TAMPA, Fla. -- With 1:26 to go in the first half against the New Orleans Saints and trailing 31-0, wide receiver Mike Evans lined up in the slot and sprinted downfield. He turned toward the middle of the field on a dig route, connecting with quarterback Tom Brady for a 22-yard catch -- their first in a long, miserable first half of a game they’d lose 38-3.
Evans, the team’s No. 1 receiver whom Brady called a "future Hall of Famer," was targeted just once in that half, while Antonio Brown, who’d had only three practices with his new squad, was targeted four times, and Chris Godwin, who ran the same number of routes as Evans (22), was targeted five times, despite still having pins in his finger from surgery last week.
Evans is on pace for 60 catches and 777 yards, which would both be career lows.
A big part of Evans’ challenge in the Saints game was lining up against Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore, just as it was two weeks ago against James Bradberry when the Bucs narrowly squeaked by the New York Giants. But the Bucs cannot afford to underutilize their top playmaker, especially after getting swept by the Saints and having no margin for error in the division. Evans had been dealing with an ankle injury since Week 4 that forced him to either miss practice or be significantly limited in practice for three weeks. It impacted his ability to cut and meant valuable reps lost with Brady.
“He played through that injury in Chicago -- it was obviously bothering him,” wide receivers coach Kevin Garver said of Evans on Wednesday. “Then as the weeks went by, he continued to progress, and was feeling better, from a physical standpoint. But I do think the reps are important for Tom. This is our first year still in this offense and he’s still working through that connection with the receivers."
The Bucs prioritized the screen game early on with Ronald Jones, something Evans isn't used in as much -- just 1.5% of his snaps this year have come on screen passes. With Evans’ usage heavily leaning toward vertical routes (his average distance traveled on routes against the Saints was 21.46 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats) and QB protection lacking significantly, Evans’ opportunities took a hit.
“I think the duress, and we put some up into Cover 2 that we were trying to fit into holes but the Saints’ defense played well. We didn’t play very well offensively, but the protection was the worst part,” Arians said.
Brown was used a lot vertically too, but the difference with Evans and Brown was that Brown lined up everywhere and had more variety -- outside, inside, (Evans did get 42.5% of his snaps from the slot and caught two passes for 34 receiving yards) and in the backfield.
"Part of it’s scheme, part of it’s reading out some things that Mike was open on and just finding him," Arians said. "[Tom Brady] is still learning the offense in some spots, but we’ve got to do a better job."
Evans will have an opportunity to get back on track this week when the Bucs visit the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m. ET, Fox), against whom he caught seven passes on 10 targets for 104 yards and a touchdown in Week 2.
Among the young Panthers' defensive struggles this season: They haven't been able to get off the field on third down, with a 54.2% third-down conversion rate -- second-worst in the NFL -- and a 48.4% third-down conversion passing rate, third-worst in the NFL. They’ve also struggled getting to the quarterback, with just 9.0 sacks for the season -- third-fewest in the league.
While the Panthers have done a nice job defending the flat, they’ve had a lot of challenges against post routes and corner routes in zone coverage this season. In fact, they’ve given up 206 yards on post routes this year -- more than any other team in the league -- and they’ve given up 135 receiving yards on corner routes, third-most.
While the screen passes and the deep crossers aren’t Evans’ forte -- you can expect more of those from Godwin and Rob Gronkowski -- Evans did have a 50-yard completion against the Panthers on a post route in Week 2. Evans has also gone 3-for-3 on dig routes this season -- the best on the team -- so the offense would be wise to target him there.
Garver doesn't believe Evans' lack of targets have caused any issues.
"I think, Tom, the way that Tom plays the game, and his approach to the game -- he's gonna spread the ball out," Garver said. "Sometimes it’s Mike's week. Earlier in the year against the Panthers, Mike got a lot of balls. Then there was another game [that] Gronk got a lot of balls. [In Las Vegas], Scotty [Miller] got a lot of balls. To me, that’s just the way it is."