X-factor: Bucs’ rookie tight end O.J. Howard

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 19:  O.J. Howard #80 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on November 19, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

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MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 19: O.J. Howard #80 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on November 19, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Most applauded the Bucs drafting of former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard with the 19th overall pick in the NFL draft.

But so far, his play has been underwhelming.

Howard will be the X-factor when the Bucs (4-6) play the Falcons (6-4) on Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Howard has 17 catches for 279 yards and four touchdowns, including a 58-yarder. He had a big game against Buffalo when he caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Other than that game, he hasn’t had much of an impact. But the Bucs don’t have a problem with Howard.

They trace their issues to an inconsistent passing attack, which was led by quarterback Jameis Winston. He’s out with a shoulder injury and the Bucs have won two straight with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.

“Our first round pick, O.J. Howard has definitely shown…he’s doing fine,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “He’s made some spectacular plays. He’s learning the difference between college football and pro football. Above average rookie progression and he’s loaded with talent. He’s going to be a really good player.”

The Falcons have used linebacker De’Vondre Campbell at times on tight ends. He has four pass breakups this season.

“That’s a part of ‘Dre that in my opinion has had a big tick up this year in terms of his ability to guard tight ends man-to-man,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He did it some last year, for sure, but his awareness, his ability to do that more has been a real factor.”

There were times when the Falcons left Campbell with Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham.

“When you play a guy like Graham it’s not just one guy’s job where he’s going to play that for the (entire) day,” Quinn said. “You’d better have a couple guys who are up for the task who can do that.”

The Falcons also use strong safety Keanu Neal on tight ends.

“Fortunately for us, we’re in that world where we have at least two players that have that kind of size and length that are able to guard the bigger, longer receiving type players,” Quinn said.