This time a year ago, Baker Mayfield was in limbo.
As the starting quarterback for the flailing Carolina Panthers, he had completed 30 of 56 passes for 380 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. The Panthers started the season 0-2 on their way to a 7-10 finish. Mayfield wound up finishing the season doing mop-up duty for the washed out Los Angeles Rams and it appeared the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was heading towards flopsville.
This year, the rejuvenated Mayfield first had to make the Bucs, and so far he’s shown why he’s been reborn, completing 47 of 68, for 490 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions for the 2-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mayfield had one of the best weeks against pressure, going 12-for-15 for 207 yards and a touchdown, while pressured 48.6-percent in the Bucs’ 27-17 win over the Bears in Week 2. Apparently, Mayfield did well against the blitz, something the Eagles do infrequently under defensive coordinator Sean Desai.
The Eagles’ Monday night opponent—and their quarterback—may not be the walkover Eagles’ fans expect.
When asked this week what Mayfield is doing well, Desai replied, “Man, I don’t know if it’s a good fortune, but I’ve played him a couple times now in the last few years. He is such a daring, courageous guy. He is aggressive with his mindset and how he wants to push the ball downfield, and he’s operating at an efficient rate to complete some of those passes downfield. He has some really good skill players to target downfield.
You see him, he has good pocket savvy and good feel. He is a tough tackle and tough sack. He’s strong and stands there in the pocket and can be elusive to get out of it. He is just not going to take the hits. He’s going to try to make something happen. That mentality of trying to make a play happen, he kind of always has it in that gun-slinging role where he is going to throw that and trust his skill guys to make some plays for him.”
Having Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to throw to against a gradually depleting secondary that just lost slot defender Avonte Maddox for the season could pose a problem.
There has been speculation that James Bradberry can move inside, while Mario Goodrich replaces Bradberry outside, or Goodrich could go inside replacing Maddox and Bradberry stay outside. Bradberry worked the slot occasionally during training camp. When asked this week if Bradberry has the skill-set to fill that role, Desai explained “The one thing you talk about James, and really a lot of our — especially our older guys that have played a lot of football — is they’re so smart. They’re so football savvy and football smart that some of those transitions for him as we were doing some of that stuff with him, became a little bit simpler for him because he understands the game and what we’re trying to get done with some of these coverages and techniques.
“So, I was really impressed with how he was taking on that role, and not really sacrificing his corner role, because that’s his role. He’s our corner. But he was learning that, and I think it helps him and really everybody in terms of the way we teach it. Helps everybody learn all 11 and why we’re doing certain things from a coverage standpoint because we’re all 11 as one.”
A big key for the Eagles will be to force Mayfield out of his rhythm. Through two games, the Eagles are slightly ahead of their record-breaking 70 sack total through two games last year, with four sacks for minus-28 yards over three sacks the first two games of 2022 for minus-23 yards. Another area to watch for is how often the Bucs place Evans in the slot.
It’s a concern Desai is certainly aware of.
“I think in this day and age you have to keep adapting, because really on the flip side you saw forever people were saying that a guy with Evans’ height and skill set doesn’t play in the slot well,” Desai said. “He showed up a lot in the slot tape when he’s in there because they’re trying to create those matchups. We have to be able to adjust our techniques and fundamentals that way, too, and I think we try to do that with our teaching.”
Let the chess match continue.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.