The shrinking role for Mike Evans in the Bucs' offense

The No. 1 receiver is on pace for career lows in catches and receiving yards as Tom Brady focuses on other targets.
A pass intended for Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) falls incomplete during the third quarter.
A pass intended for Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) falls incomplete during the third quarter. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2020

TAMPA ― The Bucs were determined to add another pass catcher or two for quarterback Tom Brady.

But what they have done is subtract Mike Evans.

The franchise’s all-time career receiving leader is becoming an afterthought in the Bucs' suddenly struggling offense.

In Sunday night’s 38-3 loss to the Saints, Evans had one target before halftime, and that occurred in the final two minutes when the game was already out of reach.

He finished with four catches for 64 yards. All of it came after the Bucs were trailing by at least four touchdowns.

“Mike was open a bunch in that ballgame,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He didn’t get targeted, that was all. Mike was open.”

Arians appears to be laying the blame on Brady, and certainly he missed the Bucs' No. 1 receiver on one play that could’ve resulted in a touchdown.

But for the most part, Brady is reading the coverage and throwing the football where the defense takes him.

Sometimes that may mean throwing to Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Rob Gronkowski or now Antonio Brown, who played his first game with the Bucs Sunday and had three catches for 31 yards.

Arians was critical of Brady, saying he should’ve thrown the football to Brown on third down during the initial series. But he attempted a pass to Gronkowski instead. That pass fell incomplete.

Gronkowski had six targets but responded with only one catch for 2 yards.

The play that has gotten the most attention was tweeted out by NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah.

Trailing 14-0, the Bucs had a first down at their 18-yard to start the second quarter. The Bucs were in trips, with three receivers lined up on the left side, including Evans.

The Saints were playing Cover 3 with a single safety expected to rotate high to the middle of the field while the other safety buzzes down to take away anything that might break short to the middle of the field.

But safety Marcus Williams hung out on the right hash when Brady turned to face Miller, who was the single receiver over there. It was an easy completion to Miller for 8 yards. He was somehow unable to get his feet down in bounds, so the pass was incomplete.

But with no safety rotating to the deep middle, Evans was all alone and even raised his hand to show Brady he was open. It was too late, in part because right guard Alex Cappa gave up a pressure.

Arians has said he wants to leave every game with Evans having been targeted at least 10 times. But that has happened only once this season. It came in Week 2, when Evans caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in a 31-17 win over the Panthers.

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So why is Brady having such a tough time locating Evans?

“Part of it is scheme,” Arians said. “Part of it is reading out some things that Mike was open on and just finding him. He’s still learning the offense in some spots.”

The Saints have done a pretty good job on Evans, and injuries have been a big factor this season.

Evans didn’t practice for two weeks leading up to the season opener at New Orleans and was a game-time decision due to a hamstring strain.

He played in that game but had only one catch, a two-yard TD reception with 2:41 remaining in the game. He was targeted only four times, not including penalties.

An ankle injury has limited Evans' effectiveness, and he was a game-time decision again at Chicago.

Arians said last week, however, that Evans was nearly 100 percent.

“He made a couple cuts on that ankle that he hasn’t (made),” Arians said. “He’s kind of been limping on that one, (but) he’s made real hard cuts on it. I think Mike’s really, really close to 100 (percent healthy) now.”

Evans is one of the elite receivers in the NFL, a three-time Pro Bowl player with at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons in the league. Only Randy Moss has accomplished that.

Evans still leads the Bucs with 34 receptions for 437 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games. But he’s on pace for a career-low 60 receptions and 776 yards.

For the record, Evans has said all the right things about the addition of Brown.

“Perfect. Perfect,” he told ESPN of Brown’s addition. “He’s an unbelievable receiver, one of the best of all time, and he’s going to help us a lot. Hopefully, he can take some double-teams off me and make some plays, just like he always has.”

That would help, but the onus is on offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and the design of the Bucs offense to make better use of Evans.

The Bucs should want to get more from their primary receiver. But he is mostly a vertical threat. When Jameis Winston made him a high-volume target, a lot of times he just tossed up opportunity balls to Evans that he came down with.

The Bucs need to continue to move Evans around, putting him in the slot on occasion, running some rub routes to get him open early in games.

“We’ve got an unselfish team,” Leftwich said. “We’ve got a really, really pretty unselfish team. We’ve got a lot of guys who can get the ball in their hands and do something with it, so I don’t see it being any different. We’ll put the guys in position to make plays according to their skills set, and we’ll keep doing that.”

Publicly, Evans has said all the right things. He is only 27, but he’s experienced only one winning season and no playoff appearances. Right now, winning is his priority.

“I think that’s always been Mike. I’ve praised him for it all the time,” Arians said.

Praise is great, but finding a way to get Evans the football early and often would be better.