TAMPA — There have been times in their careers when the field has opened up like a vast meadow for Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
Then there was Sunday’s 27-14 loss to the 49ers when they finished the first half combining for only two targets and one catch: a 1-yard touchdown to Evans.
Godwin had no targets. None. Nada. Zero.
How does offensive coordinator Dave Canales lose sight of his best two players on offense for 30 minutes?
Well, for starters the Bucs only had 22 offensive plays and a kneel down. They went three-and-out, lost a fumble when quarterback Baker Mayfield was sacked at the San Francisco 33-yard line and capped a 10-play, 70-yard drive with that Evans TD.
Is this all on Canales?
“Yeah, probably, just in terms of the builds,” Canales said. “Some of that is like, ‘How are they going to play us today?’ And filling that out as we go. Again, it does come with having more turns. The first drive, we missed two big opportunities — we got Trey (Palmer) up the field on one, (49ers defensive back Charvarius) Ward makes a fantastic rake-out play — big, strong, corner. They’re going to make plays, too, we understand that. We’re marching the ball down and we fumble in field-goal range right there.
“You take that field goal, we found the end zone on another one just as we were working down the field there. You’re looking at a 10-10, maybe a 13-10 game with us getting the ball back after the half. We were sitting on the bench a lot and a lot of that is me. I’d love to have an opening drive go down and score a touchdown.”
There’s another reason why Evans and Godwin, whose one touchdown is the fewest since his rookie year, are disappearing for long stretches and have struggled in the red zone.
It was the unfortunate knee injury suffered by Russell Gage in August during the Bucs’ joint practice with the Jets in New Jersey. He tore his patellar tendon and was lost for the season.
Why was that significant? Gage was a veteran receiver who knew how to get open and exploit the double coverage against Evans and Godwin.
He was particularly good in the red zone and was tied with Godwin for second on the team with five touchdown receptions. In fact, of Gage’s 51 receptions last season, 31 went for first downs.
With Godwin moving out of the slot and to the boundary as an outside receiver more this season — in part to protect against injuries — the Bucs haven’t really developed a consistent third receiver.
Palmer is an ascending rookie who has shown flashes with 21 receptions for 210 yards and two TDs. Deven Thompkins has pitched in at times with 14 receptions for 78 yards and one score. His primary contribution is as a kick returner and an occasional end around.
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But let’s be honest. Palmer is a sixth-round pick from Nebraska and the 5-foot-9 Thompkins, an undrafted free agent, made the roster from the practice squad last year as a kick returner.
“I think (opposing teams are) always aware of where Mike and Chris are at,” Canales said. “But I think in general, even with Mike, Chris has a few more catches than Mike, but Mike is mostly the feature of what we do and Mike finds the end zone and we try to find him in ways. I think it’s just kind of our pass game in general and getting spread around a little bit. We don’t really have that 15 targets and 12 catches game for anybody.
“Maybe that’s me. Maybe that’s game planning and attacking coverages better. But I do have to give NFL defenses credit for knowing where those guys are at and really trying to increase that part, particularly in the red zone.”
The Bucs’ struggles in the red zone are well documented. Their 46.43 touchdown percentage inside an opponent’s 20-yard line ranks 28th in the NFL. Only the Giants, Titans and Jets are worse.
“We just (have) to execute when you get down that far,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “I thought we moved the ball between the 20s — we moved the ball pretty (well). We (have) to find a way to punch it in the end zone, and that’s holding us back. (It’s) the small things that are holding us back from winning these ballgames.”
The inability to run the football also has been a problem in the red zone but back Rachaad White has shown progress.
“I would love for our guys to own those drives and just finish,” Canales said. “If we get down to the 5-yard line, we’ve got a lot of cool stuff.”
Mayfield says he’s seen a lot of growth in the Bucs’ young receivers. But it hasn’t prevented slow starts to games or led to more production in the red zone. Evans and Godwin should never finish a half with just two targets.
“We’re right there, offensively, especially,” Mayfield said. “I’ll just to speak to our side of the ball: we’re close. We just need to keep putting these things together, continuing to grow and then fix the things that we need to and play a complete game on offense.”
3 defensive starters still out
The Bucs could be without both starting inside linebackers Sunday against the Colts. Lavonte David (groin) and Devin White (foot) did not practice Thursday. Neither did cornerback Jamel Dean (ankle). Cornerback Carlton Davis (hip), tackle Tristan Wirfs (ankle), safety Ryan Neal (thumb), center Robert Hainsey (knee) and Godwin (knee/elbow) were working in some capacity in practice.
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