Bucs’ Brate-Howard duo poses riddle for TE-leery Lions

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Allen Park — A familiar frailty has resurfaced for the Lions in recent weeks — defending the tight end.

The past three games, Detroit’s defense has been burned by Chicago’s Adam Shaheen, Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph and Baltimore’s Benjamin Watson, surrendering a combined four touchdowns during the span.

It’s a troubling issue that could potentially spell more bad news Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose tight end duo of Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard have combined for 58 catches, 829 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.


“It’s a big challenge,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said earlier this week. “They’re both very good. O.J. Howard really can run, big target. And then Brate’s got six touchdowns on the year. Those guys are really good.

“They catch the ball well. They run well and they do a good job in offense in terms of scheming them and making sure they get open. So, it’s going to be a challenge for us.”

The Lions struggled to keep track of Shaheen, Rudolph and Watson and take them out of the passing game. Shaheen caught all four passes thrown his way for 41 yards and one touchdown, Rudolph caught all four of his targets for 63 yards and two scores, and Watson caught three of five targets for 24 yards and a touchdown.

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Detroit’s coverage lapses were particularly troublesome in the red zone, where Shaheen, Rudolph and Watson all scored on 1-yard receptions.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re in the right positions, our eyes are in the right spots and that we have an opportunity to get there to make a play,” Austin said. “And that’s really what I’m concerned about. Let’s be in position to make a play. If we make it — if we don’t make it, but we’re in position, I can deal with that. It’s when we’re not in position because maybe eyes are in the wrong spot, then we’ve got a problem.”

Unfortunately for the Lions, Brate and Howard have been a problem for most teams this season.

Brate is coming off a two-touchdown performance against the Packers and has thrived in the red zone with four of his team-leading six touchdowns coming inside 15 yards.

Meanwhile, Howard has big-play potential as evidenced by his 58-yard touchdown against the Giants in Week 4 and six-catch, 98-yard outing against the Bills in Week 7. He also leads the Buccaneers with a team-high 16.6 yards per reception.

Yet, the duo makes up part of Tampa Bay’s fifth-ranked passing attack that also features Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson and is led by third-year quarterback Jameis Winston.

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Winston showed no ill effects of a shoulder injury that sidelined him for three games as he turned in one of his better offensive performances of the season last week with 270 yards passing and the two touchdown tosses to Brate.

“He can make all the throws, very strong arm, looks like he has a good command of the offense,” Austin said. “And he can get it to the guys, he knows how to get it to his guys that need it. When you watch him, 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.

“I mean, just a really good football player and it’s going to be a challenge to keep him. We want to try and get him out of rhythm as much we can and keep him off his game as best we can.”

In order to do so, it’ll require a serious bounce-back effort from the Lions’ defense that was toothless last week against one of the league’s worst passing attacks to step up and slow down one of the best.

“(Winston) is throwing the ball well. He can make all sorts of throws, tight windows, over the top, you name it, he can make it,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Obviously, the receivers they have on the flanks, DeSean Jackson is playing well. Evans has an unbelievable catching radius. So, it’s a really well-rounded group.

“What we try and do is, ‘Hey, this is a challenge that we’re up against.’ This team plays really well when they’re rolling and they can get rolling in a hurry.”