Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
The progression of fan emotion of Bruce Arians becoming the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was entertaining to watch unfold. At first it was skepticism; most thought there was no way Arians would come back to coaching in the NFL. They thought it was just a pipe dream.
Then there was hope. The rumors started swirling that it could be true – that Arians could be the one to replace Dirk Koetter. Then came excitement, as it was close to happening. Joy followed when the official announcement was made, and then questions came out about what would happen with each player on the roster.
“What will he do with Jameis Winston?”
“Will he move on from Gerald McCoy?”
“What system will he have Byron Leftwich run on offense?”
But the question that I thought was overblown, one that no one has seemed to really dig into to clear up, is fans and media personalities questioning what will happen with tight end O.J. Howard.
The reason fans are questioning what will happen with the Buccaneers’ 2017 first-round, alien-like, mismatch of an offensive weapon is due to the history of Arians’ offensive preferences. Fans will quickly point out the fact that Arians has traditionally not integrated tight end play very heavily into his offensive sets, prioritizing the position as third out of three on the totem pole, at times.
But, as I often try to do, let’s address those stats that have some Bucs fans uneasy and ease their worries with some context.
Arians called plays for three teams over the span of 11 years (Steelers from 2007-2011, Colts in 2012, Cardinals from 2013-2017). But he won’t be the one calling the plays in Tampa Bay. That duty will be on the shoulders of Leftwich, the team’s offensive play-caller.
Though this is Leftwich’s first full-time offensive coordinator gig, it won’t be his first time calling plays. Last year, in Arizona, Leftwich called plays for the final nine games of the Cardinals’ disappointing season – albeit using the playbook of fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Though we won’t be able to learn much in terms of tendencies of play calls, due to the fact that it wasn’t an Arians playbook he was operating under, Leftwich having that experience under his belt will be good for him.
We can assume that though Arians won’t be the one on the headset, the offensive philosophy and the offensive playbook will have his hands all over it. For reference on that, let’s look at some passing game distribution numbers from Arians’ 11 years as a play caller.
Arians was about 60-40 pass-run when he was in Arizona calling all the shots while having a very good running back option in David Johnson, I have to think that the Bucs might be even more pass-heavy than that given the DNA of their current offensive roster – meaning far better receiving options than running options.
As you can see in the pie chart above, Arians based most of his passing attack around his receivers. Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald dominated the market share of a 2-WR passing attack in 2013 and 2014 when Arians first arrived. But in 2016 and 2017, when Arians had options like John Brown and J.J. Nelson to stretch the field with speed and Johnson to catch out of the backfield, Arians passed the ball more than he ever had in his career.
The point there is that Arians molded his offense to the talent that he had. When he had speedsters on his team, he diversified his offensive sets. When he had a good receiving back at his disposal, he did the same.
That’s why when I see numbers in the ones in the chart above where Arians had a three percent dip in distribution to his tight ends during his time in Arizona, I don’t think that holds much weight to his situation in Tampa Bay. When Arians was in Arizona, his tight end options were Jermaine Gresham, John Carlson and Rob Housler, names you likely don’t even recognize outside of Gresham – unless you’re a true fantasy football addict.
Arians didn’t emphasis tight end play because he never had tight ends to emphasize. Just like he adjusted his game plan around Brown and Nelson when they got on the roster, and just like how he upped running back usage in the passing game by nearly three percent when Johnson proved himself, I would expect him to do the same now that two of his better receiving options come at the tight end position (Howard and Cam Brate).
PFF had this to say about the Bucs’ future tight end usage – in which they labeled O.J. Howard a future “fantasy loser” in the whole Arians signing.
“Across Arians’ five-year tenure in Arizona, his top tight end averaged only 50 targets, 32 receptions, and 348 yards per season and were often fourth or fifth on the offense in targets.”
Let’s clear things up there.
In 2018 alone, a season in which he missed the final six games due to injury, Howard had 48 targets, 38 receptions, 565 yards and five touchdowns. In 2017, he had 39 targets, 26 receptions, 432 yards and six touchdowns. But the important number in Howard’s stats aren’t the ones listed there. It’s the 16.6 yards-per-catch average he’s racked up over the last two seasons.
That right there is the magic number, and that is why Howard and his production isn’t going anywhere.
On the season, the only player who had a catch rate higher than Howard (70.8) was Humphries (72.4), but when you factor in that Howard had a 16.6 YPC average vs. Humphries’ 10.7, Howard was the most efficient offensive weapon they had as well as their top mismatch.
And let’s even take it a step further.
When he was targeted, Howard led the league in first down rate by a pretty big gap. And if you take out the plays where there were interceptions thrown his way, Howard added the most value per target of all receiving threats of the league.
Now let’s also enter in that, of the 10 games in which he played in, Howard received just one target on the team’s opening possession across all of those games. There is plenty of context within that, such as him being a primary target but the ball not getting to him. But even with that truth, one target in the opening possessions in 10 games seems criminal. Howard averaged 21 route runs and 23 blocking snaps per game in his first two years. They used him more as a blocker than a receiver.
R. Gronkowski – 3.90
H. Henry – 3.53
O. Howard – 3.40
T. Kelce – 3.37
J. Reed – 3.27
G. Kittle -3.27
J. Graham – 3.05
Z. Ertz – 2.98
And yet they used him more as a blocker.
If anything, I think Howard’s emphasis and production will go up with Arians, not down – they’ll know they need to be using him early and often.
Arians loved to stretch the field with his speed guys when he got them. I expect him to do the same in a mismatch manner with Howard – and yes, even Brate. If anyone suffers from Arians philosophy, I think it would be Brate. But due to the connection he and Jameis Winston have, especially in the red zone, even that should stay somewhat steady.
The stats may show that Arians has never emphasized tight ends as a major or even secondary priority in his offense over his coaching tenure, but he’s never had a weapon like Howard.
If I were a betting man, I’d expect Howard to have the highest production of any tight end Arians has coached since Heath Miller had nearly 800 yards receiving with six touchdowns back in 2009 during his time in Pittsburgh.