With 65 catches for 964 yards and a team-record 11 touchdown receptions, Mike Williams emerged last year as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ newest go-to, big-play threat from the wide receiver position.
The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder out of Syracuse came within 36 yards of giving Tampa Bay a 1,000-yard receiver again after a streak of eight years with one ended during the Bucs 3-13 campaign of 2009.
Williams’ fellow 2010 NFL Draft product Arrelious Benn didn’t produce a similar immediate impact last season, but began to show why the Bucs selected him with their second-round pick. As the year progressed, Benn [6-foot-2, 220-pounds] finished fourth on the team in receptions  and third in yards  before being derailed by a torn ligament in his left knee during Week 16’s win over Seattle. Additionally promising was his team-leading yards-per-reception average of 15.8 being produced opposite Williams’ 14.8 per-catch rate.
Through seven games this season, the follow-up effort has been less that spectacular for both second-year pros. Williams has been relatively candid when speaking publically about the need to step up his play and better help this offense succeed. He’s currently on pace to top his 65 receptions from last year, but is averaging 4.6 less yards per catch and has only one touchdown.
Along with tight end Kellen Winslow, Williams continues to be one of quarterback Josh Freeman’s top two targets. Benn’s involvement in the passing attack, though, has been sporadic all season. Benn enters Sunday’s game in New Orleans with 15 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns, but again leads the team in yards per catch at 16.2.
In addressing the receiving corps as a whole, Williams said during an open locker room session that although the overall production isn’t there yet, he’s confident it’s not far off.
“We know we’ve still got us in us. We know it’s only a couple plays away. We’re getting more focused. We’re cutting down on the penalties. We have a whole bunch of penalties right now, so if we cut down on the penalties we can play and come out with a win versus anybody.”
Tampa Bay has been plagued by penalties all season on both sides of the ball. Receivers have contributed to the problem with plays such as Benn’s illegal shift infraction in Minnesota that cost Williams a 17-yard touchdown catch.
Frustratingly coupled with penalties have been dropped passes. According to STATS, LLC, Williams is in an eighth-place tie for most drops in the NFL by receivers, with four. Benn has let three balls hit the turf. As a team, Tampa Bay pass catchers have dropped 13 of Freeman’s attempts. Williams also ranks second in the NFL with 32 passes thrown his way but not caught.
“I know we’ve got a couple more than we’d usually have from a guy like Mike Williams,” said head coach Raheem Morris this week. “He had a couple drops. We had some key ones, some clutch ones. We had one on the first drive [in London against Chicago]. I guess you have to say any time you drop a ball it’s shocking. We’re professionals. We want to catch all of them.”
Morris said he doesn’t feel dropped passes have been the primary woe for Williams or Benn, “but it certainly doesn’t help us do what we want to do.”
One thing Morris did say the offense is working toward is trying to increase Benn’s involvement each week with consistency. Benn was targeted seven times in the season-opening loss to Detroit and six times three weeks ago against New Orleans. In the Bucs’ five other contests, only 12 total passes were thrown in his direction.
Despite the low frequency of opportunities, Benn is tied for fourth in the NFC with four catches of 25 yards or more. He logged Tampa Bay’s longest play from scrimmage three weeks in a row this season during a stretch against Indianapolis (43 yards), San Francisco (33 yards) and New Orleans (65 yards).
“He’s certainly one of those guys we’ve got to get more involved in our offense and we’ve been trying,” Morris said of Benn. “We’ve been throwing screens to him, running reverses; we’ve been doing a bunch of everything with him. But we’ve got to get him the ball down the field so he can make plays with his catching ability and his speed.”
Benn’s taking of three end-arounds in the past four games suggests this desire to create opportunities in the open field, but the Bucs have been unable to spring him loose in that capacity. The three rushing attempts have gone for a total of zero net yards.
As William’s production has been inconsistent, Benn’s involvement has wavered and Sammie Stroughter remains sidelined with a foot injury, the development of backup receivers Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe has helped pick up the slack. Parker (23 catches for 310 yards and two TDs) and Briscoe (16 catches for 196 yards and one TD) are also second-year pros and have combined for 23 targets in the past two games.
Stroughter has been back to practicing live with the Bucs but didn’t specify on Tuesday when his possible return to the lineup could come. As Williams stated before, though, Stroughter echoed the confidence among Tampa Bay receivers to perform at a winning level.
“We’ve got high standards in our room. Coach [Eric] Yarber makes us put our standards high. We’re going to continue to work hard and try to put best selves out there every Sunday.”