Mon, Sep 18, 2023 7:35 PM
By FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Thanks to Baker Mayfield playing turnover-free ball and a defense that’s reverted to its old stingy ways, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are off to a surprising 2-0 start.
A tough test awaits next Monday night when the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles visit Raymond James Stadium, though, and the Bucs understand they’ll need to play better than they did in victories over Minnesota and Chicago to stay unbeaten.
“It’s always going to be positive when you’re winning and you’re undefeated. We’re going to take that,” star receiver Mike Evans said. “It’s two ugly wins, but we love those. We love winning.”
With Mayfield doing a terrific job of taking care of the ball and the defense seemingly back on track after not being as reliable as usual a year ago, the Bucs are showing they’re capable of being successful without Tom Brady.
Despite losing the seven-time Super Bowl winner to retirement, Tampa Bay is the only team in the NFL to start 2-0 each of the past three seasons.
Mayfield, who’s with his fourth team in just over two years, is a big reason why.
The 28-year-old quarterback has completed 69 percent of his passes for 490 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His 104.4 passer rating is the highest he’s had through the first two weeks of a season.
Turnovers undermined Mayfield in previous stops with the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams. Since joining Tampa Bay on a one-year contract that could be worth up to $8.5 million, the Bucs don’t have a single giveaway.
“He’s been through a lot in five years. He’s been through ups and downs," coach Todd Bowles said of Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft. "He knows it’s not about him. It’s about the team. He’s being very smart with the football.”
Meanwhile, a rejuvenated defense that has been among the best in the league at stopping the run and forcing turnovers under Bowles is regaining some of the swagger it lost a year ago.
The Bucs had eight sacks and five takeaways while only yielding 54 yards per game rushing against the Vikings and Bears. The only team that’s allowed fewer yards on the ground are the Eagles (52) during Philadelphia's 2-0 start.
So, what’s changed on that side of the ball?
“I think the guys sacrificed for each other. We know what our formula is to win on defense. ... I’m not saying we’ve arrived because we definitely have not. It’s a good start,” Bowles said, noting it would be premature to conclude anything beyond that.
“It’s Week 2. We’ve got a lot of room to grow on offense. We’ve got a lot of room to grow all the way around,” the coach added. “We've won two ballgames. It can go south real quick.”
Mayfield has been stellar on third down. He was 12 of 13 passing for 141 yards and one touchdown on third down during Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Bears. Overall, he’s completed 87 percent of his passes (20 of 23) on third down for 201 yards and two TDs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
While the running game has shown signs of improvement, the Bucs only averaged 3.5 yards per carry while gaining 120 yards on the ground against the Bears. Still, Bowles noted once again the number of carries (34) is almost as important as the yardage gained as the offense strives to win time of possession.
“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win the game,” Bowles said. “I’m not sitting here saying we’re hellbent on getting 150 yards rushing a game. We rushed it efficiently. That’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we got.”
Rookie Christian Izien had one of Tampa Bay’s two interceptions on Sunday, joining Brenard Wilson (1979), Ray Isom (1987) and Robert Lester (2013) as the only undrafted players since 1967 to have a pick in each of his first two career games.
Bowles would like to see the offense get better in the red zone. Four trips inside the Chicago 20-yard line produced a touchdown and two field goals. Kicker Chase McLaughlin also had a 40-yard field-goal attempt blocked.
Bowles said it’s too early to say whether CB Carlton Davis III, who missed Sunday’s game with a toe injury, will be able to play against the Eagles. The status of rookie DL Calijah Kancey (calf) is up in the air, too.
16. WR Chris Godwin extended his streak of consecutive games with at least five receptions to a franchise-best 16.
Face the Eagles for the first time since defeating Philadelphia in a NFC wild-card playoff game at home two years ago. The Bucs also beat Jalen Hurts on the road during the 2021 regular season.
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