Mike Evans couldn’t stop smiling Sunday, relishing the game within the game.
After setting a Tampa Bay franchise record in 2014 with 12 touchdown catches as a first-round draft pick out of Texas A&M, Evans has struggled with focus this season. He dropped five passes last week in a loss against the New York Giants, but the 6-foot-5 wide receiver played big against the Dallas Cowboys with eight catches for 126 yards.
Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston targeted Evans on 13 of his 39 pass attempts, and Evans and cornerback Morris Claiborne went at it during the first half before Claiborne departed with a hamstring injury.
Veteran corner Brandon Carr was then assigned to shadow Evans, who posted his fourth 100-yard game of the season and seventh of his young career.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Star-Telegram
“It was fun,” Evans said of the competition. “I heard some guys out there saying something about coming over the top against me, but it didn’t faze me. Those are both good corners and Carr’s much bigger than I thought he was. They both played pretty good and it’s fun to battle those guys.”
Before Tampa Bay’s staged its late game-winning drive, it was Evans who caught a 26-yard pass on first-and-20 as the Bucs crossed midfield before Winston was intercepted by safety Jeff Heath for the second time.
“Mike Evans is a beast,” said Winston, who had thrown 134 consecutive passes without being picked off before Heath’s second-quarter theft. “You know he is going to come day in and day out and work hard and keep making plays. You know everyone makes mistakes, but Mike Evans, when he wants to, he’s hard to stop.”
When Winston’s fumble at the goal line was nullified by a holding call against Heath, Evans experienced the full gamut of emotions.
“I saw the flag and then I saw the game-winning touchdown,” Evans said with a smile. “I was nervous at the time and we were lucky that flag came out. We didn’t want to settle for a field goal on that final drive — we wanted to win the game.”
Evans was well aware of the barbs leveled by his detractors this season regarding his erratic concentration.
“I played terrible last week, the worst game in NFL history probably,” he said. “It is what it is, but I’m not going to stop playing football. This is my job and I’m going to try to be the best I can be. At times like this, you have to be mentally strong and go back to your practice habits.”
Bound and determined
There wasn’t a lot of chatter in the Bucs’ huddle during Sunday’s game-winning drive ... just a lot of faith and belief.
Aided by two Dallas penalties, Tampa Bay marched 56 yards in nine plays, capped by a bootleg by Winston from 1 yard out with only 54 seconds remaining.
“We felt nothing but confidence,” said tight end Brandon Myers, whose 17-yard catch over the middle advanced the ball to the Cowboys’ 16 at the 2-minute warning. “Everybody kind of looked at each other in the eye and said, ‘This is what we get paid to do.’ We’re a resilient bunch, that’s for sure.”
With a deft mix of runs and passes, the Bucs took 3:06 off the clock and won when scoring 10 points or fewer for the first time since a 10-3 victory at New Orleans on Dec. 4, 2005.
“We knew it was our final chance,” center Joe Hawley said. “We were a little frustrated at that point because we hadn’t finished drives. But everybody had confidence that we could get the job done. We went down the field and put it in the end zone.”
Grounding the Cowboys
The Cowboys began with the eighth-ranked ground game in the NFL, averaging 129 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry behind an elite offensive line. With the Bucs loading up to stop the run, Dallas couldn’t generate any offensive balance as Tampa Bay’s front seven on defense dominated the trenches.
“Our first thing was stopping the run and making them one-dimensional,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said after Dallas was limited to 42 yards in 21 rushing attempts. “We wanted to let them try to make [quarterback] Matt Cassel beat us. Once we shut them down on the ground, we got after the quarterback. We made Cassel nervous, where he wasn’t able to set his feet and go through his normal progressions. Our whole defense played lights out.”
The Bucs played their third consecutive game without run-stuffing defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, out for the season with a pectoral injury, but Darren McFadden couldn’t find any open lanes as the Cowboys’ No. 1 rushing threat carried 17 times for only 32 yards.
“I was pretty pleased with what the front was able to do,” Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “Not just the D-line, but the front seven.”
According to Winston, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made the call of the season late in Sunday’s game.
“The touchdown was magical, man,” said the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. “We had a great fake, a great call and I found the way into the end zone.”
Winston was never noted for his mobility at Florida State, but he leads the Bucs with four rushing touchdowns. A week ago, he capped a 10-yard scoring run by leaping over the right pylon after launching himself from 3 yards away.
On Sunday, Winston fumbled without being hit when he tried to leap into the end zone, only to be bailed out by a holding penalty against Jeff Heath.
“I don’t like to see my quarterback doing that, but it shows great determination,” said Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans. “Jameis plays with so much passion. I can’t tell him to stop when he’s out there trying to make a play.”