MINNEAPOLIS — Baker Mayfield started slow. Frozen molasses slow. His Bucs career began with him completing only three of his first 11 passes for 12 yards and taking a sack through nearly all of the first half Sunday against the Vikings.
If this had been Mayfield in Cleveland, he may have tried to throw the Dawg Pound a bone and forced a pass into coverage. Maybe he goes for something finer playing in Carolina. He threw caution and footballs against the wind during his five games with the Rams last season.
But in Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Vikings — clinched by Chase McLaughlin’s 57-yard go-ahead field goal — it was time for boring Baker.
He took care of the football. He waited for new offensive coordinator Dave Canales to figure out how to draw up a few plays that worked against Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who schooled him most of the game.
“Baker is gutsy. Tough. The guys stayed behind him,” coach Todd Bowles said. “The great thing is, when he was having problems, he wasn’t turning it over. Our defense kept him in the game. He kept getting out, but he wasn’t turning the ball over. They stuck with it. They made some plays, and we got some runs at the end. The offense came through for him. The receivers showed up and it was a great team win.”
For most of the first half, it was a cat-and-mouse game between Flores and Canales, who last called plays in a game for Carson High School in 2005.
Flores would show blitz. Mayfield would change the play and protection. Then the defense would switch again and drop into zone coverage, forcing Mayfield to pull the ball down or make an errant throw. The Bucs had 35 total yards with under five minutes to play in the first half.
“It wasn’t the prettiest start by any means,” Mayfield said. “Great environment, like we expected. Really loud. We talked about getting ready for their blitz package and we were. But every time we checked, they would so that’s kind of the story you saw in the first half right there. It was just kind of a chess match at that point.”
What helped was the Bucs were forced to go up-tempo in a two-minute situation at the end of the first half. The Vikings couldn’t substitute. Mayfield and Canales got into a rhythm.
They went 61 yards in seven plays, capped by Mayfield’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans with 69 seconds remaining in the half.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Bowles fired offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in February in part because the Bucs were last in rushing offense. That’s likely where they will be Monday after averaging only 2.2 yards per carry. But they had 33 rushing attempts, even if the longest was for 6 yards.
“Schematically, they gave us a hard time in the beginning,” said Bowles, defending his new hire. “They did some things we had to get used to. I thought the adjustments Dave made at halftime were outstanding. We started moving the ball some, so we stuck with it.”
Mayfield and Canales also managed to get the Bucs in the end zone to start the third quarter and take a 17-10 lead. Mayfield stayed alive in the pocket and side-armed a 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie Trey Palmer.
“They were going to all-out blitz and they either do that or they drop eight,” Mayfield said. “When they’re rushing three people, you’ve got time to scramble. Your guys are going to get open. We talked about that earlier in the week. (Quarterbacks coach) Thad Lewis had our red-zone presentation and did a great job explaining, ‘Hey, they’re going to give you the same look but it’s two different outcomes so stay alive.’ Trey did a good job of working across the field.”
It was a plodding, but effective 75-yard march in 16 plays and kept Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on the bench for most of the third quarter.
“They call it double dipping,” Mayfield said. “People have different terms for it. Getting the ball with a touchdown to end the half and coming out and trying to get points to start the second half. It’s a huge momentum swing, especially when you have an environment like this.”
Mayfield finished with modest numbers: 21 of 34 passing for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
He didn’t come close to outplaying Cousins, who passed for 344 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, Justin Jefferson had nine catches for 150 yards. Cousins’ 4-yard touchdown pass to running back Alexander Mattison tied the score at 17 early in the fourth.
Mayfield got his team in position for McLaughlin’s game-winner. After the Bucs defense forced a three and out, he helped kill off the final 3:52 of the game.
He converted one third-down situation by scrambling for 4 yards, lowering his shoulder into Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr.
The clincher came on third and 10 at the Vikings’ 39. Godwin made a fingertip catch of a laser from Mayfield for 11 yards and a first down.
Mayfield and Canales can both be better. They will have to be. The Bucs defense got three turnovers and that won’t happen every game.
“Absolutely, it will definitely grow,” Mayfield said. “It’s just playing against Brian Flores, it’s quite the challenge. He’s a defensive mastermind so it was a good test for us for our first match. But we’re going to grow, we’re going to get better. We’ve got a long way to go but we’ll take all the wins we can get.”
That’s the thing. Boring Baker is good for the Bucs.
“He played a gutsy, mentally tough ballgame and to make that throw at the end to Chris right there without even flinching,” said Bowles, “Baker is a winner. He’s done this before. The guys really love to rally around him.”
• • •
Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.