TAMPA — Despite their struggles to win games, the Bucs have the top receiving duo in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who rank second and third, respectively, in the league in receiving yards.
But throughout the season, the Bucs have struggled to find a third receiving option to complement to duo, especially in situations like Sunday’s, when the Saints used double zone coverage to stop both Evans and Godwin.
Typically, when one of the two draws extra attention, it allows the other to flourish. But in the first half of Sunday’s 34-17 loss, Evans and Godwin combined for one catch on two targets. They didn’t break free until late in the third quarter.
Evans and Godwin account for 61 percent of quarterback Jameis Winston’s passing yards this season — and 14 of his 19 touchdown passes — but they receive 47.6 percent of the team’s targets, so other players are getting opportunities.
Considering how much the Bucs have put into their passing game, it’s a strange predicament to be as the season enters Week 12. The Bucs drafted Evans seventh overall five years ago to be the focus of their passing game. They developed undrafted Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate. They used other high-round picks on Godwin and O.J. Howard. All but Humphries remain. And after trading DeSean Jackson in March, they looked to replace his vertical ability by signing free-agent Breshad Perriman and drafting Scotty Miller in the sixth round.
Still, it’s mostly been Evans and Godwin this season.
“For whatever reason … consistently we just haven’t had enough production throughout the year,” Brate said. “Obviously, it’s something we’re going to have to focus on because the Saints did a good job of taking Mike out, so someone’s got to step up on the team on that side.
“We should have good matchups if teams do what the Saints did.”
Not counting Evans and Godwin, Brate — who logged a career-high 10 catches on 14 targets for 73 yards against the Saints — is the only player who averages more than four targets a game. He has a target share of 11.6 percent. By comparison, Humphries had 16.8 percent in his breakout 76-catch season last year. He left in free agency in the offseason.
Perriman has just 10 receptions on 31 targets this season, and 95 total yards. Howard has also struggled. His inability to hold on to passes has led to three turnovers, and he has just 17 catches in eight games. After a bobbled pass led to an interception against the Saints, Howard spent most of the remainder of the game on the sideline.
Opportunities are rising for others. Miller had his best game as a pro against the Saints with 71 yards on four catches. He entered the day with just four receptions on the season, but he had shown the vertical speed the Bucs drafted him for.
“Chemistry is big,” Miller said. “Me and Jameis throw after practice every day. I think it really helps us build that chemistry, that bond. I missed a couple weeks in training camp (with a hamstring injury), so that threw us off a little bit.”
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Though it has been a struggle to find a dependable No. 3 receiving option, coach Bruce Arians said the Saints game offered positive signs, especially with Brate and Miller.
“I thought Scotty played a little bit better,” Arians said. “He’s starting to develop, and it’s about that time. Usually (with) rookies, it takes until Thanksgiving. Breshad’s open. He’s not getting his opportunities very often, but he’s doing his job. Our tight ends can do a better job. I thought (Brate) did a good job with his targets.”
Winston often found Brate, who had been the quarterback’s safety valve in 2016 and ’17, open over the middle of the field.
“It’s the epitome of complementary football,” Winston said. “When you’ve got receivers out there saying, ‘Hey, I’m about to run my route as fast as I can because I don’t know if I’m going to get the ball, but if I am going to get the ball, I am going to be ready,’ it’s a good problem to have.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieIntheYard.