TAMPA — Baker Mayfield does his best work throwing the football by utilizing rollouts, bootlegs and waggles. The play-action game helps create some passing lanes for the vertically-challenged, 6-foot-1 quarterback.
But after seven games under new offensive coordinator Dave Canales, opponents are making Mayfield try to beat them from the pocket.
“The defenses have done a good job adjusting and understanding what he’s trying to do,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday, “so, they’ve kind of kept him in the pocket a little bit.”
The result has been that Mayfield has been less able to escape the pass rush or the punishment that comes with it.
He wore a sleeve on his left leg to protect a banged-up knee but was a full participant in practice. He hurt the knee in the Week 4 win at New Orleans and has aggravated the injury a few times since. He also has lacerated the index finger of his throwing hand and banged his left hand on a helmet.
“I went down on that New Orleans hit, the touchdown to Cade (Otton),” Mayfield said. “Just a real awkward fall against the Falcons that I guess reaggravated it. It’s getting better every day. It comes with time. It’s not going to heal overnight so it gets better each day.”
While Mayfield has been sacked only 11 times this season, he’s taking a lot more hits and having to unload the football quicker.
Consequently, he’s had some passes batted down, including what would have been a touchdown to Mike Evans in a loss to Detroit.
Taking only a three-stop drop, Mayfield’s pass was deflected by Lions defensive lineman Isiah Buggs and intercepted by defensive back Will Harris.
“We want to do our RPOs (run-pass option), we want to do that just to get to our edges and attack the perimeter,” Mayfield said. “But teams have done a good job, whether it’s looping a defensive end out, bringing some edge pressure to kind of take away some of those schemes. But yeah, that kind of goes into the mindset of what the defense is doing. How can we take advantage of these looks? And just take the easy stuff that’s there.”
One outlet for Mayfield lately in the passing game has been running back Rachaad White. Because Tampa Bay has one of the worst running games in the NFL, ranked 31st after averaging 3.2 yards per carry, opponents have been playing two-deep safeties stopping the run with a seven-man front. But that has allowed White to sneak out into the flat for some easy completions.
In fact, Mayfield was 7-of-7 for 70 yards passing while targeting White in the Bucs’ 24-18 loss at Buffalo.
“I pride myself on everything I’ve been able to do” White said. “Being able to run, catch the ball and block for Baker. I’m just trying to do everything I can to do my job.”
Even though it may not have translated to success or scoring in that game, White ran better against the Bills than at any time this season. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry (9-for-39), not including what would have been a season-long rush of 26 yards that was wiped out by offensive holding.
“The past couple weeks, I’ve broken a good run and we just set ourselves back (with penalties),” White said.
In addition to his pre-snap duties, Mayfield is having to manipulate opponents’ safeties to create windows to his receivers.
“Especially with how many two-high safety defenses we’re getting right now,” Mayfield said. “There’s more zone defenders, zone droppers underneath so you definitely have to manipulate a little bit. You have to trust your reads and eyes and go through it. It comes down to delivering the ball on time and if it’s not there, move on to the next progression.”
As the Bucs are forced to adjust to keep Mayfield in the pocket, the slow starts continue. Tampa Bay is one of only nine teams that has failed to score a touchdown on its opening drive. In fact, the Bucs have been outscored 26-13 in the first quarter this year.
“You go through the whole week, you should have the game plan down,” Mayfield said. “Even more, you’ve got to be on the same page the first drive.”
Because they’ve fallen behind and can’t run the ball, Mayfield has attempted 42 passes in each of his last two games. More and more, he’s going to have to deliver the ball from the pocket.
“It’s a tricky game because you want to deliver the ball on time, some of the quick game stuff,” Mayfield said. “But smart defensive linemen, they see your footwork, it stops, they’re not going to get the passer, they’re going to get their hands up.
“One, I’m not built like one of those ginormous human beings. You’ve got to work arm angles, try to find windows and if you have to slide a little bit to take out your target, you’re going to have to.”
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