For a player who’s made a living off winning contested catches, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans had what should have been one of the easiest deep touchdown grabs of his career Sunday at the Carolina Panthers.

The closest defender — cornerback CJ Henderson — was 10.9 yards away at the time the pass arrived in Evans’ hands from quarterback Tom Brady.

There was nothing but green grass 25 yards in front of him. And he dropped it. The Buccaneers wouldn’t score a touchdown all game.

“No one play is the sole reason you lose, but that was definitely the biggest reason,” Evans said. “I seen the life go out of us. It took me a while to get back playing. We’re taught to play the next play, but it was tough — wide open, one of the best in the game — I’ve got to catch it.”

That’s the kind of day Sunday was for the Bucs as they fell in stunning fashion to the Panthers, 21-3, dropping their fourth out of the past five games to fall to 3-4. Similar to last week’s game at the Pittsburgh Steelers, they faced a one-win Panthers team they were favored to beat by double digits, led by a backup quarterback and lacking much star power.

“No one feels good about where we’re at, no one feels good about how we’ve played or what we’re doing,” said Brady, who finds himself below .500 seven games into the season for the first time since 2002.

“We’re all in it together. We’ve gotta go pull ourselves out of it.”


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While multiple players sat at their lockers visibly stunned and staring at the floor in silence, coach Todd Bowles was not at a loss for words.

“We’re not playing well. We’re not playing well as individuals, we’re not playing well as a team,” he said. “We’re not coaching well. All around. We’re not scoring enough on offense. We’re not stopping them enough on defense. So as a result — we have to wear this on our sleeve. We’ve got to be grown men. We’re going to see what we’re made of — how many people can handle adversity? This is as dark as it’s going to be right now.

“Those guys who are going to step up are going to show up this week in practice. Our leaders are going to lead. Our coaches are going to coach. We’re just going to dig and keep our head down. It’s a prideful football game. … Either you can or you can’t. We’re going to see what we have going forward and see how many people crumble when it’s dark, and see how many people step up and starting playing better.

“We as a team, starting with me and the coaches, and the players have got to be accountable as well — it’s a dark day for us losing the way we did and with the mistakes that we had, that we shouldn’t have had,” he continued. “You can’t do nothing but pick your shirt up by the tail. We own it, we have to own it, to a man, we have to stand up here and own it and make no excuses, and we’ve just got to start digging.”

Touted as one of the best offenses in the league, the Bucs have gone from averaging 31.43 offensive points per game through seven games last season to just 16.71 points, 27th in the league. In the third quarter, at the Carolina 25-yard line, running back Leonard Fournette was stifled on a third-and-1 run up the middle and then on a fourth-and-1 pitch. The Bucs had three drops total for the game.

When Brady and the Bucs got down to the 8-yard line with 13:53 to go in the fourth quarter, he failed to connect on three straight pass attempts — to Russell Gage, Evans and Chris Godwin — forcing them to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Ryan Succop for their only points of the day.

Defensively, they suffered from multiple communication issues and coverage busts without cornerbacks Carlton Davis, who missed the game with a hip injury, and Sean Murphy-Bunting, who was held out with a quadriceps injury, and safety Logan Ryan, who underwent surgery this week to repair a Jones fracture in his foot. Cornerback Jamel Dean inexplicably did not go deep when DJ Moore slipped behind safety Mike Edwards on a 20-yard touchdown. Rookie cornerback Zyon McCollum hesitated and was out of position on PJ Walker’s 29-yard touchdown throw to Tommy Tremble.

The Bucs also have gone from being the league’s top-ranked run defense, giving up 67.43 rushing yards per game through seven games last year, to giving up 118.29 rushing yards per game, 16th in the league. On Sunday, they surrendered 173 rushing yards with a 60-yard run from D’Onta Foreman and a 17-yard touchdown run by Chuba Hubbard that linebacker Devin White and safety Keanu Neal both missed tackles on.

“This is going to be a big test for us. We’ll see where we’re at. We’ll see what we’re made of,” Evans said. “We’ve been here before. Some of us have been here through the real tough times. We know how to keep playing, and that’s what we have to do. This one’s going to hurt. We’ll do the 24-hour rule. And we’ve got to get ready for Thursday [against the Baltimore Ravens]. … Luckily we’re playing Thursday. We have to win it.”

Asked whether he’s worried that players will start mentally checking out, Bowles said, “We’re all checked in. We’re just not coaching and playing well enough.”

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