The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins got together for another 150-minute joint practice at the AdventHealth Training Center on Wednesday and hit all the usual marks: one-on-ones, seven-on-seven passing drills, a field goal period, and so on. Perhaps the most entertaining of the 11 practice periods were the eighth one and the final one because they put the players in specific and high-stress game situations and came closest to mimicking an actual game.
Period eight was a series of two-minute drills starting at the offense's 40-yard line with 1:25 left on the first-half clock. The second of those pitted Tampa Bay's first-team offense against Miami's first-team defense, and here's how it ended:
The last period was a quick one, a pair of plays for each team's first and second-team offenses at the goal line, eight snaps in total. This was the rare practice drill that featured live tackling, and here's how it went for the Buccaneers' first-team group on its two plays:
You don't have to be a soon-to-draft fantasy football player to have your ears prick up at those two scores. The Buccaneers believe O.J. Howard is ready to join the NFL's elite tight ends in his third season, and it seems clear that Jameis Winston likes to find him in the red zone. Winston has had a very strong rapport with tight end Cameron Brate in the last few years, and now he seems to be developing the same with Howard.
"It gets better every year," said Winston of his connection with Howard. "I think we've probably increased his touches and his touchdowns every year we've played together, as like with me and Cam [Brate] and as like me and Mike [Evans]. The more you get a chance to work with somebody, you get to develop that great relationship and I am just glad Jason Licht [gave] me a ton of weapons to work with."
To be sure, the five total hours the Bucs and Dolphins spent on the practice field together over two days had plenty of ups and downs for the home team. There were wins for the Dolphins' defense as well, including an interception that quickly ended another move-the-ball drill, and which was the result of miscommunication between Winston and one of his receivers. But those two situational drills were the highlights of the second day for the Buccaneers' offense.
"It went well," said Winston of the two-minute drive, which started with Mike Evans getting wide open down the right sideline for a 45-yard gain. "You've got to execute when things are there and you've got to hit it, and that's how it went."
As for the aforementioned interception, Head Coach Bruce Arians won't lose any sleep over it, and it didn't detract from his assessment of Winston's efforts on Wednesday.
"Another solid day [for Winston]," said Arians. "Great drive in the two-minute, great catch by O.J. [He] learned some stuff; he had a miscommunication on a route that was an interception. It wasn't either guy's fault, it was just something new that we put in. Same thing with that last 30-second one – a brand-new play. We've never really done it but in a walk-through, so I don't get upset with that. I thought he had a really good day."
And Howard's flashy day doesn't mean Winston will soon be forgetting Brate, who is running freely after being significantly hampered by a hip injury last year. Howard almost certainly will be a key red zone weapon for the Buccaneers this year, but the beauty of the Buccaneers' attack is that defenses won't be able to key on him. Wide receiver Chris Godwin pulled a high number of red zone targets last season and was on the receiving end of the touchdown pass Winston threw to end the game-opening touchdown drive last Friday in Pittsburgh. Brate has the second-most touchdowns among NFL tight ends over the past three seasons, almost all of them on plays originating inside the 20. And Evans has few peers when it comes to the back-corner fade.
The Bucs can put all four of them on the field at one time, and they definitely will be employing Howard and Brate together as one of the league's best tight end tandems. Both are listed as starters on Tampa Bay's depth chart.
"Yeah, we're a two-tight end offense," said Arians. "That's what we are, so you're going to see a hell of a lot of them."
Arians said the development of the Buccaneers' offense is right on schedule to be running smoothly by the time the regular season arrives. Tampa Bay led the NFL in passing yards last season and has returned many of the key components in that attack, but the rushing attack wasn't nearly as successful. That could be a key area of improvement for Tampa Bay in Arians' first year at the helm.
"I think we're running the ball really nicely, and that showed up in both [joint] practices," he said. "And we're making big plays."
The Buccaneers and Dolphins will share the field one more time this week, as they meet for a preseason game at Raymond James Stadium on Friday evening. Winston and company might get another shot at a hurry up drill or a goal-line series, but they might not. That's what made the two joint practices so valuable to both teams.
"[It's] just good quality competition in all different phases," said Arians. "We can set up situations. We don't get situations in preseason games sometimes. [Miami Head Coach] Brian [Flores] was great about working together, making sure that we were all here to make each other better and get all these situations in for our quarterbacks and our receivers to deal with.
"These to me are more important now than games are because we can situationally put our players where we want them."