On every offensive play, the Buccaneers have five eligible targets on the field for Josh Freeman, in some combination of receivers, running backs and tight ends. With the recent emergences of both Dallas Clark and Tiquan Underwood, Freeman often has five serious playmakers on the field at once.
Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are clearly the team’s big three in terms of offensive production, accounting for 2,966 combined rushing and receiving yards, or 73.8% of the team’s total, and 22 of the team’s 36 touchdowns. However, as Sunday’s down-to-the-wire game against Atlanta demonstrated, Freeman can also count on Underwood and Clark when the situation dictates it.
Both Underwood and Clark put up their best yardage totals of the season in Sunday’s game. Underwood set single-game career highs with five catches for 77 yards while Clark added four for 65. Underwood continues to stretch the field, with an average of 15.3 yards on his 20 catches in 2012, plus two touchdowns, and Clark is simply becoming more and more involved in the offense every week. The former Colts tight end has 22 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the last six games.
Underwood actually had to wait a while to get his shot with the Buccaneers this season. He was waived on the final roster cutdown but then brought back in Week Three. He played sparingly at Dallas just after returning but then essentially took over the #3 receiver role from the next week forward. His catches and yards have fluctuated from week to week, based largely on how the opposing defense is approaching the Bucs’ suddenly robust offense, but he’s more than pleased with his role.
“It’s a game-to-game thing,” said Underwood. “One game you might have five catches, one game you might have one. It’s all about doing what’s going to help the team. When the ball comes your way as a receiver you just try to make the play whenever you can.”
Underwood was actually Freeman’s most targeted receiver against Atlanta, with nine footballs thrown his way as compared to the seven in Jackson’s direction (which produced five catches and 96 yards). The Falcons were clearly focused on slowing down Martin, and they have been strong against opposing team’s top two receivers for much of the season. It wasn’t difficult to predict that Freeman would have to look to Underwood and Clark a bit more, and fortunately they both delivered. For the most part, however, Underwood believes it’s the Bucs’ offense that can and should be dictating the action in most cases.
“Hats off to Atlanta,” he said. “They did a great job against the run. We’d been running the ball fairly well the last few weeks. But they played very well. They’re a good group – they don’t have that record for no reason. But as an offense, we control a lot. So we’re going to correct the mistakes and just get ready for Denver.”
Underwood understands that any game can hinge on a single play, or a small handful of key moments. He also knows that, as deep as the Bucs’ talent is on offense now, he might be the one called on to make one of those plays.
“There’s a fine line between winning and losing,” he said. “You just have to execute. Especially when the stakes are high, you’ve just go to execute. That’s what it’s all about. That could be the difference between winning and losing.”