In a season where positives are becoming increasingly difficult to isolate, Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans stands out as a beacon of hope.
Thursday night’s performance against the Atlanta Falcons only enhanced that positive presence during Tampa Bay’s 43-28 groaner of a loss. Evans finished with 11 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns and made a catch that will be replayed around the nation all year. Trailing 33-14 late in the third quarter, Evans somehow came down with a leaping, one-handed catch on a ball thrown high and behind him by quarterback Jameis Winston. Despite being hung out to dry and then crushed by Falcons safety Keanu Neal, Evans managed to get both feet down and hold onto the ball.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Slow to get up and getting checked out on the sideline for a concussion by medical staff members, Evans remained in the game and caught two more passes for 43 yards.
“That was two plays right in a row why people watch the NFL,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said of the Evans’ highlight-reel moment. “The catch was fantastic and that was some kind of hit. As a coach, I wish Jameis would throw the ball further outside and Mike didn’t have to make the catch like that – catches it going out of bounds and doesn’t take that hit.
“What’s really amazing about that, not only the catch itself, but Mike came back and played. I’m not sure if that’s where Mike got his concussion. It’s hard to tell on the angle of our film. It looks like on our tape like the contact is more in the upper chest, but his head definitely … definitely some flexion in his body. The fact that Mike came back and made a couple big plays after that, that’s pretty amazing. That’s why you’ve got the biggest, fastest, strongest athletes in the world out there. That was just two ‘wow’ plays right on the same play.”
Evans’ prime-time performance now has him among the best statistical receivers in the NFL. His eight touchdowns lead all pass catchers by two and his 93.1-yard average per game is fourth behind Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Oakland’s Amari Cooper, respectively.
“Mike is our superstar,” Winston said after the game Thursday. Because of the concussion situation, Evans was not available to provide postgame comments. “Last week we were talking about throwing him the ball and missed targets. You see when we connect what type of nights he has.”
Those connections weren’t always made last season during Winston’s first year leading the offense.
Even though Evans cleared the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in as many years last season, going for 1,206 total, there was some digression that came along with the yardage and 74 receptions. His touchdowns plummeted from 12 in 2013 to only three in 2014, his 50 percent catch rate (74 catches on 148 targets) was one of the lowest in the league, and his 11 drops were unmatched.
All offseason and leading up to Week 1, Tampa Bay coaches were asked what Evans needed to do differently to become a more consistent, explosive offensive weapon. Armed with a 6-foot-5, 231-pound frame and exceptional athleticism, few if any responses focused on the physical. It’s all upstairs.
“We talked in the offseason how Mike’s his own worst critic,” Koetter said of how Evans is most-improved. “Mike has really got his temper under control. Mike is really locked in to what he needs to do, whether it’s a penalty called on him or a penalty that he thinks should have been called on them or Jameis overthrows him or [him] going over the middle. Mike has really learned to move on and play the next play.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston and WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Getty Images
“You can see it in how he’s running his routes. He’s getting off the line. Sometimes last year it would look like, when he got tired, he wasn’t running hard. We only went with four wideouts last night, with [Russell Shepard] being down. Mike and Adam [Humphries], especially, and Cecil [Shorts] had to play a lot of plays. I think that’s Mike’s biggest area of improvement. For as good of a game as he had, I’m sure Mike will be the first to admit that should have had a couple of more.”
Despite being thin at receiver after injuries to Vincent Jackson and others, the team has found ways to keep Evans involved in the passing game. No one in the NFL is closer than 15 in terms of Evans’ 103 targets, emphasizing what a priority it is to get the ball in his hands. When Winston drops back and gets a pass off this season, there’s a 1 in 3 chance (33.7 percent, to be precise) it’s going to No. 13.
Even with the numbers and national media attention, Evans remains a work in progress. As Koetter mentioned Friday, the 23-year-old is the first to point out areas of deficiency and continued struggles. Somewhat masked by the 55 catches, 745 yards and eight touchdowns are six drops that tie him with New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall for most in the NFL. Though that puts him on pace for career-high 12, his drop percentage has fallen from 7.4 percent to 5.8 percent, and his catch rate has increased from 50 percent to 53.4 percent.