TAMPA — If you want to see more clutching, grabbing and holding than you will find at an airport full of holiday visitors, check out what defenders are doing to Bucs receiver Mike Evans.
In the past two games, Evans — already one of the league's best pass catchers with 1,100 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns — has virtually disappeared in the Bucs offense. Against the Chargers and Saints, he was held to a combined total of seven catches for 80 yards and no scores.
"We are seeing a lot off hand-fighting," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "A lot of people are trying to hold Mike up at the line and not let him get started. Even teams that are half-field teams, more teams roll coverage to Mike. If they're a single-high team, they tilt the safety that way, if they're a two-deep team, (shade) it that way."
The result has been more opportunities for the Bucs' other receivers but also an offense that is sputtering at the wrong time of the season. While the defense has carried the team, Tampa Bay has scored only five offensive touchdowns over the past three games.
Against the Seahawks, the Bucs had two perfectly executed drives for touchdowns to start the game, then went three quarters without finding the end zone. Last week, the only offensive touchdown was a 1-yard run by Doug Martin.
Quarterback Jameis Winston and Evans have been one of the league's most lethal pass combinations all season. But Winston has an obvious explanation why he has targeted Evans less over the past few games.
"They have been trying to stop Mike Evans," Winston said. "So when you're playing against a team and their main focus is to stop one guy, it's tough to get him the ball. So you've got to work with everyone else, and the other guys have been doing a good job of stepping up."
Well, not good enough.
The running game has been stagnant most of the season, even after the return of Martin. Tampa Bay hasn't had a 100-yard rusher in a game since Week 7 in San Francisco. Martin, meanwhile, is averaging 2.85 yards per carry since his return to the lineup five games ago.
To complicate matters for the offense, Winston has had to adjust to new receivers each week. Cecil Shorts had a devastating season-ending knee injury at San Diego and Freddie Martino stepped up. Adam Humphries missed last week's game with a concussion and Josh Huff stepped in.
The key, however, is Evans. He's the guy who not only moves the chains with clutch catches on third down but also provides the explosive plays downfield. Without explosive plays, the Bucs are forced to play a field position game and hope their defense holds up.
"I'm a little disappointed in my performance," Evans said. "But I'm always disappointed in my performance, even when I have good games to the naked eye.
"Hopefully, the ball starts turning our way. We're just inches away."
The good news for the Bucs is they might not be playing their best on offense, but the wins keep coming. What if the Bucs start scoring more touchdowns again? That's a hard thing for the rest of the league to grasp.
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"I know how these guys can play on offense, and I know when we get there, at least these last two games, they really didn't need to be this close if we're playing better on offense," Koetter said. "But we didn't and we still won. So, we can't forget, the object of the game is to win, and now we're wanting to win perfect. Some of us are.
"I guess you can look at it one of two ways: You can say we're not playing up to the standards that I have for our offense — we're not playing up to those standards and we're still winning," Koetter said. "I look at it as, when our offense does start playing up to those standard and if our defense continues to play they way they are, the special teams continues to play they are, we're going to be a hard team to beat."