TAMPA — Like his team, Bucs receiver Mike Evans wants to finish the 2015 season on a positive note, but he'll try to do so Sunday against a Carolina defense that has held him in check as well as any in the league.
That might include Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who intercepted Jameis Winston twice in their first matchup, returning one for a touchdown. He's headed to the Pro Bowl, but Evans hopes to face him first.
"I'm excited for it," Evans said of facing Carolina's defense. "I don't know if I'll see (Norman) or not. First game, he didn't match me. I hope he does. It'll be a fun game. They play a lot of Cover 3, zone, but they play a little bit of man, so maybe I'll see him."
Evans has faced Carolina three times in his two-year career, and it has effectively shut him down in three Bucs losses: 25 targets but only 10 catches for 82 yards and one touchdown, his lowest yards per game against any NFL team he has faced.
"Those guys in the back end can play, but their front seven is really the key. Those guys are some beasts," Evans said of a defense that leads the league in both interceptions (22) and fumbles recovered (14).
Asked for Carolina's key to limiting Evans, Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly said it's respect and a constant awareness of locating Evans, communicating to make sure he's always well-covered.
"You have to know where he is," Kuechly said. "He's a lot like (Panthers receiver) Kelvin (Benjamin), a big, athletic, strong guy that can run. You can't let him sneak around. You have to identify where he is and make sure you know — if he's in the slot, he runs this route; if he's at backside X, he might run this. A guy like him, you let him get open, he's going to catch it and make something happen."
That happened last week in Carolina's first loss of the season, as Atlanta's Julio Jones went off for nine catches and 178 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown. In the Bucs' first meeting with the Panthers on Oct. 4, Vincent Jackson — out with a knee injury now — had 147 yards on 10 catches and a score.
Norman had two of the Panthers' four interceptions against Winston but hasn't had a pick since, in part because teams throw his way less often. He's playing with enough confidence that he can get into even the best receivers' heads, as he did two weeks ago against the Giants' Odell Beckham, whose actions toward Norman on Dec. 20 landed him a one-game suspension.
Evans has been the most penalized receiver in the league, with eight flags this season, five for offensive pass interference. He said keeping his cool against a tough defense will be a focus Sunday.
"That's hard for me. I'm a passionate player, and I'm a physical guy, but I've got to be smart," Evans said. "You have to think about your teammates. That will keep me level-headed, thinking about my teammates and not hurting those guys."
After three straight losses to fall out of postseason contention, the Bucs are relegated to spoilers — for all Carolina's success, it won't have the No. 1 seed in the NFC if it loses and Arizona defeats Seattle. Evans said the Bucs will "treat it like a Super Bowl," seeking to reverse their momentum for 2016 after letting things slip away in the past three losses.
Evans has had more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, just the eighth player in NFL history to do so. But after 12 touchdown catches as a rookie, he has three this season. The 22-year-old knows he could have done more with his opportunities, connecting with a talented young quarterback in Winston.
"I've got Jaboo out here slinging the rock. I should have had way better numbers, if we're talking about that," he said. "We'll get to where we need to be next year. … I have to be better. I will be better."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.