The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' passing attack contains the most productive duo of starting wideouts in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who have the second and third highest receiving yardage totals in the NFL through 11 weeks. Evans and Godwin have combined to give the Buccaneers an average of 188 yards per game so far.
Beyond those two, though, the Buccaneers have cast around a bit for a consistently productive third option in the passing game, which becomes particularly important when an opposing team makes a concerted effort to double-cover both Evans and Godwin, as New Orleans did last Sunday. Through the first eight games of the season, the Buccaneers' pass-catchers in the non-Evans-and-Godwin division had combined to provide an average of 99.8 yards on 11.0 catches per game.
Of late, though, the Bucs may have found their number-three option, and it is…everybody?
Against the Saints, Cameron Brate tied a team record for tight ends with 10 catches, producing 73 yards. Rookie wide receiver Scotty Miller also pitched in with 71 yards on four grabs, including a season-long 48-yarder that set up a Bucs' touchdown. Winston also completed seven passes to his running backs. In the previous game, a Week 10 win over Arizona, running back Ronald Jones snared eight passes for 77 yards, tight end O.J. Howard had 47 yards and a touchdown and Miller had a key 28-yard catch.
Over those two games, all of the targets other than Evans and Godwin combined for 43 receptions and 399 yards, or almost exactly double the production of the first eight games, with an average of 21.5 catches for 199.5 yards.
"It's the epitome of complementary football," said Jameis Winston, who has thrown every one of those passes to Evans, Godwin and the rest. "You think about Breshad Perriman in the Seattle game – he stepped up in a big way, got a few catches and even a touchdown. Scotty, he's been climbing his way up every single week so he's continuing to get better. I was really excited to get Cam Brate involved. We have so many weapons and it's unfortunate that we can't get them all the ball, especially on the same play. When you've got receivers out there saying, 'Hey, I'm about to run my route as fast as I can because I don't know if I'm going to get the ball, but if I do get the ball I'm going to be ready,' it's a good thing."
Of course, it's not exactly a revolutionary idea to say that a lot of players catching passes can be a good thing for an offense. That said, there are most commonly only three receivers on the field together, and Evans and Godwin are going to be two of them on most snaps. So the opportunities to provide as a third option won't necessarily be spread out as evenly as the yardage totals from the last game were. And Miller, the blazing-fast rookie out of Bowling Green, may be gaining some in that department.
Perriman, the veteran who came to Tampa after a resurgent second half in Cleveland last year, has gotten the most snaps as the third receiver this year. Miller was inactive for the first two games of the season and Perriman later missed most of three contests with a hamstring strain, but when the two have been active at the same time Perriman has generally had about a 5-1 edge in snaps played. For example, Perriman logged 57 offensive plays against Arizona in Week 10 to Miller's 11.
The exception is the most recent game, in which Perriman and Miller had almost identical snap counts, 36 for the former and 35 for the latter.
"I'm feeling really confident with it," said Miller. "Whether it be the one receiver or the five receiver or anywhere in between, you've got to go out there when your number's called and be able to make plays. That's the mindset I have. I've just got to be ready to go whenever I'm out there on the field. I've got to know what I'm doing and play fast and make plays when it comes my way."
Winston had tried a couple times in previous weeks to get the ball deep to Miller but the connection was never quite made. Miller's longest catch had been a 28-yarder on a seam play in traffic against the Cardinals. On his 48-yarder last Sunday, Miller simply sprinted by Eli Apple and Winston hit him in stride.
"I just think hard work pays off," said Winston of his young teammate. "He's continued to work hard every day. He's definitely gaining confidence in himself and you're seeing the type of player that he's capable of being."
Perhaps the bottom line is that the Buccaneers are sixth in the NFL in passing, with a robust 285.6 yards per game, and they are averaging almost exactly two touchdown receptions a game. For much of the season, that has been largely provided by the Evans/Godwin combo, and there will probably be games in the final stretch of six in which that happens again. But on other occasions the Bucs will probably need a third option, even if that happens to be three or four different options.
"I thought Scotty played a little bit better; he's starting to develop, and it's about that time," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Usually [with] rookies, it takes until Thanksgiving. Breshad's open; he's not getting his opportunities very often but he's doing his job. Our tight ends can do a better job. I thought Cam did a good job with his targets. That position – when they're playing double zones – you've got to win inside like T.J. Logan did."
Indeed, after the Buccaneers lost productive wideouts Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson in the offseason, it seemed most likely that their missing production would be largely picked up by the pass-catching tight end duo of Brate and O.J. Howard. Brate did have his big day against the Saints but overall those two only have 447 combined yards this season. Howard in particular has seen his production fall off from last year and he saw only limited playing time in Week 11 after he lost his grip on a ball that would turn into a fluky interception.
However, Winston professed his continued confidence in Howard on Wednesday and said the coaching staff was also still confident in their talented third-year tight end. Arians pointed out that there is still plenty of time for Howard to get back on track.
"It's frustrating for him most, I think," said Arians. "He's had opportunities. We try to fit him in the game plan every week and he's had the misfortune of juggling a couple balls this season. There's still six games for him to get out of that funk."