TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Tristan Wirfs still remembers the sage advice former backup quarterback Ryan Griffin gave him when he first got to Tampa and they faced the New Orleans Saints for the first time: “He said, ‘Go get Mike [Evans] after every play,’” Wirfs said Wednesday.
Between Evans’ well-documented history with cornerback Marshon Lattimore -- which includes three physical altercations, an ejection, and two suspensions since 2017 -- and the Saints, and his own head-butting, trash-talking aficionado at quarterback in Baker Mayfield, Wirfs said, “I’ll have my hands full.”
With the exception of three drops, Evans has been a handful for opponents through three games far this season, with 297 receiving yards -- nearly 47% of the Bucs’ entire passing game. His three touchdowns through three games is also tied for second-most through the first three games of a season in his career and it's tied for second in the league this season. He's also one of only two receivers to catch a touchdown in each game this season.
But the Saints (2-1) and Lattimore have been a thorn in his side and could threaten to slow his momentum as they head to New Orleans on Sunday (1 p.m. ET , CBS) -- the first time the Saints will see a Tom Brady-less Bucs since 2019.
Lattimore has the second-lowest completion percentage (48%) allowed as the nearest defender against Mike Evans, since 2017, among players with at least 10 targets (including playoffs). Only Green Bay Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas has a lower completion percentage allowed (45%).
“You've got two great players, and they want to compete,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said of the matchup. “Both want to win. As long as they play within the whistle, that's fine. We don't want to hurt our team. I'm sure they don't want to hurt their team, so it'll be a competitive ball game just keeping them between the whistles.”
Since Evans’ rookie season in 2014, he has averaged just 50 yards per game against the Saints -- 25th among the 31 teams he’s faced in his career, while his 3.24-catch average in those games is 28th and has a record of 7-11. Against Lattimore, who missed the last meeting between these two teams in Week 13, Evans has caught 14 of 29 of his targets when Lattimore has been the nearest defender -- with Evans averaging 1.7 yards of separation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Against all other Saints defenders in that span, he’s caught 59% of his targets (19-of-32). Lattimore has been the nearest defender on Evans on three times as many targets as the next closest defender since entering the league in 2017, with P.J. Williams second.
The last time Lattimore and Evans squared off against each other in Week 2 of last season, both were ejected after sparking a bench-clearing brawl that Bucs players, including Brady, said galvanized their team.
"Getting to watch [the rivalry] from afar was fun," said Mayfield, who will make his rivalry debut Sunday. "Now being in the middle of it's going to be even more fun.”
The feud has gone on for so long that quarterback Jameis Winston, who’s expected to start in place of an injured Derek Carr for the Saints this week, has been on both sides of it, admitting to starting it all when he was with the Bucs in 2017. He tapped Lattimore on the helmet and told him to go away when he was on their sideline. Lattimore shoved Winston, and Evans came barreling in to defend his quarterback. The rest is history.
The Saints will also be without starting safety Marcus Maye -- who was suspended for three games last week for a DUI. Maye played a role in the brawl last year when he and Lattimore wrestled Evans to the ground after his initial push on Lattimore.
“Mike’s a pro,” receiver Chris Godwin said. “We understand his past with this team, but we also know that he's not going in there with the intention of doing anything to hurt himself on his team. So there's nothing really to be said [to Evans]. He knows what he has to do, and every time we go out there, the goal is to win a game and Mike being on the field really helps us win.”
Lattimore was held out of the last matchup after he missed 10 games with a lacerated kidney and two broken ribs suffered, so what will Sunday's matchup with Evans look like?
“We're always going to take our guys in our one-on-one matchups,” Mayfield said when asked about Evans versus Lattimore. “We believe in them, and they would say the same thing."
Evans made a stellar one-handed grab against the Philadelphia Eagles on "Monday Night Football," and he hauled in a 1-yard touchdown on that same drive. He still left Raymond James Stadium frustrated he wasn’t able to do more in their first loss of the season.
The offense is still working out the kinks under new offensive coordinator Dave Canales, but getting off to a faster start has been a point of emphasis all week after Evans' fourth-quarter touchdown Monday was their only one of the game.
Evans said "I wish I could have made more plays sooner," but despite his skepticism, his teammates know what he brings to the table.
“I feel like it may be one of the hotter starts that he's had, but he's always been the same Mike,” Godwin said. “I feel like he always has the ability to go deep and to make those big splash plays. Those opportunities have presented themselves so far this season, and he's taken advantage of a lot of them and we don't expect anything different moving forward. He's a consummate pro, so when he goes out there, you expect Mike to be Mike, and it's on the other team to do something to stop him.”