TAMPA, Fla. — Bruce Arians doesn’t blame Tom Brady for looking for Mike Evans when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are close to the goal line.
The 67-year-old coach jokes that even he could get the job done with one of the NFL’s best receivers at his disposal from inside the 20-yard line.
“Oh yeah, I can play quarterback down there with Mike. I mean, Tom loves it, though. It’s like having an unguardable guy,” Arians said of the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans. “But you know, I don’t necessarily like throwing it from the half-yard line, but I’ll take it.”
Evans has just 10 catches for 108 yards through three weeks. Still, he's one of three receivers — along with Tyreek Hill and DK Metcalf — with touchdown receptions in each of the first three games.
With four TDs receiving overall, the seventh-year pro is tied with Calvin Ridley and Tyler Lockett for the league lead.
“It’s a great rapport,” Arians said. “If you’re going to load up the box to stop the run and leave him one on one, it’s going to be hard to cover him.”
Evans, who last year joined Hall of Famer Randy Moss as the only players in NFL history to begin a career with six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, had a pair of 1-yard scoring receptions during last week’s 28-10 victory over Denver.
He had a 2-yard TD grab on his only catch during a season-opening loss at New Orleans.
“He’s a great red-area threat (with), I think, his size, his quickness, his elusiveness, his hands, everything,” Brady said.
“Mike is one of the great receivers in the NFL. I’ve got to find ways to get him the ball, get it to him in space — not just in the red area, but all over the field. That’s what my job is — to find him and get it to him.”
The relationship the quarterback and receiver have developed in a short time is among the reasons the Bucs (2-1) sit alone atop the NFC South entering Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers (1-2).
Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs 12 straight seasons, however, Brady’s arrival and the emergence of a stingy defence have heightened expectations for a turnaround.
“It’s definitely fun winning. In the past we haven’t been in this spot very much, so I’m happy that we’re here,” Evans said. “We’re going to work like hell to stay here.”
Los Angeles has lost two straight after opening with a victory over Cincinnati. Several key players are battling injuries, including quarterback Tyrod Taylor (punctured lung, broken ribs).
If Taylor is unable to play this week, rookie Justin Herbert will make his third start. The sixth overall pick in this year’s draft was 2 years old when the 43-year-old Brady made his NFL debut with New England in 2000.
“He has two games under his belt, and I think he has a lot of poise in the pocket,” Bucs defensive co-ordinator Todd Bowles said.
“He can make some great throws, he definitely doesn’t feel pressure around him, he keeps his head down the field, he can run with the football (and) he makes great reads,” Bowles added. “I think he’s off to a great start.”
ON THE OFFENSIVE
Herbert has thrown for 300 yards in his first two starts and has shown poise. Coach Anthony Lynn and offensive co-ordinator Shane Steichen said the rookie did not get rattled despite Los Angeles being down by double digits in the fourth quarter last week against Carolina.
Herbert’s top targets have been Keenan Allen, who was targeted 19 times and had 13 receptions last week, along with Hunter Henry, who has four straight games of five receptions or more.
Austin Ekeler leads the AFC in scrimmage yards, but the surprising part is that he is averaging 78.7 yards per game rushing. Nearly two-thirds of Ekeler’s yardage last season came catching the ball out of the backfield.
The Chargers are dealing with injury problems for the second straight season. Safety Derwin James and centre Mike Pouncey are out for the season, and they will be without four other defensive starters for Sunday’s game, including defensive end Melvin Ingram and cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
Los Angeles could also be missing a pair of starters on the offensive line. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed most of last week’s game due to a back injury and right guard Trai Turner has played in one game, missing the other two due to a groin injury.
Evans was reminded this week that Allen called him and fellow Bucs receiver Chris Godwin out during the off-season after the Tampa Bay players were ranked ahead of him on a list of the league’s top targets.
“I forgot about that,” Evans said. “No, Keenan, that’s my boy. He thinks he’s one of the best receivers in this league, and he should. He’s a really great player. I like his game a lot.”
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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press