Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week Eight, wide receiver Arrelious Benn missed his first career touchdown by mere inches, crashing down at the one-yard line instead with the 53-yard reception that set up LeGarrette Blount's game-winning score.
Fortunately, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie flanker didn't have to wait long to get his own six points. Just one week later he ignited another furious Buccaneer rally (this one would come up just short in Atlanta) with an acrobatic 14-yard touchdown catch in the Georgia Dome. Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman threw it over a Falcons defender and at Benn's back shoulder as the receiver crossed the goal line, and Benn spun to make the catch as he landed in the end zone.
Later, Benn would once again set Blount and the Buccaneers up near the goal line when he got behind the Atlanta defense on a fleaflicker and drew a pass-interference penalty. Atlanta held at the two-yard line, however, and the Bucs lost the battle for first in the NFC South, 27-21. Benn enjoyed finding paydirt for the first time in his career but actually preferred the end-game feeling from a week before, when he didn't quite get into the end zone, personally.
"It felt pretty good, but I would take the win over a touchdown any day," he said. "It felt great to be in the end zone. I'm a bigger part of the offense and each week it picks up. I'm getting that trust from Josh. We're a young team and we're going to grow together."
Indeed, Benn has moved into the starting lineup over the past three weeks and, while he hasn't put up enormous numbers yet he's clearly on Freeman's radar when the game is on the line. What's most noteworthy of Benn's ascension is that the team now has rookies starting at both receiver spots, taking their cues from an equally youthful quarterback, the 23-year-old Freeman. Benn was a high second-round pick this past spring; fourth-round selection Mike Williams has been a starter since the start of training camp.
Williams' climb has been even steeper, as he leads the team in every receiving category (36 receptions for 559 yards and five touchdowns) and is actually 12th among all NFL players in receiving yards. He notched his fifth score in just eight NFL games not long after Benn got into the end zone, running a quick in route against a Falcon blitz and turning a short pass into a 58-yard TD.
"Mike, Josh and myself, we're definitely going to grow together, and it's going to be great," said Benn. "We're going to develop that chemistry with one another, Josh is going to get more comfortable and we're going to get more comfortable running our routes."
Could Buccaneer fans be witnessing the early stages of a Marino-Duper-Clayton type of connection? That's not a fact yet, and it's not even boasting. It's the goal. The Bucs drafted Freeman in the first round in 2009 and, as it became apparent he was on his way to being perhaps the first true franchise quarterback in team history, they set about trying to find him talented young receivers with whom to grow up together. The future certainly looked bright on Sunday in Atlanta.
In fact, the Falcons game marked the first time since 1987 and only the second time in the Buccaneers' 35-season history that two rookie receivers have each caught touchdown passes in the same game. The only other occurrence came on December 6, 1987, when Mark Carrier and Bruce Hill hauled in scoring tosses from Vinny Testaverde – all three of those players had just been drafted the spring before.
Furthermore, it's been four years since any pair of rookie receivers on any team scored in the same game. The last duo to do it was the Philadelphia Eagles' Jason Avant and Hank Baskett on December 31, 2006.
"Rejus is a guy that each week has gotten better," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "He's gotten better out at practice, so we keep giving him opportunities [in games]. We'll continue to give him opportunities and he'll continue to grow as a football player. He is an explosive player, very good with the ball in his hands. He, like our other young players, they learn from their mistakes and continue to get better. One thing about these young players that we have, they care about winning and losing, and they care about when they're doing their job or not doing their job. They take a lot of pride in mastering their assignments, so they'll get better."
Williams has four times as many catches as Benn, and five times as many touchdowns, but in one category they are very comparable: Benn is averaging 15.9 yards per reception, Williams 15.5. Both are excellent numbers, and while the Buccaneers have had explosive receivers in their arsenal from time to time over the years (Joey Galloway, for instance), they've rarely had two guys who could stretch the defense at the same time.
The difference has been obvious (and has also been helped by some very big plays by third-year receiver Micheal Spurlock). Last year, the Buccaneers ranked 20th in the NFL in pass completions of 20 or more yards, with 40 of them, five of which went for touchdowns. This year, the Bucs already have 26 such passes, five for touchdowns, and they rank ninth in the league in that category. Those five long-range scores are tied for sixth-most in the league.
As that threat becomes more and more real to Tampa Bay opponents – and Benn's emergence to join Williams in posing that threat – it will only help the Buccaneers in all phases of their offense.
"It will benefit the run game," Olson pointed out. "It's nice when you've got receivers that the defense feels like they have to keep the safety over the top of. As they get better and we can threaten teams with the deep ball, and the opportunity to have guys on both sides of the ball, that should certainly open up the run game for us."
While it was the two receivers from the 2010 draft who caught touchdown passes on Sunday, the rest of the Bucs' very young receiving corps has a chance to grow with Freeman as well. Spurlock is averaging 14.6 yards per catch and has made a habit of coming up big in the fourth quarter (he also returned a kickoff for a touchdown on Sunday). Preston Parker, the undrafted rookie, caught his first NFL pass on the Bucs' last drive, though it was technically ruled a run as the pass went slightly backward. Second-year man Sammie Stroughter missed the Falcons game with a foot injury but is a serious third-down threat when he's in the mix. Even the "dean" of the group, Maurice Stovall, is only 25 years old.
"We're kind of spinning all those guys a little bit," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "That's a real strength for our football team right now, how they work and how they play. We didn't have our best game at wideout yesterday. We dropped some balls and ran some routes to the wrong spots, but those guys push us with effort. Those guys play hard. Their coach cares and they care and they like to go out there and play hard every day."