With 36 seconds left in Tampa Bay's Week 14 game in Atlanta, the Buccaneers' offense lined up at the Falcons' 11-yard line on second, needing six yards for a first down, a field goal for a tie on the scoreboard or a touchdown for what would likely be the game-winning score. Obviously, they preferred that last option, even if a field goal was enough to extend the game.
Wide receiver Mike Evans, one of the best red zone threats in the entire NFL over the last decade, lined up in the right slot, but Bucs play-caller Dave Canales and quarterback Baker Mayfield knew the Falcons would give him double coverage, at the least. And sure enough, Evans had Atlanta's best cornerback, A.J. Terrell, right over the top of him on the line and their best safety, Jessie Bates, waiting around the two-yard line. When Evans ran a shallow slant to the middle, Terrell followed him and Bates reacted initially to his path.
Mayfield never even looked at Evans. He took a shotgun snap, hopped once on his toes and then lofted a soft floater over safety Richie Grant and into the sure hands of second-year tight end Cade Otton, who had run a corner route to the back left of the end zone out of the left slot. That 11-yard score put the Bucs up, 29-25, with 31 seconds left, and the defense held on at the end for the win that essentially saved the Bucs from elimination in the NFC South race. Now Tampa Bay is tied with Atlanta and New Orleans in first place and controls its own destiny over the final four weeks.
When asked if Otton was the primary read on the play on Monday, Head Coach Todd Bowles said it became clear to Mayfield where he was going when the offense and defense got lined up for the snap. Otton actually had to fight through a hold by Grant that drew a flag but he ran his route exactly where Mayfield was expecting him to go.
"Well, based on the coverage, it was by design," said Bowles. "He [had] a good read on it, the seven route was there for Cade, and if he didn't catch it, nobody would catch it. Baker made a heck of a throw, Cade came through."
Atlanta's defense spent most of the day rolling coverage towards Evans to take away the Bucs' top offensive weapon, and in a strict sense it worked. Evans finished the game with one catch for eight yards, just a week after torching Carolina for 162 yards and a touchdown. Fortunately for Mayfield the Buccaneers have other weapons he can rely on, such as wide receiver Chris Godwin (team-high five catches for 53 yards) and, increasingly in high-leverage moments, Otton.
"Cade's always going to be where you expect him to be," said Bowles. "He's never going to be out of position, he's always going to run the right route, he's always got sure hands, he's always going to do what he is supposed to do. You know where to find him if somebody is in trouble. You know where to find him, you know he's pretty reliable, and he has a good catch radius – he's become very reliable."
Otton only caught two passes for 16 yards in the game, but the Bucs did indeed rely on him in many different ways, as evidenced by the fact that he was on the field for 66 of a possible 68 offensive snaps on the afternoon. This is nothing new for the 2022 fourth-round pick; he has played 97.2% of the Bucs' offensive snaps on the season, and no other tight end in the league has logged a 90% share. Pro Football Reference, which has snap count data back through the 2012 season, indicates that no other Bucs' tight end in that span has played more than 86.8% of the team's snaps in a season. Hall of Fame-bound Rob Gronkowski didn't even hit 80% in either of his two seasons in red and pewter.
Whether he's getting a lot of targets in the passing game or just coming up big when the Bucs need him most, the coaches obviously want Otton on the field at all times. This is actually the third time in 29 career games that he has scored a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of regulation for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay won after he did so against the Rams last year in Week Nine of his rookie season but couldn't hold on after his second one in Houston earlier this season.
"He does a lot of things for us," said Bowles. "He's very steady. When we ask him to block, he blocks ends, he blocks [linebackers] he runs routes, he runs pick plays. He does a lot of things for us, he's invaluable that way. I keep saying it all the time, he's our most unsung hero over there right now. He does a lot things, he's very steady, he's very smart, he plays special teams when need be. He does a lot of odds and ends for us that really doesn't go on the stat sheet, but really shows up for us as coaches."