Bucs WR Gage gets hot at the perfect time
He may only have 40 catches for 313 yards — a paltry 7.8 average — this season, but with three touchdowns in his last two games, wide receiver Russell Gage is starting to show the Bucs some return on their investment.
Tampa Bay signed Gage to a $30 million three-year deal this offseason. The goal was to have him play as a key component of the team’s offense as he would serve as the No. 3 wide receiver behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. It was a role left vacant by Antonio Brown, and it turned out to be a big vacancy last season until the playoffs.
In training camp, everything started phenomenally for Gage. The former Atlanta Falcon proved extremely difficult to mate, flashing early and often in the dog days of summer. But a hamstring injury set him back and it put a damper on his first season with the Bucs.
Gage battled that hamstring injury all preseason. It was clearly still bothering him when the season started and despite posting a 12-catch, 87-yard performance and scoring his first Tampa Bay touchdown in a Week 3 loss to Green Bay, the 26-year-old didn’t play as the receiver the Bucs paid him for.
Subsequently, Gage missed four games – including the entire month of November – with that nagging hamstring injury. But in recent weeks, Gage has become a factor in the red zone, where the Bucs have struggled this season. He caught a deflected touchdown two weeks ago in a 35-7 loss at San Francisco before coming through last week with eight catches for 59 yards and two scores in a 34-23 loss to the Bengals. If he can continue to produce like this through the final three games of the season, the Bucs may feel better about the contract they gave him in March.
Gage is more like the receiver the Bucs know he can be
The Bucs saw a glimpse of just how slick and productive Gage can be during the early days of training camp. And after his injury battle during the first few months of the season, he’s starting to show some of those flashes again.
“That’s the problem with Russ – we just needed him healthy,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said on Thursday. “He can do things like this – he has a certain amount of movement [to] him where he knows how to open up. He can really open up. He really knows how to create space, so the more we have him to practice – if we can be healthy enough to practice as he has been doing for the past few weeks – I think you’ll see results like that on gameday. It’s good to have him back.”
As Gage continues to climb to 100% health, the move Leftwich talked about should resurface. With that, his yards per catch, which is currently by far the lowest of his career, should also improve. Remember this is a man who caught 66 passes for 770 yards (11.7 avg) with the Falcons in 2021. The Bucs saw first hand what he could do as last year he totaled 16 catches for 158 yards in two games against Tampa Bay.
What clicked for Gage is his connection to quarterback Tom Brady in the red zone. It’s something he attributes to timing, as well as the cover Evans and Godwin command from the opposing defense.
“I think it’s a bit of timing,” Gage said Wednesday. “Often, [teams] move the reporting to Mike [Evans], they like to double him, so I get a lot of one-on-one. I can beat one-on-one pretty easily, Tom [Brady] know, so we just take advantage of those things when no one is there. Mike, Chris [Godwin]those guys are moving the cover off me and I’m taking full advantage of those opportunities.
Whatever it is, it works for Gage. He leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four, and touchdowns have certainly been hard to come by on this 2022 Bucs offense.
Tampa Bay needs Gage – and Julio Jones – along the stretch
Part of what let the Bucs down on the stretch and in the NFC Divisional Round last postseason was their depth at wide receiver. By the time they hosted the Rams in the second round of the playoffs, Mike Evans, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson were the only healthy receivers on the roster.
Antonio Brown walked off in a season-ending victory over the Jets. Chris Godwin tore his ACL in December. Even Cyril Grayson Jr. and Breshad Perriman, two guys forced into bigger roles, were sidelined by the playoffs.
What Tampa Bay went through last year at the receiver position made the addition of Gage so necessary. It’s also why signing another veteran in Julio Jones made so much sense.
So while the Bucs look set to finish strong, capture the NFC South and make a run in the playoffs, Gage and Jones now need to produce. It almost doesn’t matter that their regular season production wasn’t up to their standards – now is the time for them to step up and be the receivers the Bucs have paid them for this offseason.
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