Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played the Chicago Bears twice in the last 10 months, and both were blowout victories for the home team at Raymond James Stadium. In each case, the Buccaneers had four takeaways by halftime, including a pick-six. Defensive end Noah Spence had a strip-sack in each game, too, helping Tampa Bay win 36-10 last November and 29-7 last Sunday.
There were not many similarities between the two games in terms of the Buccaneers' offense, however. The Bucs relied more on their ground game this past weekend; quarterback Jameis Winston had a much more prolific outing last November. And perhaps most notably, Mike Evans – the Bucs' best skill-position weapon – had a greater impact on the outcome. Or at least a more obvious one.
Last November, Evans caught four passes for 66 yards, which tied for his second-lowest catch total of the 2016 season and was his seventh-lowest yardage mark. He had also recorded a touchdown in six of the Bucs' first eight games, but he didn't score against the Bears. In the 2017 rematch, Evans led his team with nine targets, seven receptions and 93 yards and caught Winston's only touchdown pass.
There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of them is clearly the presence of DeSean Jackson on the other side of the field.
After a Cameron Lynch fumble recovery gave the Buccaneers a first down at Chicago's 13-yard line late in the first quarter of Sunday's game, the offense lined up with Evans split out to the right in a man-to-man matchup with cornerback Marcus Cooper. Jackson was lined up on the left side, just outside the tight end combo of O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. The Bears had a single high safety almost exactly in the middle of the field and he stayed there for a second after the snap because Winston looked first to Jackson's side. Winston then turned and fired right to Evans, who caught the hard pass over Cooper and spun to get his toes inbounds for the touchdown. The safety had no chance to get over to the sideline in time to help. (For a more detailed breakdown of the play, watch Anthony Becht's "Film Session" for this week.)
"The year before they doubled [Evans] every time we got inside the 10-yard line," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "We had a game plan, which we should – we should have a lot of things designed around where they tilt the coverage to one of our players, any particular player. In that instance it was, 'Hey, if they want to single up Mike then we'll go to Mike.' We didn't have that opportunity last year against the Bears. They didn't give that to us, so everything had to go away [from Evans]."
WATCH: THURSDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
Jackson was the Buccaneers' single biggest prize in free agency, and his solid decade of big-playmaking was supposed to force opposing defenses to think twice before constantly rolling extra coverage in Evans's direction. That was evidently the case in at least the first game of the season. Evans definitely noticed the difference.
"It was more one-high this year, a lot more man coverage," he said. "That's what we want. Coach Dirk [Koetter] is going to put us in a good position to get the one-on-one matchups, so we've just got to win."
In the 2016 game against the Bears, Brate scored the Bucs' first offensive touchdown on a rather easy 10-yard pass right up the middle. Brate had extra room to run because Chicago was so worried about Evans, for good reason.
"Well, they were in single-high but they were doubling Mike so everybody else was singled," said Monken of Chicago's game plan a year ago. "I think you have to design a plan that gives [that] and you have enough playmakers to take advantage of single coverage."
It's not as if the frequent double-teaming kept Evans from producing last year, as he caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl. But the Buccaneers want the entire offensive to be more productive, and more explosive, and as Monken notes it takes a full array of targets that the opposing defense has to respect. Buccaneer foes have to respect Jackson because he's made a living scoring from long distance.
"That's what is so amazing about him," said Winston of his speedy new teammate. "I think everyone feels his presence when he is out there. It's so fun to watch him just run by guys. That's another thing that just adds another element to our offense. Guys are backing up [and] we are able to complete some stuff underneath, so when we start connecting it's going to be great. I can't wait."
Winston laughed at the end of that last sentence, nearly giddy with the possibilities of 50-yard touchdown passes. The Buccaneers didn't hit on any of those in the opener – Jackson had three catches for 39 yards while several deep passes in his direction failed to connect – but it is likely just a matter of time before they do. Winston and Jackson talked for a while after the game on Sunday and agreed that they can't leave those opportunities unfulfilled in future games.
"I can see it every day in practice, the impact that he has in terms of the plays that he's capable of making," said Monken. "Some of those games we're going to hit him. We've got to continue to do a great job of moving Mike and him around, which we will, to utilize their strengths. They both are capable of going down the field; they're also capable of catching the ball over the middle in zones. Mike's a big-body target, DeSean's one that can run after catch, so we've got to do a great job of designing that to utilize their skillsets. We'll continue that week to week."
- Following a fairly incident-free training camp and then a surprise Week One bye courtesy of Hurricane Irma, the Buccaneers went into their Week Two opener with only one player on the injury report: linebacker Devante Bond. Koetter said it was the cleanest single-game injury report he could remember. He also said it wouldn't last.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Vikings.
He was right. Starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander suffered a hamstring injury against Chicago and has not yet practiced this week, and he leads off a Week Three injury report that is now a half-dozen players deep. That's not all because of punishment inflicted by the Bears, however. The Buccaneers, unfortunately, are dealing with the flu bug.
Defensive tackle Chris Baker and defensive end Jacquies Smith have been diagnosed with influenza, according to Koetter, and thus are being kept away from the facility to avoid giving it to more teammates. Obviously, their availability for Sunday's game in Minnesota depends on how quickly they get over the illness.
The only other Buccaneer who did not practice on Wednesday, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle), returned in a limited fashion on Thursday. Bond (knee) is now a full participant in practice after sitting out last week and cornerback Brent Grimes is limited due to a shoulder ailment.
- O.J. Howard, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round draft pick in 2017 and the first tight end off the board this year, caught just one pass for 17 yards in his NFL regular-season debut. Make no mistake, however: Howard was a busy man in his first game.
Howard was on the field for 44 of the 67 offensive plays that counted for the Buccaneers, or almost exactly two-thirds of all the action on that side of the ball. He actually played the most snaps of any of the four tight ends the Buccaneers had active for their win over Chicago. Most of the time, though, he had his tight end buddies around him.
](http://www.buccaneers.com/videos/videos/Bucs-Beat-Gameday-Around-the-Corner/e65ce200-7102-452f-8a78-d4df0abd8528)Howard only played 12 snaps that were in a single-tight end alignment, usually as part of an "11" package, which also includes one back and three wideouts. Otherwise he teamed with one or more tight ends, playing 28 snaps in "12" personnel (two TEs) and another four in jumbo groupings that included three tight ends. Howard played nine snaps paired with Cam Brate, 13 with Alan Cross and six with Luke Stocker. Tellingly, the Buccaneers did not run a single multi-TE snap without Howard on the field, an indication of what they think of his two-way blocking and receiving talents.
Both Howard and Brate were targeted three times, with Brate catching two passes. Cross caught the one ball thrown his way. Howard was actually the target on the Bucs' very first offensive play of the season, but a promising-looking seam route was thwarted by the hand of leaping linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Buccaneer coaches were pleased with Howard's first outing and expect even better ones to follow.
"He played fine," said Monken. "He's only going to get better. He's going to be a really good player, wants to be a good player, can run, block. Every practice, every game he's just going to continue to get better, and you see that with all players as they continue to play. Obviously, we anticipate we'll be better Week Two than we were last week in terms of certain things. Certain things, we will be better."
The Buccaneers are deep with varied talent at the tight end position; a fifth one, intriguing rookie Antony Auclair, wasn't active for the game. That is allowing Koetter and Monken to ease Howard into a more prominent role. Brate, in particular, takes some early-season heat off the rookie because the Buccaneers know they can stress defenses with his pass-catching skills as well.
"I think that does [help]," said Monken. "That's a good point. When you have other players that are capable of filling in roles, and Luke Stocker and having some other veteran guys where you're not counting on [Howard alone]. We don't have to give all the volume to O.J. That's a great point. With any young player, the more volume you give them the harder it is on them."
Howard thought his debut went well, too, and he thinks getting that first reception will help him relax and feel comfortable in the league.
"It's exciting to say you've lived out your dream to go out there and play in the NFL," said the former Alabama star. "It felt really good to get that under our belt, definitely to get a win at home. I got a catch, too. All that just added up and it felt good."