On Sunday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady completed 33 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns. Two of those passes went to Mike Evans, the Buccaneers' all-time leading receiver, for just 37 yards. Evans had fewer targets, catches and yards than not only Chris Godwin but also Scotty Miller, Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski.
Evans continues to play through an ankle injury that likely would have sidelined many other players. However, he practiced fully last Friday, the first time he had done that since October 2. Evans is still managing that injury, but he's clearly closer to 100% than he was before the Chicago game in Week Five, when he didn't practice at all before lacing up the cleats.
Evans' relatively low numbers in the Buccaneers' 45-20 win over Las Vegas were much more the result of how the Raiders chose to play him. As has happened on several occasions this year, the opposing defense has decided that Evans is the first player they have to stop in Tampa Bay's passing attack and they have slid extra coverage in his direction. As Scotty Miller noted after Sunday's win, when he called Evans one of the NFL's "most unselfish superstars," the attention paid to Evans allowed him to get open for a career-high 109 yards on seven catches. Tom Brady took what the defense gave him, and for much of the afternoon that was not an open Mike Evans.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 7 matchup against Las Vegas.
On Monday, Head Coach Bruce Arians echoed what Evans' teammates have said about him – not only is the seventh-year receiver gritting his way through a tough injury but his mere presence on the field is making an impact beyond the stat table. Pay close attention to the last thing Arians says.
"Mike's the ultimate pro," said Arians. "He is a warrior. He probably should've never played in Chicago. He'd have beaten me up, but I'd have to fight him to keep him off the field. That's just the kind of guy he is. We're going through the rolodex over there on the sideline trying to [figure out] how the heck we're going to get this guy a target. We put him in the middle of the field, we put him outside – finally we broke loose. He got a couple [pass interference calls] against him. We're trying to target him as much as possible, but we've got to do a better job of it, also. I think in a four-wide – now that he's inside – we can get him some more balls."
That four-wide is a formation that features four wideouts on the field at the same time, usually with one running back in the backfield. The first thing you need to run a four-wide formation is four healthy receivers. The Bucs have weathered significant injuries to Evans, Godwin, Miller and Justin Watson and at times have had trouble filling up a receiver depth chart on game day.
Is Arians indicating that, with those players getting healthier, plus the reported upcoming addition of Antonio Brown, that the Buccaneers plan to hit defenses with more four-wide snaps in the weeks ahead? Actually, that trend may have already begun.
Against the Raiders, the Buccaneers ran 15 plays of offense out of four-wide sets, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats database, which was 21.4% of their total snaps. (They also had four-wide on the field for a false start.) That is a significant jump up from the first six games of the season. In fact, the Buccaneers had run only seven total plays out of four-wide sets through the first six weeks, and in the three most recent games before Week Seven hadn't used that approach once.
The Bucs had six receivers active for Sunday's game, with a healthy Cyril Grayson on the inactive list. Their four-wide set on Sunday utilized the foursome of Evans, Godwin, Miller and Johnson. Justin Watson also played 12 snaps and Jaydon Mickens got in three but it was those other four who made up the new look.
Most of the Bucs' four-wide work on Sunday came in the second quarter, including a series of such plays on the successful two-minute drive that ended in the 33-yard touchdown pass to Miller. That touchdown was not run out of four wide but Miller was targeted two other teams in four-wide, catching one 11-yard pass. Godwin had three catches out of that formation. And finally, with roughly nine minutes left in the game, Evans ran a route over the middle out of the slot in four-wide and caught a 15-yard pass down to the Raiders' 22. That was Evans' first catch of the game, though he had drawn two pass-interference penalties on targets earlier in the half.
On Monday, Arians also said that Fournette had taken over the "nickel" role in the backfield, or what is often called the third-down back. Fournette caught six passes for 47 yards against the Raiders. When the Buccaneers went into their four-wide scheme Fournette was the one back on the field along with all those receivers. Not only did he catch two passes on those plays but he also ran three times for 14 yards.
Whether the Buccaneers' increased dabbling in four-wide sets on Sunday was just a one-week fluke or the start of a trend will only be answered in the weeks to come. But the Buccaneers finally have the healthy bodies for it now, and they're about to get one more. It's possible the Bucs plan to flood the field with their array of talented wideouts in the season's second half. Whatever Tampa Bay's offense chooses to emphasize the rest of the way, Arians is happy with how play-caller Byron Leftwich has run things so far.
"It's been fantastic," said Arians. "I thought he did a heck of a job with the offense last year – numbers wise. Bringing in Tom has been totally different. He and Tom have a great relationship. Byron's done a heck of a job. I love his patience with the running game right now and setting up those chunk plays in the passing game. I think he's done a heck of a job with our offense."