O.J. Howard, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year tight end and 2017 first-round draft pick, has four catches for 43 yards in the preseason, and that will probably represent his final summer totals as he is unlikely to play in Thursday night's finale. Howard has had an excellent second training camp and a fine preseason, and his numbers would probably be more reflective of that if his best play this year hadn't been erased by a penalty on Friday night.
It was Howard himself who was flagged on the play. From the right side of the offense he ran up the field on a first-down play from the Bucs' 36, approached safety Tavon Wilson, gave a jab step out to the right and then cut sharply in. Quarterback Jameis Winston hit Howard over the Wilson just before safety Quandre Diggs arrived to deliver a hard hit. The hit didn't end the play, however, as Howard landed on his feet, stayed up and bounced off to get another 10 yards. In all, the play was good for a 30-yard gain to the Lions' 34-yard line.
Or would have been had Howard not been flagged for offensive pass interference. The official judged that he had pushed off in order to gain separation from Wilson and the result was a first-and-20 back at the Bucs' 26.
Mike Evans is the offensive weapon for Tampa Bay who most often has to deal with push-off calls, not all of which he agrees with. It is, of course, a judgment call, but it's also a part of the game for big, physical targets who sometimes find themselves in contact with smaller players. Howard is learning that lesson early in his career.
I asked the ref," said Howard on Sunday, with no trace of bitterness over the call. "He said he thought that the guy had the right to stand his ground as much as I did, but I thought he was holding me. So when I tried to get free he thought the guy kind of flew off too much so he had to call it. It sounded like I was being too rough with him, basically, so he had to throw the flag."
Howard understands that his size will sometimes make it looks like he is "smothering" an opposing defender, and that can lead to borderline calls. But it's those types of mismatches that the Buccaneers want to create and exploit with their big, fast tight end.
"I think at my position we get a lot of mismatches, smaller guys as you saw," said Howard. "It's a way for us to get a mismatch, get the ball and try to do something with it."
Howard clearly feels more comfortable heading into his second NFL season, though his first year showed a lot of promise, especially with his six touchdowns and his robust average of 16.6 yards per catch. He says that a better overall understanding of the offense is allowing him to play faster and with more confidence. And while the Buccaneers' quarterbacks have rightfully garnered a lot of praise for how well the passing game has produced this preseason, Howard and the Bucs' talented array of pass-catchers have certainly made it easier for those field generals.
"It goes right back to our details," said Howard. "Coach Monk [Todd Monken] always stresses so much in this camp [to] always have the details of your routes down. No matter who's at quarterback, if you're in the spot where you're supposed to be in with your steps, the ball's going to be there. I think if you do that, it doesn't matter who the quarterback is."
REINFORCEMENTS ARRIVE: The Buccaneers signed three players on Sunday to put the roster back at the 91-man max for this final week of preseason preparations. Wide receiver Donteea Dye, running back Devine Redding and long-snapper Garrison Sanborn were all suited up and ready to participate by the 1:00 p.m. start to practice.
More encouragingly, the Buccaneers also got several players back who had missed varying amounts of time due to minor injuries. Among those who had missed recent work as well as last Friday's game who were in the mix on Sunday afternoon were defensive tackle Beau Allen, safety Justin Evans, guard Ali Marpet and tackle Leonard Wester.
Wester had been out the longest, having suffered a knee injury on the third day of training camp nearly a month ago. While Allen, Evans and Marpet likely have roster spots secured, Wester could be in a more serious battle. He has been on the roster for two years already after proving his talent as an undrafted free agent in 2016, and he probably entered camp as the leading candidate to be the swing tackle behind starters Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson.
Missing a significant amount of time makes it hard for a player to maintain that lead, and first-year man Mike Liedtke has clearly used his opportunity at left tackle to make up ground. It is definitely a good thing for Wester that he will be able to get in another week of practice and presumably some game action before the Bucs have to piece together their regular-season offensive line group.
"Any of those guys that are not assured of a roster spot, especially those young tackles, it's an important week," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Cole Boozer was also back doing some today and it's an important week. [Y]ou've got issues at multiple positions and that's where we have to rely on our medical team and some projection on when guys are going to be back that we know are going to be here and that's something that Jason [Licht] is working on around the clock."
SCORING IN BUNCHES: After struggling to score in the preseason a year ago, Tampa Bay's has gone in the other direction in 2018, putting up points at a nearly unprecedented (preseason) pace for the franchise.
After their 33-30 loss to the Lions on Friday night, the Buccaneers are up to 86 points through three games. Only Green Bay, with 29.3 points per game, has scored at a faster clip than the Buccaneers and their average of 28.7 per outing. In fact, 86 points is the second-most Tampa Bay has ever posted through the first three games of the preseason, and the most since the 1999 team rang up 92 through its first three contests. That team went on to the NFC Championship Game (albeit largely on the strength of its defense).
The Bucs have tallying 56 of their 86 points in the first half, so this has definitely not been a case of the scoring coming from deep reserves against opponents' deep reserves. There are many, many caveats that can be applied to these numbers – for instance, the Titans didn't play their starting defense as long as the Bucs played their starting offense in Week Two – but they remain at least mildly encouraging. One of the main reasons the Buccaneers have been able to score early all three weeks, including opening-drive touchdowns against both Miami and Detroit, and then continue to put up points throughout the game is that all three of their top quarterbacks have played very well.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston and Ryan Griffin have combined for a 110.3 passer rating while completing 69.2% of their throws and tossing six touchdowns against no interceptions.
"It would be hard not to be [pleased with] the way all three of those guys are really doing a good job," said Koetter. "I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Fitz now has been through a whole cycle with us, Griff's been here for three and of course, Jameis [Winston. And then [Quarterbacks Coach] Mike Bajakian does a really good job with them in the meeting room so that's where your OTAs pay off, your classroom stuff pays off and those three guys have done a really nice job of carrying it to the field."
Fitzpatrick and Winston are unlikely to play in the final preseason game and Griffin might find his time on the field limited as well. Rookie Austin Allen, who tossed the Bucs' first interception of the summer on a final, desperate pass on Friday night, could see the majority of the action. Whoever is leading the offense will have a shot at giving the Buccaneers their most prolific four-game preseason ever. The most points Tampa Bay has ever scored in a four-game preseason was 108, also in 1999. The Bucs need 23 points on Thursday to top that.
And yes, I know, it's just the preseason.