TAMPA — Last week Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden admitted that he had "big plans" for tight end Jerramy Stevens.
It's becoming clear just how big those plans are.
Stevens is coming off his best game as a Buccaneer after catching four passes for 73 yards and two touchdowns against San Francisco. With the season-ending injury to Maurice Stovall, Stevens' role in the offense is bound to increase.
And with the resolution of his March DUI arrest in Arizona, Stevens has put his latest — and hopefully last — off-the-field problem behind him.
"I consider myself lucky to be on this team," Stevens said. "I know that I was going to latch on somewhere, but this is where I wanted to be."
At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, the Buccaneers saw Stevens as a hulking red zone target. But only in the past few games has Stevens' role in the offense increased.
Why? Well, his DUI trial in Scottsdale took him away from game preparation for the season opener. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to pay a $3,100 fine in October after being convicted on three counts of drunken driving and traffic violations.
Plus, the three-month wait for action from the league office regarding his conviction may have made it hard for the team to give Stevens meaningful reps in practice and games.
"It was hanging over my head all season," Stevens said. "I really didn't know what was going to happen. That's not easy for me or the coaching staff to put me in there, not knowing what's going to happen to me next week."
The league office suspended Stevens for one game, the Buccaneers' 37-3 win over Atlanta on Dec. 16. The game before that, though, Stevens put his stamp on the season with his leaping 4-yard, game-winning touchdown catch against the New Orleans Saints. The reception, which saw Stevens reach over his head in full extension to catch Luke McCown's tightrope pass, proved his value in the red zone.
And it might have finally put him on head coach Jon Gruden's radar.
"I think it started with the New Orleans game when I made that big play," Stevens said. "I think he's confident now that I can get into position to make those plays."
After five tumultuous seasons in Seattle, the Seahawks chose not to re-sign Stevens after his arrest in March. He signed a one-year, $600,000 contract with Tampa Bay based on a conversation with Gruden in which the coach sold him on becoming one of the team's red zone targets.
Stevens had long been a fan of Gruden's offensive acumen and also felt he needed a change from the Seattle area, where he also went to college at Washington.
"I definitely wanted a chance of pace from Seattle and Tampa Bay is as far away as you can get," Stevens said.
Stevens has seen in his short time in Tampa that the more reliable you are, the more work he can get in this offense. The one on-field issue that dogged Stevens last year — dropped passes — hasn't been a problem in Tampa Bay.
"Just by watching you can see he tends to stick with guys that he knows are going to make plays — Ike and Joey, reliable guys," Stevens said. "I hope his confidence continues to grow in me. That's what I came here for."
In his past three games Stevens has caught six passes, three of which have gone for touchdowns. And with a new spate of injuries — including Stovall's season-ending arm injury — Gruden sees Stevens as a vital weapon, especially now that his personal issues are behind him.
"He has some closure on his situation now," Gruden said. "We were able to isolate some things for him last week and he responded. When you lose as many receivers as we have, you have to generate playmaking from other positions and tight end is one of them."
Last week Stevens was front and center, scoring both touchdowns for the Bucs. His first, a 24-yarder from Jeff Garcia, saw Stevens run an out and up as a linebacker in coverage lost track of him.
The second touchdown pass, from Luke McCown, was a result of Stevens sticking with the play after his original post route yielded nothing. Stevens ran with a scrambling McCown and found a soft spot in the 49ers zone before McCown connected with him for the touchdown.
"He's very athletic," McCown said. "You can trust him. You can trust where he's going to be."
Stevens became a bigger part of the offense several weeks ago when he noticed that defenses were starting to roll coverage toward him when he was in the game. While he wasn't catching many passes, he said he saw his role as trying to lure a linebacker and safety to his side of the field to open up opportunities for other players.
And his opportunities this week and beyond may only grow. The Bucs used plenty of two-tight end sets after losing Stovall. With the inexperience of fourth receiver Micheal Spurlock and the two practice squad receivers called up on Wednesday, Stevens seems assured of more playing time.
He's reliable and he's making plays. Those are the only two criteria Gruden seems to care about.
"He may be more confident with two tight ends out there than a wide receiver who doesn't know what he's doing," Stevens said.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.