The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their 2018 campaign in the Superdome on Sept. 9, and found themselves down by seven points just three minutes into the season. From there, an offensive explosion ensued…but perhaps not exactly how most observers expected it would.
Tampa Bay answered immediately, as Ryan Fitzpatrick's second pass of the game was a 58-yard touchdown strike to DeSean Jackson. The Buccaneers rang up 31 first-half points and had a two-touchdown lead at the intermission. They would later expand that lead to 48-24 before holding on against a furious Drew Brees-led rally for a 48-40 victory. It quickly became clear, and has since proved to be anything but a one-week fluke, that the Bucs possessed a very explosive offense, and on this day it produced 529 total yards and eight completions of 20 or more yards. That included another 36-yard touchdown catch by Jackson and a 50-yard scoring streak down the sideline by Mike Evans.
Three months and what feels like three seasons later, the Buccaneers and Saints are set for their 2018 rematch at Raymond James Stadium, a game that the home team almost surely needs to win to keep realistic playoff hopes alive. The Buccaneers would be hard-pressed to score another 48 points – that did tie the franchise's single-game record, after all – but the league's top-ranked passing attack should have plenty of opportunities to roll the scoreboard, assuming the Saints' defense continues with its aggressive approach.
"They've been relatively injury-free on defense, so they've played together and I think they play extremely hard and extremely fast," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They don't make very many mistakes and they're aggressive. They give you a lot of five-man pressure and a lot of man coverage. You're going to make some big plays and you're going to have some negative plays. In Game One, we hit a lot of big plays on them and I'm sure that's what they'll be trying to stop in this game. They've reduced those and they pressured the quarterback consistently throughout their 10-game winning streak."
The Saints' defense ranks sixth in the league with a sacks-per-pass-attempt rate of 8.51%, and as Koetter explained they generate some of that pressure by bringing an extra pass-rusher. That is usually coupled with man coverage, and the result can be a situation where the quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly, which can work out fine for the offense if their pass-catchers are also beating their one-on-one opponents quickly.
Evans, who had five catches for 147 yards in that Week One victory in New Orleans, points to that latter part of the equation being critical to the Bucs' success this Sunday.
"Their defense has gotten much better since we played them; they look kind of like they did last year," said Evans. "I think we have a really good game plan. We have to win our one-on-one matchups. That'll be key."
As for last season, the Buccaneers split with the Saints, losing at the Superdome in Week Nine but taking the rematch in Tampa in the regular-season finale. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who will likely be shadowing Evans like usual on Monday, had a strong game against him in the former meeting, holding the Bucs receiver to one 13-yard catch. In the Bucs win, however, Evans had five catches for 55 yards as Tampa Bay's offense had a string of big plays. One of them came on Tampa Bay's last offensive snap of 2018 and was a good example of what Evans means about winning one-on-one matchups. Trailing 24-23 and with no timeouts left, the Buccaneers snapped the ball at the Saints' 39 with 15 seconds left. The primary read for Jameis Winston was an out to the sideline to Evans on the left side, which if successful would have put the Bucs in range to win the game with a field goal. However, on the other side of the field, then-rookie wideout Chris Godwin encountered press coverage and beat his man off the line. Winston saw this and went for the home run, hitting a streaking Godwin down the sideline for a 39-yard game-winner.
The Bucs followed that season-ending win over the Saints with another one to start 2018, as described above. In both cases, the offense hummed because Evans and company met the challenge of the Saints' aggressive defense.
"I just remember everybody was just on," said Evans of the 2018 opener. "Offensively, that was one of our best games since we've been here, just on the offensive end. We rarely made any mistakes, we took care of the football and we won our one-on-one matchups. I think that's going to be key for this game as well."
With his size and athleticism, Evans is a natural choice for a quarterback whose time of comfort in the pocket is reduced by a blitz. And, in fact, Evans is the Bucs' top receiver when it comes to passes on blitz plays. He has been targeted 37 times in those situations and has 19 catches for 398 yards and two touchdowns, with an average of 17.3 yards per catch. It has also helped that he's improved his route-running in 2018, which makes him a more reliable and often more open target for a hurried quarterback.
"I think this season my run-after-catch has been a little bit better and my route-running has been so much better," said Evans. "I'm able to bend. I wasn't able to bend like this a couple years ago but now I'm able to bend. I've been more healthy, I'm in better shape, so I think that's been key for me. I'm a much better route-runner because I'm in better shape."
Tampa Bay's offense scored on its first four possessions in Week One and seven of its first 10 before kneeling three times to end the game on their 11th possession. That proved necessary when the Saints turned a potential blowout into a nail-biter with 475 yards of their own. The Bucs also had both of the game's takeaways and scored on a fumble return, which proved to be the difference. Evans said it is important for the Buccaneers to continue to make as much out of every possession as possible when playing the Saints.
"Oh, it's huge," he said. "We want to make the game easier for our defense, because this is an offensive league. We want to make the game easier for them and we want to do what we're supposed to do. We have some of the top skill guys in the league and there's no reason why we shouldn't score a lot of points. We've been doing a good job of taking care of the football, and I think that's key. Take care of the football and we'll be hard to beat."