TAMPA, Fla. (AP)Tampa Bay’s quest for a third straight NFC South title is off to a surprisingly strong start.
A 26-9 road victory at New Orleans left Baker Mayfield and the Buccaneers (3-1) alone atop the division heading into a bye week that will give several key players, including star receiver Mike Evans, an opportunity to get healthier.
“Again, it’s only the first quarter of the season. 3-1 is good, better than 1-3,” coach Todd Bowles said, reflecting on a solid opening month of the season that few outside the Bucs locker room anticipated following the retirement of Tom Brady.
“We have to get some guys nursed up. We have to scheme some things up, iron some things out,” Bowles added. “But we are morphing into kind of a physical team that’s hard to beat. We just have to continue that without the mistakes.”
Mayfield has been a big part of the early success, proving to be a good fit for a system installed by first-year offensive coordinator Dave Canales while avoiding the type of costly mistakes that hampered the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft in three previous NFL stops.
Through four games, the 28-year-old quarterback has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 882 yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“Baker is tough. He fits in here. He understands the offense very well,” Bowles said. “The guys love to play for him. He works for us.”
The defense rebounded from allowing 201 yards on the ground in a loss to Philadelphia, limiting the Saints to 70 yards rushing on 19 attempts Sunday. The Bucs expected New Orleans to lean on Alvin Kamara in his return from a suspension. The defense was up for that challenge, too, limiting the versatile running back to 51 yards rushing and just 33 yards receiving on 13 receptions.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Punter Jake Camarda has been outstanding. The team’s kick coverage units, however, have been inconsistent. Bowles cited improvement against the Saints, who nevertheless did have one punt return of 29 yards.
“I felt we held our own against them,” the coach said.
With Mike Evans leaving in the first half because of a hamstring injury, the team’s depth at receiver was tested. While Chris Godwin finishing with eight receptions for 114 yards wasn’t a surprise, Mayfield got a lift from second-year TE Cade Otton and young backup WRs Trey Palmer and Deven Thompkins, who all caught TD passes against the Saints.
The Bucs were penalized 11 times for 91 yards on Sunday. “They weren’t going to play a perfect game … but we can get better at that going forward,” Bowles said.
The bye week will give several key players, including Evans, cornerback Jamel Dean and rookie defensive lineman Calijah Kancey, an opportunity to rest and get healthier.
33. One of the goals this season has been to try to become more balanced on offense, even if an inconsistent running attack isn’t always as productive as Bowles and offensive coordinator Dave Canales would like. The Bucs threw 33 times at New Orleans, with Mayfield going 25 of 32 for 246 yards, three TDs and an interception. They also ran it 33 times, finishing with 114 yards rushing.
“We wanted to be a lot more aggressive. We were trying to take what they gave us,” Bowles said. “If they crowded for the run, we threw it. If they tried to take away the pass, we ran it. It was a good balance with that.”
The team will not practice at all before reconvening next week to begin preparation to face the Detroit Lions on Oct. 15.
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