Heading into their Week Nine game at Carolina last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had two of the top 10 players in the NFL in the category of receiving yards per game. Mike Evans was third at 110.0 per outing and DeSean Jackson was 10th at 84.9.
Neither Evans nor Jackson met their averages against the Panthers, however. In fact, the two didn't even combine to reach either of those marks. Carolina held the Buccaneers' one-two outside punch to three receptions for 48 yards.
Needless to say, that was a season low for the Evans-Jackson duo; the previous low came against Cleveland in Week Seven, when the two combined for "only" 132 yards on nine catches. The Buccaneers' offense still managed to rack up four touchdown passes as Ryan Fitzpatrick began targeting tight end O.J. Howard and slot receiver Adam Humphries much more often.
Carolina's defense deserves credit for its strategy and execution in shutting down the Buccaneers' outside receivers, which certainly appeared to be a conscious choice. Cornerback James Bradberry had a very good game against Evans, only allowing one of 10 targets in Evans' direction to be completed. And two deep shots to Jackson resulted in one incompletion when a first quarter throw was just out of the receivers' reach an done interception near the end of the game when the Bucs were desperate for a quick score.
"Bradford played extremely well," conceded Evans, who appreciates the cornerback's physical style of play but has previously had success against him. "Their defense had a very good game plan against me. I've just got to be better."
Jackson is one of the best big-play receivers in the history of the NFL, and he contributed a lot of downfield catches in the first month of the season, plus a record-breaking 60-yard touchdown in Cincinnati in Week Eight. But he's averaged just over 50 yards per game in the last four weeks and has just that one score against the Bengals. There's no question he wants to produce like he was in the early going, and to contribute big to victories as he did during the first two weeks.
"I can't say I'm happy, not winning and not being as productive," said Jackson. "For me to say I'm happy with that, I'd be lying to you. This is a competitive sport, a competitive nature, we're all professionals. Everyone gets paid to do a job and do it at your best, so I don't feel we've been doing that the past couple games, at our best, what we're capable of doing with the talent we have in this locker room. We've just got to figure it out."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at the AdventHealth Training Center.
It's clear that both Evans and Jackson are highly motivated to turn that low-output game in Carolina into a one-week dip and return to providing nearly 200 yards of offense per game between them. They'll get that chance on Sunday when the Washington Redskins visit and bring the league's 10th-ranked defense to town, albeit one that has been better against the run (fifth) than the pass (20th). Evans wants to get what could be a record-breaking season back on track; even after his one catch for 16 yards in Carolina he is still on pace for 1,572 yards, which would blow past the franchise single-season record of 1,422 set by Mark Carrier in 1989.
"I've been having an okay season; could be better," he said. "I always think I can be better, and I will be. It's one game. Watch the film, see where I can improve and try to make the corrections."
And Jackson, of course, will be going against a former team when the Redskins visit Raymond James Stadium, as he played for Washington the three seasons prior to joining the Buccaneers in 2017. Jackson has admitted that Tampa Bay's win over Philadelphia, the team that drafted him in 2008 and unceremoniously released him in March of 2014, was "personal." His departure from Washington was less dramatic, but he'd still like to give his old crew a reminder of what he's capable of doing.
"Oh yeah, it's going to be good to get out there [against my] former team," said Jackson. "I spent three years there and I've got a lot of friends still on that team. It will definitely be fun to get out there and play against them. Where we are now in our season, this is obviously a crucial game for us, back against the wall and we definitely need a win."
Jackson said he remains great friends with a lot of Washington's players, including cornerback Josh Norman, his teammate for one season in 2016. Evans has a lot of respect for the Redskins' top cornerback and fierce competitor, too, but both receivers know they will be on the receiving end of a lot of trash talk this Sunday. If they're looking for even more motivation once the game starts, Norman will likely provide it.
"We talk trash every time," said Evans. "I think I've played him four times and there's always trash talk. He's a fun player to play against. It's just football. Nobody's ever had a problem outside of it. I've seen guys talk trash on the field and we laugh about it afterward.
"He reads the quarterbacks well. Guys don't think he can run, but he can run pretty well He has a long stride, deceptive speed and he just knows football. He's going to talk a lot of trash and he backs it up most of the time."
The Redskins may choose to shadow Evans with Norman, as the Panthers did with Bradberry. But even if Jackson doesn't get a lot of one-on-one matchups with Norman he knows other former teammates will step up to provide the trash talk.
"I've got a great relationship with all [those] dudes from Josh Norman to 'Swag' [D.J. Swearinger Sr.] to Quinton Dunbar," said Jackson. "All them are great friends of mine. It'll be a great opportunity to go play against some familiar faces and talk some smack. In between the white lines, no friends. After the game, maybe before the game, we can talk a little bit, but I between that line, I just want to win."