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Buccaneers, starting offense show promise heading into Week 1

Jan 05, 2024

Jenna Laine breaks down how the Buccaneers came to the decision of naming Baker Mayfield the starter for Week 1 vs. the Vikings. (1:50)

TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third preseason game Saturday provided the closest thing to what will be in store for new offensive coordinator Dave Canales and his unit prior to their season opener at the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 10.

The Baltimore Ravens sat their starters in the preseason finale, but it still painted a picture of what this offense is capable of with quarterback Baker Mayfield finally being named the official starter for the regular season and getting to run with just about every other starter in the offense.

The one notable missing face was Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, who coach Todd Bowles said is nursing a minor groin injury but will be a go against the Vikings.

“Mike will definitely be ready. He was healthy. We wanted to see some younger guys,” Bowles said. “Coming off a groin [injury] earlier this week, but he had full practices. We wanted to hold him out. He’ll be ready.”

It marked the first time this preseason that we saw Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin, who is in top form after working his way back last season from a torn ACL suffered in 2021. He’s back to lining up on the outside in Canales’ offense. Against the Ravens, he caught all four of his targets for 39 yards, with 22 of them coming after the catch. He had an 11-yard touchdown catch on the second possession.

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“He’s pretty damn easy to throw to. I’ll say that,” Mayfield said. “Guys can be draped all over him, [and] he’s going to make contested catches. He is just a true professional. I love having those guys out there, and it will be fun to have Mike out there, as well, Week 1.”

All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs also lined up in his new left tackle role for the first time in a game. It was a move he expressed some real trepidation about this summer, to the point of seeing a sports psychologist to help with the transition.

“I was nervous as a mug,” Wirfs said. “But after the first snap gets out of the way, then it’s back to normal, like, ‘OK, I know what I’m doing.'"

Wirfs spent the first three years of his pro career at right tackle. He moved to the left side after longtime left tackle Donovan Smith was released.

“I don’t know if I’m necessarily there where it’s second nature yet,” Wirfs said. “I’m definitely more comfortable than I was in OTAs and I was at the start of training camp. It’s all about reps. But it was good to kind of get out there, under the lights, in a live setting and get my feet wet. Before the first play, I was like, ‘Oh sh--. I was nervous. But once the ball was snapped, I was like, ‘OK. I know what I’m doing.’”

Instead of playing a full half, Mayfield went two series before Kyle Trask stepped in, with the coaching staff seeing all that they needed after Mayfield connected with Godwin on the touchdown in the second series. He completed 6-of-6 passes for 43 yards.

Starting running back Rachaad White rushed for 39 yards on seven carries for a running game that had been struggling in the first two games without him.

With Wirfs and Matt Feiler, the strength of the offensive line is on the left side, but the loss of Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen is a huge hit, he had not played this preseason nor had he practiced the last two weeks. Second-year center Robert Hainsey, who started every regular season game last year, will step in once again.

“We got a hat on a hat,” Bowles said. “That was the one thing we tried to get accomplished [Saturday]. We got some tough runs out of those guys in the first half. They weren’t big runs, but they were 4- and 5-yarders, which was good. It was very efficient for us to try and throw the football. We've got to continue to play like that. That was good to see.

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“Hopefully that continues through the season. We know they didn’t have their first guys out there, but it was good to see them get going and getting on the right guy and having some continuity from that standpoint and we can build on it. Any time something is not working the year before, you try to fix it and get it better. [Saturday] night was a positive sign.”

Just like the first preseason game -- the only other time Mayfield played -- pretty much everything in the passing game was kept underneath. Against the Ravens, he averaged 2.6 air yards per attempt. It’s a stark contrast to the high-flying attack under former offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich the last four years, and it’s a more conservative style than what Mayfield has shown at times in practice.

This is consistent with Canales’ philosophy of “taking the quarterback off the high dive” and making him “more of a distributor.” Taking less risks through the air and incrementally moving the ball downfield can work as long as the ground game is consistent, and avoid penalties, which was a huge problem in the first preseason game (12 of them).

Mayfield wasn’t blitzed, and he only ran one play-action play Saturday. And unlike the first season game, where he ran some bootlegs and rollouts, there wasn't much throwing on the move -- so it was a different side of Canales' offense. The fact they still were able to move the ball as efficiently as they did without Mayfield moving around should be encouraging.

“I think the easiest way to put it is, you just put the defense on their heels,” Mayfield said. “You make the run game look just like your play-action and vice versa, and it just keeps them off balance. We are not reinventing the wheel with our scheme -- just formationally and personnel-wise we are able to get in and out of the huddle and do a lot of things and be pretty versatile. It’s a good tape to be able to build on and see our identity heading into the first week to where it’s real ball.”

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