TAMPA ― It can’t last. At some point before the first cool front sweeps through Tampa Bay, Baker Mayfield’s blistering hot streak on third down will be gone.
But for right now, nobody is playing better when it matters most in games than the Bucs quarterback.
The biggest reason for the team’s 2-0 start may be Mayfield’s success passing on third down. He is 20 of 23 for 201 yards and three touchdowns in those situations.
His 87% completion percentage on third down is the best in the league, and his 132.1 passer rating in such situations is second only to the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins.
“I think when you talk about third down, obviously you want to get past the third-down marker,” Mayfield said. “But giving your guys a chance to catch the ball in space and break tackles … we’ve had a few of those where they catch it short and they make plays to get the first down.
“Just giving guys opportunity. Like I’ve mentioned before, we have a great skill group. Really talented guys. My job is to distribute the ball to those guys and let them do all the work. Taking what’s there. And a lot of times, we might have a good play called but they cover it up, so just check it down and see good things happen.”
In many ways, Mayfield, playing for his fourth team since July 2022, already has exceeded expectations.
His career third-down completion percentage is 57%, with a rating of 75.7. But the chemistry he has developed with receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin has come unexpectedly quick. Part of that is because both are elite receivers. The other factor is the time they spent together during organized team activities and training camp.
“It’s just during the week being on the same page, talking about every single possible look we could get and how they’re going to run routes,” Mayfield said. “It’s just recognizing how they are at the top of their routes, how they’re cutting in and out of breaks, and just being on the same page goes a long way.”
With the Bucs clinging to a three-point lead and facing third and 14 from the Bears 32-yard line in the third quarter last Sunday, Mayfield connected with Evans on a deep pass for a touchdown. Evans finished with six catches for 171 yards and a TD in the 27-17 win.
A week earlier, it was Chris Godwin making a tightrope catch on the sideline for 11 yards and a first down on third and 10 from the Vikings 39 that iced a 20-17 win at Minnesota.
“I think for us, we’ve been really good on third and shorts,” Mayfield said. “The third and mediums we need to improve on. The third and longs, we’ve actually been pretty decent. It’s just about being in a manageable area. ... For me, it’s not about being perfect. It’s about taking what’s there and not trying to force anything..”
Stunningly, Monday night’s opponent, the Eagles, are allowing teams to convert 44% of their third downs, which may bode well for Mayfield and the Bucs.
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Considering Tampa Bay’s renewed commitment to running the ball under offensive coordinator Dave Canales, Mayfield has to make the most of his chances. Only five teams have more than the Bucs’ 67 rushing attempts this season.
Presumably, that can make it hard on a quarterback, who has one down to salvage every drive in a run-heavy offense.
“I think when we get into third and manageable ― I know he’s had some third and longs ― but if we can get into third and manageable, that gives us a good chance to succeed,” head coach Todd Bowles said. “We’ve been running it well enough to get into some third-and-manageable positions, and so we’re going to try to continue that.”
No matter what down it is, Mayfield is off to a terrific start, considering how many discounted him after he was traded by the Browns and played for the Panthers and Rams last season.
Pro Football Focus has Mayfield as the third highest-graded quarterback at 82.6, behind only the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa (90.9) and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (83.0).
Mayfield’s overall passer rating is sixth in the league at 104.4, or about the feels-like temperature during last Sunday’s game at Raymond James Stadium.
Has the transition to the Bucs gone as smoothly for Mayfield as it appears?
“Yes and no,” he said. “I think there’s definitely bumps in the road with the learning curve when you put in a new offense. But like I said earlier, we installed this early in camp, and we had pretty much everybody there the whole time.
“Everybody has been on the same page. Now it’s about how guys react when the games get going. We haven’t been perfect by any means, but we’ve definitely played well enough, taking care of the ball, to put us in position to win games.”
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