The Tampa Bay Buccaneers earned their first victory of the 2014 season in stunning fashion, mounting a last-gasp comeback inside the final minute of the fourth quarter to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field yesterday. Unfortunately, they still managed to suffer a loss of sorts, as WR Mike Evans succumbed to a groin injury which is expected to keep the rookie sidelined up to three weeks.
It was a minor setback on what was a major day for Tampa, staring another defeat in the eye just over a week after an embarrassing 56-14 beatdown administered by the Atlanta Falcons. Tampa, led by second-year QB Mike Glennon, rose to the occasion, earning the first victory of the Lovie Smith era. With the NFC South's three other franchises seemingly shooting themselves in the foot every other week, the doom and gloom lingering from week 3 has suddenly transformed into shining promise.
With starter Josh McCown sidelined by a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, Glennon took the reigns and shined to the tune of a 302 yard, 2 touchdown performance. Evans, the team's first round pick in May's draft, had his breakthrough performance in his first season, catching 4 balls from Glennon for 65 yards, including a signature grab in the end zone for a score. However, he pulled up lame late in the third quarter while running down the sideline and exited the game.
Evans was targeted 6 times until his injury occurred, and nearly had a second acrobatic touchdown which was ruled an incomplete pass after the rookie could not quite get both of his feet down in bounds. The 6-5 231 former basketball player cuts the figure of a prime outside playmaker to pair opposite Vincent Jackson, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Glennon with just 7 seconds remaining on the clock. Evans' absence could linger through the team's week 7 bye, meaning he may not be available to return to action until week 8 at home against the Minnesota Vikings. Mike Evans could be sidelined until week 8.
As Evans hits the shelf, his expected 3 week absence thrusts the likes of Louis Murphy and fellow rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins into a bigger role within the Bucs' offense, which for the first time this season, appeared to finally get off the ground. Tampa has been in desperate search of an offensive identity, struggling to consistently establish the run or move the ball through the air. Further complicating matters, offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has been forced to take a medical leave of absence, with quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo taking over play-calling duties. Doug Martin's return from a knee injury suffered in week 1 helped Sunday, but Glennon, who started 13 games as a rookie last year, may have been the true X factor.
With their starting running back in the mix once again, and a seemingly reignited passing attack under Glennon now at play, the Bucs will need someone else to emerge on the perimeter to complement Jackson, who was targeted 10 times, but came down with just 3 receptions for 32 yards, including his game-winning touchdown catch.
Murphy, who spent time with the organization before a back injury contributed to his release just before week 1, caught fire late, hauling in the 41-yard reception that set Tampa up deep in Pittsburgh territory for the go-ahead touchdown on their final drive. He ended Sunday with a team-high 11 targets, and caught 6 of them for 99 yards. Not bad for a guy who was sitting at home less than a week ago. In additon, the 27-year-old played a ton of snaps, many of them coming before Evans left the game, and it stands to reason that he will slot into the space vacated by the former Texas A&M man.
Murphy has plenty of experience in the league, going back to his rookie season with the Oakland Raiders where he caught a career-best 4 touchdown receptions in 2009. Stints with the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants followed, but the former Florida Gator now has a chance to make Tampa a permanent home, and if Sunday's small sample size foreshadows anything, it says that Glennon will not hesitate to get him the ball.
Seferian-Jenkins should also see increased targets while Evans sits. The rookie tight end, who had not played since week 1 due to a foot issue, played 71 offensive snaps, catching 3 balls on 7 targets for 44 yards. The 6-5 262 specimen out-repped veteran Brandon Myers by more than 40 snaps, and looks to be another one of Glennon's preferred targets. Jackson should continue to absorb extra attention from opposing defenses, which will help create some additional wiggle room for the 38th overall pick in May's draft, who is oozing with upside.
Russell Shepard, a former undrafted free agent out of LSU who excels on special teams, took advantage of his opportunity after Evans' abrupt exit, catching both of his targets for 30 yards against the Steelers, including a key third-down catch of 22 yards in the fourth quarter. Glennon, having backed up McCown throughout the offseason program, training camp and preseason, has a rapport with the likes of Murphy and Shepard from their time operating with the second-string offense in those practice sessions. Those reps will be extra beneficial as the trio now play bigger parts within the offense due to the injuries sustained by McCown and Evans.
If Glennon continues to play well, it will be interesting to see whether or not Smith re-inserts McCown as the starter. Smith infamously stood by Rex Grossman in Chicago, and anointed McCown as his guy in south Florida before a single practice was held. The new Bucs regime, which did not draft Glennon, was though to not be quite as high on the former North Carolina State signal-caller as their predecessors were. If that is true, additional performances like yesterday's will have them changing their tune quickly.
One player this regime did draft is Mike Evans. Pairing Evans opposite Jackson gives the Bucs a dynamic duo of larger-than-life perimeter playmakers on the outside, similar to what McCown worked with in Chicago last season in the form of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Neither of those two are walking through any doors in Tampa Bay, but the likes of Louis Murphy and Austin Seferian-Jenkins can more than make up for the loss of Mike Evans by continuing to turn in similar performances to their week 4 output.