The Saints did to Mike Evans what the Bucs couldn’t to Michael Thomas
Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 7 October 2019

Two NFL star receivers. Two men with the same first name. Two completely different days spent at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The first man is the focus of the defense. But when push comes to shove, and it does, the Saints’ Michael Thomas is targeted 13 times and catches 11 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. We’ll call him Open Mike.

The second man is the Bucs’ Mike Evans, who spends the afternoon not seeing the football thrown his direction. He has three targets, no catches for the only the second time in his career and probably some beef with the offensive game plan.

Of course, Open Mike was going against the Bucs secondary, which coach Bruce Arians called “soft” following Tampa Bay’s 31-24 loss Sunday to the Saints. The first man, Open Mike, sprinted down the field on the first play of the second half of a one-score game and was running stride for stride with Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. That’s when he appeared to push off with both hands, turn and catch the pass for 42 yards.

Arians’ face turned redder than the replay challenge flag he threw over referee Brad Allen’s no-call. Two plays later Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater connected with a wide-open Ted Ginn, Jr., for a 33-yard touchdown pass and a 24-10 lead. “If that’s not (pass interference), I don’t know what the hell is,’’ Arians said.

The Saints never had to stop Evans. The Bucs took care of that themselves. Little rookie receiver Scotty Miller and Bobo Wilson each had two targets Sunday. Dare Ogunbowale and Ronald Jones had three. Tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard had one catch each. Evans, one of only three players to have 1,000-yards receiving in each of his first five seasons, was a human decoy.

“It was a poor job on our part,’’ Arians said. “We moved him around. Not enough. They rolled into him, doing things that we’ve seen. We should’ve gotten the ball to him down there at the end and didn’t. Twice he was open and we got sacked. But we’ve just got to do a better job of moving him around.’’

Of course, Open Mike had the luxury of going against a Tampa Bay secondary which was the worst in the NFL a year ago. It’s not for a lack of the Bucs shaking the bushes looking for a shutdown defensive back. Frankly, they’re running out of available shrubs.

The Bucs have drafted nine defensive backs since 2016. Hargreaves, their first-round pick that year, had an interception in the opener against the 49ers and made the big fourth-down stop on Christian McCaffrey to clinch the win at Carolina. But big two plays a month won’t cut it. The Bucs also lost starting cornerback Carlton Davis in the first half when he was ejected for an illegal hit on Saints tight end Jared Cook.

“We still are too soft. We’re too soft,’’ Arians said. “I don’t know how else to put it. When we’re in press-man, we have some guys who are getting after it and we have some guys who are soft.’’

The Saints have cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has been known to shut down Evans and some other elite receivers. Two years ago in the Superdome as a rookie, Lattimore held Evans to one catch for 13 yards. In fact, the only other game in which Evans went without a catch came during his rookie season against the Saints in New Orleans.

Lattimore had reason to be ready. Evans had seven catches for 147 yards and a touchdown in the Bucs’ 48-40 win at New Orleans in the 2018 opener. “At corner, you can’t ever feel like you have one up on somebody,’’ Lattimore said. “Anything can happen at corner. My teammates were coming up to me and telling me that he didn’t have any catches. Don’t jinx me. Let me keep playing. I just stayed focused and locked in.’’

Make no mistake. The loss that dropped the Bucs to 2-3 and prevented them from grabbing a share of the NFC South lead was a team effort. They simply weren’t as good as the Hollywood version. How do you hang 55 points on the Rams in Los Angeles one week and get stuck like a tire in the bayou mud the next?

Maybe it’s because the Saints have a better defense, one that limited the Bucs to 21 plays in the first half Sunday. To be trailing by a touchdown at halftime was a bit of a miracle. Bridgewater, now 3-0 in place of injured quarterback Drew Brees, passed for 314 yards and threw four TD passes for only the second time in his career. The only mistake he made was a throw behind Alvin Kamara that was intercepted by rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting to set up a touchdown. He likes throwing to Open Mike.

“Mike and I were just talking in the locker room and I just told him that when the games come around, I just see it in his eyes,'' Bridgewater said.

On the other hand, Jameis Winston entered the fourth quarter with only 105 yards passing. He finished just 15 of 27 for 204 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to Chris Godwin. Winston was sacked six times and hit on eight other occasions. After the game, by the time Arians had finished speaking to the media, Evans had showered, dressed, and left for the bus. The number plate had been removed from his locker. "Evans is one of the best,'' Lattimore said.

Somebody should remind the Bucs. Two Mikes. Two teams. They went different directions on Sunday.