Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New York Giants-Bucs Turning Point: Mike Evans' drops, Lovie Smith's fourth down calls

In each of their past three games, the Buccaneers had trouble holding leads. Against the New York Giants on Sunday, they had trouble holding onto the football.

Mike Evans dropped six passes and running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims each lost a fumble as the Bucs fell 32-18 to the Giants at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

It was a winnable game for the Bucs — they were within one score for most of the second half — but in the end they couldn't come up with as many drive-extending plays, red zone touchdowns and points off turnovers as the Giants. Coach Lovie Smith's lack of aggression on fourth down didn't help, either.

Rarely would you blame a receiver who caught eight passes for 152 yards, but Evans' performance was one that he called "unacceptable."

"It was wet, but it was humid, and I kept sweating through my gloves," said Evans, who came into the game with the fourth-highest drop rate in the NFL (17.24 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. "I put the rain gloves on, and I dropped a third-down conversion, and I had to keep changing them. The ball was too slick. That's no excuse. I've got to catch those. The other guys are catching them; I've got to catch them."

Targeted a career-high 19 times, Evans actually dropped a couple of third-down passes, but the one he was talking to reporters about was a drop on third-and-10 late in the third quarter. Moments before, cornerback Alterraun Verner undercut Odell Beckham Jr.'s slant route and intercepted Eli Manning, giving Tampa Bay a prime opportunity to erase the Giants' 20-12 lead. But instead of moving inside the New York 35-yard line, the Bucs had to punt for the first time all game.

Was the drop a game-changer? A rundown:

Second quarter, 9:17 remaining: Evans runs a slant and catches a 4-yard pass. Though cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins crush him like an empty can of Coke, he somehow maintains possession. When he runs a slant from the other side of the field four plays later, the ball goes through his hands, bounces off the top of his helmet and falls incomplete.

After Sims' 8-yard run sets up third-and-2, Evans drops his second pass, which would have put the Bucs at the New York 17-yard line, and Tampa Bay's win probability falls from 21.4 percent to 18.0 percent. The Bucs, at the 25-yard line and down 17-6, should go for it on fourth down but choose to attempt the 43-yard field goal. Connor Barth's kick is no good, and their chances of winning fall further, to 11.4 percent.

Third quarter, 9:44 remaining: On first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 38-yard line, Jameis Winston fakes the handoff to Martin and rolls right. His pass to Evans deep down the sideline is underthrown, but Evans shoves cornerback Trevin Wade aside to get in position. Though the ball hits him in the numbers, a potential pickup of 40 yards or more still slips through his arms. The Bucs' win probability slides 1.4 percentage points to 11.3 percent, but tight end Cameron Brate's diving catch for a 17-yard gain two plays later lessens the impact.

The drive ultimately stalls because of another drop on a third-and-2, this one by Martin. The Bucs, down 20-9, again elect to kick a field goal when they should go for it. While Barth's 53-yarder cuts the Giants' lead to eight points, Tampa Bay has only 12 points to show for five trips into New York territory.

So much for Smith's "10 out of 10 times" defense of a fourth-down decision one week ago against the Atlanta Falcons. The Bucs' failure to keep pace with the Giants can be blamed not only on a lack of execution inside the red zone but also on a far-too-conservative approach on fourth-and-short situations.

Third quarter, 2:10 remaining: After Manning converts three third downs in a row, the Bucs finally come up with a stop when Verner snatches his first interception of the season. Tampa Bay picks up a first down to move into New York territory, and Winston targets Evans three straight times.

He overthrows him in the end zone on the first try but hits him in the gut on a crossing route on second-and-10. While Evans is open and the throw is accurate, he can't control it.

On third-and-10, the Giants send six rushers after Winston. The rookie quarterback steps up in the pocket and takes a hit as he delivers a strike to Evans, who bobbles it. If he catches it, the Bucs have a first down at the New York 35-yard line. Instead, their chances of winning slip from 20.6 percent after the first down to 11.9 percent after the second drop. This time, Smith makes the correct call on fourth down and punts.

This is one of the most damaging sequences of the game, as it nearly cancels out the boost that the interception provided.

Fourth quarter, 18 seconds remaining: Evans drops his sixth pass as Winston targets him on a hook and ladder play. Considering the Bucs, without any timeouts, have less than 18 seconds to go 94 yards to score a tying touchdown (and two-point conversion), the incompletion makes little difference.

Winston, who completed 19 of 36 passes for 249 yards and flew for the Bucs' only touchdown, said after the game that drops are fixable.

"(Evans) is one of our best receivers," he said. "He's playing his tail off, and (when) it started raining, all eyes are on him. It's a lot of pressure, but nine times out of 10, he's going to come through."

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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