TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Jameis Winston is making a run at saving his job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the highly productive receiving tandem of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin is helping him.
Winston’s franchise-record sixth consecutive game with at least 300 yards passing keyed a victory over Atlanta that lifted the Bucs (4-7) out of the NFC South cellar. It also leaves the No. 1 overall pick from the 2015 draft ranked among the NFL leaders in some encouraging — as well as discouraging — categories.
By season’s end, coach Bruce Arians has to determine if the good outweighs the bad.
Winston is in the final season of the contract he signed as a rookie, earning nearly $21 million. Arians was lured out of retirement to work with the 25-year-old quarterback, who’s thrown a league-leading 20 interceptions and also lost four fumbles through 11 games.
What a lot of people may not have noticed is the fifth-year pro is second in the NFL with 3,391 yards passing, as well as second with 22 touchdown passes.
Arians concedes it’s not easy to balance the positive and negative for week to week. Winston has 19 turnovers over the past six games.
“Like I said, that’s why I don’t have any hair,” the 67-year-old coach, who’s worked with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer during a long coaching career, said. “We’ve got to get rid of the bad – the really bad.”
Evans and Godwin, meanwhile, are enjoying stellar seasons and helping Winston state his case for remaining in Tampa Bay beyond this season. Both receivers went over 1,000 yards for the year during Sunday’s 35-22 victory over the Falcons. Godwin has 70 receptions for 1,071 yards and nine TDs, while Evans has 62 catches for 1,043 yards and seven TDs.
“It was kind of cool to see both of them go over 1,000 on the same day,” Winston said.
Godwin and Evans rank second and third, respectively, behind Michael Thomas (1,242) in receiving yards.
Outside of missing three extra points, Arians felt the Bucs delivered their best overall performance of the season against Atlanta. Despite Winston tossing a pair of interceptions early, the team was able to overcome the mistakes while moving the ball consistently and finishing drives with touchdowns. Meanwhile, the defense held its own against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
The Bucs started the game with five defensive backs on the field, including rookies Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting and second-year pros Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead, and had 16 passes defense — most by any team in the NFL this season. It’s also the most by a team since the Saints had 16 against the Lions in October 2017.
“These guys are growing and growing,” Arians said of a young secondary that also features rookie safety Mike Edwards. “They’re coming in early. They’re staying late, and it’s really starting to show up.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Bucs intercepted Ryan twice and Ndamukong Suh returned the quarterback’s fourth-quarter fumble 6 yards for a TD to finish even with Atlanta in the turnover battle. Arians felt his team should have fared better, especially considering how many times defenders got their hands on the ball. “I’d like to have seen 12 (passes defensed) and four interceptions, because we dropped four right in our hands,” the coach said. “We should put them all on the JUGS (machines) next week.”
Expect to see Vita Vea, the 6-foot-4, 347-pound defensive tackle who had a sack and also caught a 1-yard TD pass against Atlanta, continue to be used in goal-line situations on offense. Three weeks ago, he wiped out three defenders with a block that opened a huge hole on a rushing TD against Arizona, creating the prospect for even a bigger role against the Falcons. “It’s always nice to get those (big) guys the ball. But they earn it by blocking,” Arians said.
Kicker Matt Gay — slightly, though not much considering his overall body of work in rebounding from failing to make a potential winning field goal during a one-point loss to the New York Giants in Week 3. The rookie missed two extra points and had a third attempt blocked by the Falcons. The miscues didn’t wind up hurting the team’s chances of winning, and Arians said the kicker actually made adjustments to resolve the issue by early in the fourth quarter, when he made a 32-yard field goal.
No significant injuries reported coming out of Atlanta.
312 — The Bucs have scored 312 points, third most in the NFL. That’s the most Tampa Bay has ever had through 11 games.
The Bucs have yet to win consecutive games. They’ll take a fourth crack at it Sunday at Jacksonville, a place Tampa Bay has never won.