished the game with six catches for 43 yards, both his top single-game totals so far.
In Brate's absence, Otton played extensively and helped the Bucs to a 13-0 halftime lead with five of his catches before halftime. Three of his six grabs resulted in first downs, including two that converted third-down situations. He was just happy to be there when his team needed him.
"There's a bunch of nuances that go into routes that we run in this offense but at the end of the day you've got to get open and give yourself a chance to get the ball," said Otton. "I try to do that each and every play, give the quarterback a chance to throw it my way. If it doesn't come my way that's fine. I'm just going to keep trying to do my best and keep improving."
Otton's production has been growing steadily early in his rookie year. He did not get a target in the Bucs' Week One at Dallas and he had just one catch for four yards the following Sunday in New Orleans. Otton then missed the Bucs' third game as he was attending to his family following the passing of his mother. He returned in Week Four to catch three passes for 29 yards, then essentially doubled that in Week Five.
"That's just kind of the standard of this team," said Otton. "You've got to get better every day, every week. I don't want to get behind so I try to improve something every week and try to add to this team as much as I can."
Late in the first quarter, the Buccaneers faced a third-and-eight in Falcons territory and Brady had confidence in Otton over the middle, zipping a 12-yard pass to him in traffic. The Buccaneers ended up settling for a field goal ut Brady didn't hesitate to target the rookie tight end.
"Yeah, he's doing a good job," said the veteran quarterback. "He works hard in practice. Football means a lot to him. So he's off to a good start in a career. He's a hard-working kid so he shows up every day, tries to do the right thing, he's really prepared. So we all have a lot of confidence in him, especially with Cam going out."
Otton's first catch of the game did not result in a first down, though it came awfully close. On Tampa Bay's second drive of the game, Brady dropped back on third-and-three from the Atlanta 17 and fired a hard pass to the rookie in a congested area over the middle. Otton caught the ball with his back to the goal line and fought to power through safety Richie Grant for the first down. The play was ruled short of the line to gain, though Otton seemed to be lying on top of the defender as he stuck the ball out over his head and across the line. While he was left thinking he could have done more on the play, Otton had reason to enjoy himself in just his fourth NFL game.
"It's a lot of fun to be on the field with a lot of great players, obviously, and just getting a chance to help the team," he said. "I'm just trying to do that on each and every play. Hopefully I'll get the chance to do that going forward, but whatever the team asks of me I'm going to try to do."