The Tampa Bay Buccaneers represent a bit of a problem for the Detroit Lions this week. The Lions are not particularly good at covering tight ends. The Buccaneers have two very good tight ends on their roster in rookie O. J. Howard and fourth-year man Cameron Brate. The Buccaneers have scored only 19 passing touchdowns on the year, but their tight end duo has combined for ten of them.
“It’s a big challenge.” Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Wednesday. “They’re both very good.” Tight ends are notoriously slow starters in terms of their career statistics, and O.J. Howard is no exception. He has only 21 receptions in his rookie campaign. He has scored a touchdown on 19% of them, however. That is a slightly higher percentage than Lions touchdown leader Marvin Jones in 2017. “Oj Howard…can really run, big target”Austin added.
Brate was supposed to fall by the wayside as the team added Howard and veteran receiver Deshaun Jackson in the 2017 offseason. Instead, Brate is fourth on the receiving corps in receptions. “Brate’s got six touchdowns on the year,” Austin told the assembled throng of reporters, “Those guys are really good.”
Brate is a free agent in the offseason, and could not have had a better follow up to his 2016 57 reception, 660 yard, and eight touchdown performance. He is going to get paid a lot of money in the 2018 offseason as a receiving tight end that is a willing and acceptably capable blocker.
On how the Lions are going to limit the susceptibility to tight end play that has dogged them for the entire season Austin conveyed that it is about players putting themselves in position to make a play. “We’ve got to make sure we’re in the right positions, our eyes in the right spots.” Rookie Jarrad Davis was taken off the field last week in the team’s nickel package, a package that he was expected to bolster with his athleticism. “If we don’t make it but we’re in position, I can deal with that,” Austin added, referring to the defense in general, not Davis specifically. “It’s when we’re not in position because maybe eyes are in the wrong spot, then we’ve got a problem.” Davis has been one of the Lions biggest offenders, biting on playaction continually and missing his coverage assignments.
Regarding the ever-dangerous deep threat Jackson, Austin had more praise. “I think the one thing about him is everybody talks about his speed, but the guy’s a really good route runner because he knows how to set up routes.” Jackson’s days as a one trick pony that ran a nine on every play ended two teams ago in Philadelphia. He was brought into Tampa Bay to give quarterback Jameis Winston an alternative to the Buccaneers towering number one receiver Mike Evans with a different style of play. Jackson is second on the team in receptions and receiving yardage. “He uses his speed to set up his routes. Some guys can only go straight ahead and they’ve got just a few things in their bag, Austin said, “I really respect him as a receiver.”
Winston is expected to start for the Buccaneers on Sunday. He returned to action against Green Bay last week and had a solid outing throwing the ball. The team lost in overtime, but Winston’s arm was not the reason. Austin took notice. “He came back he had really good zip on his ball. You watch a touchdown he threw last week, they’re in an eight-man drop, and he just threads that thing in the needle.” Winston has been under fire in Tampa Bay, blamed for the team’s struggles despite posting career highs in completion percentage and touchdown to interception ratio in 2017. Winston’s passer rating is over 90 for the first time in his career.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not the number 31 offense in the NFL in 2017, they are number 13. The Detroit Lions and their well regarded defensive coordinator could be in tough, facing a puzzle for which they simply do not have all the pieces to solve. Sunday might be a dark day in Detroit if the team stands defeated in the Florida sunshine. The Lions magic number for playoff elimination now sits at two with the Falcons victory over the Saints Thursday night. Another loss puts a playoff berth all but mathematically out of reach.