Saints vs. Buccaneers WR/CB Matchups: Mike Evans Gets Slight Downgrade vs. Marshon Lattimore
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images. Pictured: Marshon Lattimore #23 of the New Orleans Saints and Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wide receiver-cornerback showdowns might be the most important individual matchups in football.
In this piece, I leverage snap data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to project Divisional Round WR/CB matchups for the Saints-Buccaneers game.
For more, see the FantasyLabs Matchups page, where we provide basic and advanced data — including fantasy and red-zone performance — for each offensive skill-position player based on his matchup.
As we get more clarity during the week on the injury status of receivers and corners, I will update my WR/CB projections.
Saints (-3) vs. Buccaneers (52 Over/Under)
Kickoff: 6:40 p.m. ET on Sunday | TV: FOX
Saints Wide Receivers
Entering the playoffs, the Saints had three key wide receivers on injured reserve.
- Michael Thomas: Ankle
- Deonte Harris: Neck
- Tre’Quan Smith: Ankle
But Thomas and Harris returned to action last week, and Smith returned to practice on Wednesday.
Tre'Quan Smith returned to practice today after having surgery a couple weeks ago. The team could be at full strength at wide receiver if he is deemed ready to play this weekend.
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) January 13, 2021
There’s no guarantee that Smith will be ready to play in the Divisional Round. This season, the Saints have often designated players to return and given them a couple weeks of practice before officially activating them. That could happen with Smith.
But right now I am tentatively projecting Smith in: His injury does not appear to be serious, and the Saints activated Thomas last week as soon as possible.
If active, Smith will resume his duties as the team’s primary slot receiver with Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the perimeter.
Although Smith has just 124 targets and 82 receptions over the past three seasons (including playoffs), he is a dynamic player as evidenced by his 9.2 yards per target and 11.3% touchdown rate. He is a significant upgrade over the rotation of Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway.
A two-time All-Pro, Thomas was 5-73-1 receiving on seven targets last week in his return to action. The 2018-19 league leader with 125 and 149 receptions, Thomas disappointed in 2020 with nine missed games, but he is still the man.
While Thomas’ return is great for the Saints, it’s absolutely devastating for Sanders, who exhibited stark per-game splits in the regular season with Thomas.
- Without Michael Thomas (7 games): 7.7 targets | 5.7 receptions | 73 yards
- With Michael Thomas (7 games): 4 targets | 3 receptions | 30.7 yards
Those splits showed themselves in full force on Wild Card Weekend, as Sanders was just 2-3-0 receiving on three targets.
With Thomas back — and with the Saints steadfastly using Humphrey, Harris and Callaway as rotational receivers — Sanders is unlikely to get the targets necessary to make an impact, especially if Smith returns to action.
If Smith is out, Sanders will likely shift to the slot and Humphrey will play on the outside in three-wide sets, although Harris and Callaway will also respectively mix in with slot and perimeter work.
While Humphrey, Harris and Callaway are all capable of contributing, none of them can be relied on as a dependable No. 3 receiver.
Last week, Humphrey had just one target on 45 snaps. Harris had seven targets, but that was easily his career-high mark, and he played just 24 snaps. And Callaway wasn’t targeted at all.
With Thomas once again on the field, every other receiver is now an afterthought.
No. 1 corner Carlton Davis (groin) is dealing with a lingering injury, but he returned to action last week and seems likely to play.
With Davis, the main question isn’t availability. It’s deployment. In the first few months of the season, the Bucs typically used Davis in shadow coverage against big-bodied No. 1 receivers. For instance, in Weeks 1 & 9 he shadowed Thomas, who did little against Davis and the Bucs.
- Week 1: 3-17-0, five targets | 2-9-0, four targets vs. Davis
- Week 9: 5-51-0, six targets | 3-38-0, four targets vs. Davis
But since the Week 12 defensive debacle against the Chiefs and the Week 13 bye, the Bucs have exclusively played sides with Davis at left corner and Jamel Dean at right corner.
Not even last week against alpha receiver Terry McLaurin and an accompanying assortment of forgettable Washington wideouts did the Bucs break with their recent defensive usage — and that’s despite the fact that the Football Team receiver unit practically screams for shadow coverage.
If the Bucs didn’t shadow McLaurin last week, they seem unlikely to shadow Thomas now.
And that means Carlton at left corner is likely to match up most with Sanders, not Thomas. And that’s a tough draw for Sanders.
Since last season, Davis has allowed 7.4 yards per target on a 56.7% catch rate while matching up most with No. 1 receivers — and those numbers would look a lot better if not for his meltdown in Week 12, when the Bucs foolishly had him shadow Tyreek Hill and he forfeited 12-236-3 receiving on 15 targets.
Against an in-his-prime burner with elite target volume, Davis is a poor match. But against an aging and little-used veteran like Sanders, Davis should be fine.
With Davis at left corner, Dean at right corner is likely to match up most with Thomas. I must say that the more familiar I’ve become with Dean the more impressed I’ve been. Across his two-year career, he has allowed just 5.7 yards per target with a 58.8% catch rate.
As good as Davis is, Dean might eventually prove to be the better cover man. Against Dean, Thomas will face a significant challenge. After all, the Bucs defense is No. 5 with a -5.4% pass DVOA (per Football Outsiders).
But in the slot, Sean Murphy-Bunting is something of a liability. For his career, he has allowed a 74.8% catch rate, and this year in particular he has yielded 9.6 yards per target and seven touchdowns.
If the speedy Smith returns, it’s not hard to imagine his having success in the slot.
Buccaneers Wide Receivers
Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (hip/quad) were limited in practice on Wednesday, but both are likely to play this weekend.
With Evans, Godwin and mid-season addition Antonio Brown, the Bucs have the league’s best starting trio of receivers.
What do you really need me say about these guys?
This year, Evans became the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven 1,000-yard receiving campaigns.
When the NFL Hall of Fame is tweeting about a guy, he’s probably pretty good.
The HOF is tweeting about Mike Evans 👀 https://t.co/S9E1wIDYMW
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) January 3, 2021
And over the past two years, Godwin has arguably been the better receiver (including postseason).
- Chris Godwin (27 games): 156-2,252-17 receiving | 10.4 yards per target
- Mike Evans (30 games): 143-2,282-21 receiving | 9.6 yards per target
As for Brown, he was an underwhelming 20-168-0 receiving on 29 targets in his first month with the team, but in the final month he looked very much like his 2018 self with 25-315-4 on 33 targets.
And then on Wild Card Weekend he was an efficient 2-49-1 on three targets with a 22-yard run added in.
Overall, Brown is a respectable 47-532-5 receiving on 65 targets in nine games — but he did see just three targets last week.
Brown perhaps hasn’t fallen off a cliff, but he’s certainly nowhere close to the peak of the mountain.
No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore has shadowed in almost every game since Week 13, so I expect him to travel this week, especially since he’s facing Mike Evans.
As you’re probably aware, these two guys have some deliciously dramatic history.
In Week 9 of 2017 (Lattimore’s rookie year), Evans instigated (or exacerbated) a sideline brawl involving Lattimore — and that was just their first matchup.
Since then, these guys have been more than just division rivals: They have been mortal enemies.
In Week 1 of this year, they got in yet another fight.
And now Lattimore and Evans are slated to face each other for a third time this season, and the stakes could not be higher.
As great as Evans is, Lattimore has dominated him this year.
Marshon Lattimore in shadow coverage vs. Mike Evans this season
🔒 65% routes covered
🔒 4 targets
🔒 0 catches pic.twitter.com/fg8oKUCwOP
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 13, 2021
Now, some context is warranted for these numbers. In Week 1, Evans was on the doubtful side of questionable, and yet he still played in the game, serving mainly as a decoy. And in Week 9 the Buccaneers’ passing game was out of sync in an embarrassing 38-3 loss.
But for the most part — with the exception of 2018 — Lattimore and the Saints have held Evans in check over the past four years.
Mike Evans vs. Marshon Lattimore & Saints since 2017:
Evans vs. Saints in 7 games w/ Lattimore:
– 6.4 yards per target
Evans vs. Lattimore directly
– 2.9 yards per target (2/5)
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) January 14, 2021
On a per-target basis, Evans has been incredibly bad against the Saints, and since 2019 he has gotten literally nothing in Lattimore’s coverage.
Mike Evans vs. Marshon Lattimore & Saints, 2019-20
Week 5: 0-0-0 (3) | 0-0-0 (1)
Week 11: 4-69-0 (8) | Lattimore out
Lattimore dominates in 1 game.
Week 1: 1-2-1 (4) | 0-0-0 (2)
Week 9: 4-64-0 (6) | 0-0-0 (2)
Evans injured in Week 1, but Lattimore dominates. (4/5)
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) January 14, 2021
But in 2018 Evans did embarrass Lattimore, who is something of a conundrum, as is the entire Saints pass defense. The Saints are No. 3 with a -14.7% pass-defense DVOA, but they allowed a middle-of-the-road 2,689 yards to opposing wide receivers in the regular season, and they are No. 18 with a 60.4 PFF coverage grade.
What’s going on here?
The Saints are good at rushing the passer. They are No. 3 with an 8.5% adjusted sack rate and No. 4 with a 25.6% pressure rate. But they are inconsistent when it comes to defending passes, and the poster child for that inconsistency is Lattimore.
In 2017, Lattimore was the Defensive Rookie of the Year and looked like a surefire future All-Pro with zero touchdowns allowed and five interceptions, but in 2018 he regressed to 10.0 yards per target as quarterbacks learned to exploit his overaggressive and tendency to jump routes.
It’s probably not a coincidence that 2018 was when Evans got the better of Lattimore.
And since then he has been a veritable mixed-bag defender. In some games, he is entirely locked in and playing as well as any corner in the league. In other games, he gives up 120-plus yards and a touchdown and seems totally lost.
His PFF coverage grades tell the story of his career.
- 2017: 87.9
- 2018: 75.8
- 2019: 65.7
- 2020: 57.2
Over the past two seasons, he has allowed 8.0 yards per target and a 10:3 TD:INT ratio.
But he seems to get up for big games, and for him there’s no bigger game than a matchup with Evans. I expect to see Lattimore at his best … but you never really know.
Opposite Lattimore is Janoris Jenkins, a steady veteran who joined the team near the end of last year. In his 17 total games with the Saints, Jenkins has allowed 7.4 yards per target. His matchup with Brown is rather unremarkable.
Against the Bucs in Week 9, Brown was 3-31-0 receiving on five targets, but that was also his first game with the team, so I’m not reading too much into it.
In the slot is Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, perhaps the best — or most reliable — starting corner for the Saints. He missed Week 17 on the COVID-19 reserve list, but he returned to action last week and was in fine form. For the season, he has held receivers in his coverage to 5.7 yards per target.
In his two games against Gardner-Johnson and the Bucs this year, Godwin has been held in check.
- Week 1: 6-79-0, seven targets | 3-18-0, three targets vs. Gardner-Johnson
- Week 9: 3-41-0, six targets | 1-20-0, three targets vs. Gardner-Johnson
Godwin is one of the league’s best receivers, but this is not a friendly matchup.
Wide Receiver Upgrades & Downgrades
- Michael Thomas: Moderate downgrade
- Emmanuel Sanders: Moderate downgrade
- Tre’Quan Smith: Moderate upgrade
- Mike Evans: Small downgrade
- Chris Godwin: Moderate downgrade
- Antonio Brown: No change
Saints & Buccaneers WR/CB Injuries
- Saints WRs Tre’Quan Smith (ankle, IR) is tentatively projected IN.
- Buccaneers WRs Mike Evans (knee) & Chris Godwin (hip/quad) are projected IN.
- Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis (groin) is projected IN.
Saints-Buccaneers WR/CB Matrix
Pos = left, right or slot WR or CB
Projected shadow matchups are CAPITALIZED
WR Exp = Wide Receiver Expectation: I rank from 3 to -3 how much I think we should adjust expectations for wide receivers based on matchups. 3: Large upgrade. 2: Medium upgrade. 1: Small upgrade. 0: No change. -1: Small downgrade. -2: Medium downgrade. -3: Large downgrade.
Thanks to Scott Barrett for providing me with some of PFF’s historical data.
Matthew Freedman is 982-775-37 (55.9%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.