Like many NFL players, Mike Evans is his own harshest critic. The second-year receiver caught seven passes for 101 yards in Tampa Bay's Week Three loss at Houston, but his main takeaway was that he missed an opportunity to be the Buccaneers' winning edge."
"I played terrible," said Evans on Wednesday, with a tone that was blunt but not dejected. "This team needs better from me and I will get better. But it's in the past; the game's behind us. We should have definitely won if I make one or two more plays. I'll work hard in practice this week and hopefully I'll make those plays come Sunday."
Tampa Bay lost 19-9 to the Texans, as the home team rallied from a halftime deficit to pull away in the fourth quarter. Evans' seven catches came on a very substantial 17 targets – nearly half of the passes that Jameis Winston threw – and it's what could have happened on those other 10 plays that left Evans unsatisfied with his own performance.
But that potential is also what makes him believe that great days are ahead for him and Winston and the Buccaneers' offense.
"We could be dangerous," said Evans. "Jameis played great, the O-line played great, everybody played great except for myself. If I pick that up we could be dangerous."
Evans has played great for most of his 17 games as a Buccaneer since the team drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2014. He had a superb rookie season, cracking 1,000 yards, averaging 15.5 yards per reception and setting a new team record with 12 touchdown catches. He sustained a hamstring injury in the middle of this year's preseason slate, however, and didn't play until Game Two of the regular season. Even then, he was on the field for only about half the team's offensive snaps, and targeted by Winston just three times.
Evans isn't sure if that relative lack of activity left him rusty heading into a full day of work in Houston, but he does know that he wasn't quite himself. Evans dropped a couple passes and also had to double-clutch several others.
"Maybe so," he said to the idea that he was shaking off rust. "I don't know what it was. I just didn't feel as comfortable as I have been in the past, but I guess that comes with more reps."
Again, Evans was visibly comfortable as he faced the media on Wednesday, just before the Buccaneers went out for their first practice of the week. He acknowledged his disappointment in last Sunday's game but he also knew how to get past it.
"You've just got to go through it," said Evans. "It happens. But if things don't go your way you've got to come back to work the next week. It's another great team coming in and we've got to move forward. "I put it behind me. I'm very, very anxious. We have a good defense coming into town and it should be fun."
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday.
Second-year tackle Reid Fragel was promoted from the practice squad, perhaps due to uncertainty about starting left tackle Donovan Smith, who did not practice on Wednesday due to a knee ailment. However, the rookie starter may not be out for long.
"He has a knee injury and he wasn't able to practice today," said Lovie Smith. "Hopefully tomorrow he'll be a lot better and might be able to practice tomorrow."
With starting center Evan Smith missing the game in Houston due to an ankle injury suffered in New Orleans, and then not practicing on Wednesday, the team also brought back rookie guard Antoine Everett. Everett, who played in three preseason games for the Buccaneers in August, was added to the practice squad; he can't play in Sunday's game without a promotion but he can certainly help with reps on the practice field.
Tampa Bay's other addition to the practice squad on Wednesday was a tight end, as the team signed rookie Tevin Westbrook, a former Florida Gator. The Bucs definitely needed help with practice-field reps at that position because both Austin Seferian-Jenkins (shoulder) and Luke Stocker (hip) were held out on Wednesday. Seferian-Jenkins hasn't played since he was hurt in the Week Two win at New Orleans, while Stocker is a new addition to the injury list after the Houston game.
In all, the Buccaneers had nine players on their first injury report of the week, with the two Smiths, the two tight ends and cornerback Johnthan Banks (knee) all sidelined for the workout in its entirety.
"You have to have a pretty significant injury to not practice," said Smith.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (shoulder), safety Chris Conte (hip), defensive end George Johnson (neck) and safety Major Wright (abdomen) were all limited. In Wright's case, that's a step forward, as he didn't practice the last two weeks after being injured in the season opener.
The Panthers had eight players on their injury report, and seven of them had to miss practice. That list did not include starting defensive end Charles Johnson, who has been placed on the injured reserve list using Carolina's one "designated to return" tag for the season. After Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in the Panthers' win over New Orleans on Sunday, the team quickly traded for Chicago Bears defensive end Jared Allen.
The name drawing the most attention on Carolina's injury report is that of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Kuechly suffered a concussion in the season opener and hasn't played since, and while there was some early optimism that he would return this week he was held out of practice on Wednesday. Afterward, Head Coach Ron Rivera would only say that Kuechly remains in the NFL's concussion protocol.
Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis was the one player on the Panthers' injury report who was able to practice (on a limited basis) on Wednesday, which should be considered good news for Carolina, particularly if Kuechly cannot return this week. However, the Panthers still have good depth in their linebacking corps, particularly after using a 2015 first-round pick on Shaq Thompson and continuing to develop 2013 fifth-round selection A.J. Klein.
"He's one of the top players in the NFL; he's the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers of defense," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter of Kuechly. "When he's in there, the offense checks, he's checking the defense, he's sliding the front. Guy's an impressive player. They've been a lot more vanilla the last two-and-a-half games with him out. I'm sure as soon as he gets back, they'll crank it up again and do more things than they've been doing."
Added Lovie Smith: "Luke Kuechly is as good a MIKE linebacker as there is playing the game, if he is able to go. You want to see great players in the league not be out because of injury. If he's not there, they filled in well last week with some good young players and they should be okay still."
- Tampa Bay's defense ranks 30th against the run after three weeks, allowing 138 yards per game, and it's about to face the league's sixth-ranked rushing attack.
Run defense rankings aren't always the most trustworthy stats – the great Buccaneer defenses of the mid-'90s to mid-aughts routinely ranked higher against the pass than the run – but there is definitely room for improvement. Houston took over a close game in the fourth quarter on Sunday by repeatedly running the ball, and with great success.
"[We're] trying to stop the run," said linebacker Danny Lansanah. "That's the big thing. If a team is running for a lot of yards on you, you're usually getting your butt kicked. A team can throw for 500 yards and still lose a ballgame, but when a team rushes for 150, 200 yards [against you], you're going to lose the game."
Buccaneer defenders do not believe any drastic adjustments are necessary in order to get better results in the ground-game battle.
"Yeah, [it's] correctable," said linebacker Lavonte David, who had 15 tackles in Houston, including two run stuffs. "It's just something that we have to fix on our behalf. It's all about beating the man in front of you and getting to the ballcarrier. Nobody's been out-scheming us or anything. It's a matter of us doing what we're supposed to do."
Carolina is averaging 132 rushing yards per game and, as always is committed to that part of the plan. The Panthers have run the ball 98 times through three contests, which is just one carry behind the NFL-leading San Francisco 49ers (Cincinnati also had 98 runs). That number is inflated, obviously, by the fact that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is more involved in the rushing attack than most passers; he has 31 carries for 141 yards and has scored both of his team's rushing touchdowns.
In other words, that Buccaneer run defense won't have to wait long for another chance to prove itself against a premium ground game.
"Really, you don't have to do anything different," said David. "It's just going to be another opponent we're going against. We're going to have the same preparation, if not better, against a team that's on a hot streak right now. Whatever you've been doing the past couple weeks, you have to do that but better."