The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, 21-18, and the biggest play of the game was a 75-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by wide receiver Mike Evans. That play came against zone coverage by the Panthers, who were in Cover Three with a single-high safety. After the game, quarterback Baker Mayfield said that Evans wasn't his first read on the play when it was called in the huddle but based on the safety sliding to the middle of the field before the snap and the precision of the route Evans ran it quickly became his priority.
That was the Buccaneers' best play against Carolina's zone coverage, and they needed it because the Panthers relied on zone looks on 80% of Mayfield's dropbacks. Those 25 plays produced 136 yards, one touchdown, one interception, one sack a 41.7% completion rate and a 56.9 passer rating for Mayfield.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Panthers only gave the Buccaneers man-to-man looks on five of Mayfield's dropbacks, but he made them count, primarily by looking to Evans, one of the premiere man-coverage beaters in the NFL. Mayfield completed four of his five passes on those plays – it probably should have been five of five – for 66 yards, three first downs and one big second-down pass that helped ice the game. He had a passer rating of 118.8 on those plays and averaged 13.2 yards per attempt.
Here are the five plays in question:
1. It's third-and-four from the Buccaneers' 49 in the first quarter, on the home team's second possession of the game. Mayfield throws a six-yard completion to rookie wideout Trey Palmer, who ran an in route while covered by cornerback Jaycee Horn. The result was a first down at the Carolina 45.
2. Three plays later, the Bucs are still at the 45 and it's third-and-10. Horn has man-to-man coverage to Evans, who is split out wide right. Evans cuts inside Horn and goes upfield before running a deep corner route. He gets 2.5 yards of separation by the time the ball arrives, catching it at the 20 and dancing down the sideline for 15 more yards to the five. The Bucs would score the game's first touchdown two plays later on a one-yard Rachaad White run.
3. Now in the third quarter, the Bucs line up for a third-and-eight play at their own 13. Evans lines up as the widest receiver in a three-man bunch out to the right, with Chris Godwin on the line flanked by Palmer to the inside. Godwin pauses for a moment before running a shallow out, while Palmer runs a crossing route to the left. Evans runs what NGS classifies as an in but might also be considered a slant. In any case, he cuts to the inside of Horn and catches a quick pass between the cornerback and safety Xavier Woods, picking up 13 yards and a first down.
4. Facing third-and-nine from their own 39 in the third quarter, the Buccaneers get a man look from the Falcons, with Evans in the left slot covered by cornerback Troy Hill. Evans bends his route toward the middle before cutting to a corner route that not only beats Hill but appears to cause him to suffer a leg injury. Safety Alex Cook can't get there in time to help and Evans has a whopping 5.6 yards of separation as the pass arrives. Unfortunately, this one was an errant throw by Mayfield and it skipped off the grass at Evans' feet. Next Gen Stats gave the play a 79.3% completion probability, so it's likely a throw that Mayfield would like to have back.
5. With just over two minutes left in the game, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted a Bryce Young pass and went out of bounds at the Bucs' 43. After that, the Buccaneers only needed to get one first down to kill the Panthers' last two timeouts and the remainder of the clock. A first down run by White only gained two yards, but it seemed likely the Bucs would run it two more times to keep the clock moving as much as possible.
Evans and David Moore were the only two receivers on the field for Tampa Bay and Moore was bunched up with a pair of tight ends at the left end of the line. Evans was the only Buc split wide, and because the Panthers were loading the line of scrimmage to stop the run, he was in man coverage against rookie cornerback D'Shawn Jamison. Evans lined up outside the numbers to the right and ran a simple in, or shallow slant. Mayfield threw quickly and got the ball to Evans before Jamison could get to him, resulting in a seven-yard gain. That created a much more favorable third down, with White only needing to get one yard but breaking through the line for a game-sealing 30-yard gain.