TAMPA ― For the better part of four weeks, the Bucs’ offense floundered but never flourished.
Then, out of desperation, trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by three scores last Sunday, they made a rediscovery.
When all else is failing, throw the football to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
On the field together for only the second time this season, the Bucs’ premier receivers gave the offense some rhythm amid the blues and prevented the Chiefs from drumming them out of their own stadium in a 41-31 loss.
Evans had eight catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns in his first appearance since his one-game suspension for “violations of unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct rules” in the Bucs’ 20-10 win over the Saints on Sept. 18.
Godwin, who had not played since tweaking his hamstring in the season-opening win at Dallas, had seven catches for 59 yards.
It was reminiscent of what happened two years ago.
The Bucs were 7-4 and trailing the Chiefs 20-7 in the first half in Week 12 of the regular season. Then at halftime, and without a better option, they decided to air it out in the second half.
Godwin finished with eight catches for 97 yards. Evans caught three for 50 and two touchdowns. The Bucs wound up losing 27-24 in a game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score.
But the second half provided a path forward.
“Yes, it did,” said former Bucs coach Bruce Arians, who now serves as the assistant to general manager Jason Licht. “We started attacking and never stopped.”
The Bucs won eight straight games, including Super Bowl 55.
Could last Sunday’s loss offer a similar boost?
“I think it very well could be,” Godwin said. “It’s tough whenever you’re trying to put together your offensive game plan whenever you don’t have everybody out there. You add on top of that that we have a bunch of new faces — we’ve got new receivers, new offensive linemen — it’s just tough. ... It’s a long season, and I think it can be very easy for people to overreact early in the year.
“I think the biggest thing for us is just continuing to work to build throughout the season, which is what we’ve done over the last couple of years. It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows early in the year — we just kind of slowly get better and better and better. You can’t just build chemistry in one day or one game, it’s going to take some time.”
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The Bucs haven’t attacked downfield the way they had at this point last season. Through four games, they have only 11 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, ranking eighth in the NFL in that category.
By comparison, they had 23 such plays at this point a year ago, or more than double. Evans has the most with four such receptions.
“Teams know who we have from a personnel standpoint ... so they try to get us to throw underneath,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “We don’t care. We’ll take the completion. ... If it takes us 12 plays, if it takes five plays, it’s really irrelevant to us. We just want to attack the defense, keep attacking the defense and score points.”
Early in the season, it made sense that the Bucs planned to emphasize the ground game in an effort to protect the 45-year-old Brady and their rebuilt offensive line.
Once Todd Bowles was named head coach, you knew Brady wasn’t likely to lead the NFL with 719 pass attempts the way he did a year ago. Defensive head coaches tend to run the ball more to control time of possession and keep opposing offenses on the sideline.
But without building a lead, that’s hard to accomplish. Because of their ineptitude on the ground — the Bucs rank 31st with an average of 65.3 yards per game — Tampa Bay has found itself trailing 14-3 in each of its last two games against the Packers and Chiefs.
So like they did in 2020, they may have to throw the football early and often in games — attack, as Arians said — in an effort to build some comfortable leads so they can run the football for four quarters.
Utilizing Evans and Godwin more is a good place to start. There’s a reason they’re among the Bucs’ highest-paid players, earning $16.4 million and $20 million, respectively.
It would be great if the Bucs could develop a consistent No. 3 receiver, either Julio Jones or Russell Gage, but both have been in and out of the lineup with injuries the first month of the season.
“It’s not that we found something, it was just good to have our guys out there,” Leftwich said. “It’s good to have your guys and get the continuity back of being in a game-day huddle. The first four weeks, we’ve had a bunch of guys in and out of the huddle.”
The Bucs’ next three opponents range from good to average in pass defense. The Falcons (24th), Steelers (20) and Panthers (10) all can give up big yards in the air.
Jones and Gage are expected to face their former team Sunday and be highly motivated. Godwin has had a ton of success against the Falcons, having caught touchdowns in six straight games against Atlanta and nine overall in his career. Evans has 10 TD receptions against the Falcons, more than any other team.
“(Godwin) had a big injury last year, and he’s whipping back into form,” Evans said. “I just came back from suspension and injury. Just us being healthy, it could help our team out a lot.”
Bowles says using Evans and Godwin to attack — the way Arians said they did after the loss to the Chiefs two years ago — could jumpstart the run game.
“It’s important once we get healthy,” Bowles said. “Having those guys out there opens up the run game some, but it also helps us in the pass game so we put up some points.”
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