The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran 79.3% of their offensive plays out of "11" personnel in Sunday's loss to the New Orleans Saints. Whether that was a preconceived plan, a byproduct of tight end Rob Gronkowski leaving the game early with back spasms or, most likely, the result of a double-digit deficit leading to a hurried comeback, that still was the highest percentage of 11-personnel plays the Buccaneers have had in any game this season.
Whatever the reason, the Buccaneers were in three-wide for most of Sunday's game and, while the end result wasn't satisfying, the passing game did generate 375 gross yards and four touchdowns. With Antonio Brown sidelined by an ankle injury, Tyler Johnson joined Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as the primary third receiver. Both Godwin and Evans found the end zone and Johnson caught five passes for 65 yards, both new single-game career highs for him.
What NFL Next Gen Stats reveal is that the Saints' defense treated those three receivers very differently, even though all were able to find moderate to great success.
Most obviously, the Saints chose to shadow Evans with cornerback Marshon Lattimore, as they usually do. Evans caught two passes for 48 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown in the third quarter on which he successfully got behind Lattimore and hauled the pass in despite drawing a flag for pass interference. But those two catches came on a season-low four targets for Evans, so in at least one way the Saints' strategy accomplished what it was after. Evans was only targeted on 9.8% of his routes, while Johnson was targeted on 23.1% of his routes and Godwin on 27.9% of his routes.
New Orleans had Lattimore play Evans very aggressively at the line. Evans faced press coverage on 56.1% of his snaps, according to NGS, as compared to 23.1% for Johnson and just 14.0% for Godwin. Godwin faced "off" coverage 55.8% of the time, compared to 46.2% for Johnson and just 26.8% for Evans. (The remaining percentages were presumably snaps against zone coverage.)
On the other hand, the Saints did try to send extra coverage in Godwin's direction a bit of the time. Godwin, who led all players with eight catches for 140 yards, faced double coverage on 8.3% of his snaps, which isn't much but is significantly more than the 0.0% double coverage the Saints threw at Evans or Johnson.
Godwin was able to get open most often of the three, which is reflected in his final catch totals, of course. Of the 12 passes Tom Brady aimed in Godwin's direction, none were deemed to be thrown into "tight windows" by NGS, as compared to 16.7% for Johnson and 25.0% for Evans. Godwin had an average separation of 3.8 yards from the nearest defender on his targets; that figure was 3.2 yards for Johnson and 2.7 yards for Evans.
Godwin was also much more involved in the short passing game, while Evans was more often targeted well down the field. The 12 passes thrown in Godwin's direction traveled an average of 5.5 air yards down the field, while the six passes aimed at Johnson had 10.4 average air yards. Evans' air yards average was much, much higher, at 26.2 per target. Despite having the fewest targets, Evans had the highest yards per target figure of the three at 24.0, compared to 17.5 for Godwin and 13.0 for Johnson.
All three of the Buccaneers' top receivers finished with good numbers on Sunday, despite the different sorts of defensive strategies they faced. Tom Brady had a 133.3 passer rating when throwing in Evans' direction, 111.8 when targeting Johnson and 94.4 when choosing Godwin.