ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It's obscured by the final score and a disappointing loss, but Bucs rookie tight end O.J. Howard had a breakout game Sunday, exceeding his season totals for catches and touchdowns in one afternoon.
Howard came in with five catches in his first five NFL games, including a single touchdown. He trumped that Sunday with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdown catches as the Bucs rallied for the lead in the fourth quarter.
"It really doesn't matter about the stats — at the end of the day, it's about the win," Howard said. "We had a lot of opportunities to win the game and we missed them."
Howard had a 21-yard catch on the second play of the game but really stepped up as the Bucs rallied in the second half. He caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston in the third quarter, then tied the game with a 33-yard score in the fourth quarter.
"Just one of those plays where you get the defense going one way and come back the other and Jameis found me again," Howard said. "It worked as advertised."
PROLIFIC PASSING: The Bucs have thrown for 300-plus yards five games in a row, a first for the franchise, and have topped 400 yards of total offense for just the second time in team history, following a stretch in 2012.
Winston finished with 384 yards, the second-highest total of his career, and threw for three touchdowns passes against a Bills defense that had allowed two total in its first five games. Despite missing half a game with injury, he's on pace to throw for 4,381 yards, breaking his own team record.
SWITCH INSIDE: With Vernon Hargreaves struggling in recent weeks, the Bucs moved him inside to slot corner, with Robert McClain working at outside corner Sunday, and the move seemed to work well.
"For this week, we wanted to just change Vernon's role a little bit," coach Dirk Koetter said. "He wasn't playing as well as we know he can play on the outside, so we wanted to give him a different change ... going forward, we'll have to see how the injury situation shakes out."
McClain was in concussion protocol after the game, potentially from a hit he was flagged for on a 44-yard pass that set up the tying touchdown in the final minutes.
UNHAPPY: T.J. Ward did not start at safety, rotating in with Chris Conte and rookie Justin Evans, and the limited role on a struggling defense has him frustrated.
"You've got to talk to coach Mike Smith and Dirk Koetter, but I'm at my wits' end,'' Ward said. "I'm tired of it. ... I mean, that's not why I came here. I did not come here to rotate. I did not come here to be a part-time player. I came here to make this defense better. Be on the field 100 percent of the time. I destruct offenses. That's what I do. I need to be out there."
THIS AND THAT: Patrick Murray, playing in his second game as the Bucs' new kicker, had a perfect game, going 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 50-yarder on the opening drive, and 3-for-3 on extra points. He is 6-for-6 since taking over for Nick Folk. ... The Bucs defense, best in the NFL on third-down conversions last year, continues to be among the league's worst, allowing Buffalo to convert on nine of its first 13 third downs, including four conversions on third-and-8 or longer.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.