Tampa Bay Buccaneers Led by Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave, San Francisco's loaded defensive front has produced the fifth-highest pressure percentage in the NFL this season, and QB Baker Mayfield knows that's a big test for the Bucs' offense Scott Smith
In his first nine games as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield has been sacked 16 times, and never more than three times in one contest. The Buccaneers are tied for the fourth-fewest sacks given up in 2023 and rank fifth in sacks allowed per pass play. Offensive tackles Tristan Wirfs and Luke Goedeke, have been particularly strong in pass protection, giving Mayfield an opportunity to settle into Tampa Bay's evolving offense under new coordinator Dave Canales.
As they try to continue providing Mayfield with that type of protection, the Buccaneers' blockers will face perhaps their biggest challenge of the season on Sunday when they take on the San Francisco 49ers.
"I would say our whole line pass rush-wise, protecting when we know we have to drop back and throw the ball, they've done a great job," said Mayfield. "Obviously, Tristan is an All-Pro guy and his transition from right to left has made my life a lot easier. Luke has played great at right [tackle], too. Having those guys to be able to protect, it means the world, knowing that you don't have to just go, 'One, two, three,' and get the ball out. You can actually go through your reads and trust it. At the same time, against a team like this, if the first couple of reads aren't there, I've got to check it down or get out and find positive yards."
Canales generally wants Mayfield to operate with a clock in his head that tells him to get rid of the ball or move to by time if he hasn't thrown it by 2.7 seconds after the snap. He might not even have that much time on occasion Sunday against a 49ers defensive front that features 2022 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa on the outside and coveted free agent acquisition Javon Hargrave on the inside. Those two are tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks each, but that front also includes such former first-round picks as Arik Armstead, Chase Young, Javon Kinlaw and Clelin Ferrell.
San Francisco has 23 sacks through nine games, but that doesn't tell the whole story of how their loaded front has affected games. The 49ers have applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks on 40.4% of their dropbacks, good for fifth best in the league, and they've done it with the fifth lowest blitz rate.
"It's one of those things like when you write down your scouting report and you do the Eagles and you do the 49ers - their two-deep on the front, to say the least it's damn impressive," said Mayfield. "So, when you have some of those guys rotating in for fresh legs, it's impressive. We've just got to have a good plan, a concise plan, to know how we want to attack these guys. They're really good, so we have to expect that they're going to give us some fits and some challenges on different things. We've just got to gameplan and find out ways to stay ahead of the chains."
Even if the Buccaneers' offensive line holds up well against Bosa and company, there will inevitably be some dropbacks on which Mayfield is hurried by the rush. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, Mayfield has been one of the most efficient passers in the league when under pressure. He has the most passes in the NFL in which he has produced a positive EPA when under pressure, with 51.
"It's just the nature of the game," he said of his willingness to take hits in order to get passes off. "When it comes to screens, you've got to live with it. When it comes to other pressure, it's just knowing where your answers are, knowing where the voids in the defense are when they do bring a certain guy of how you want to attack it. Like I said, it's communication within our offense of, 'Hey guys, if they bring this pressure, you're going to get the ball here.' Just that open line of communication has been really good so far."
Notably, Mayfield has thrown just one interception on the 129 plays on which he's been pressured, compared to five touchdown passes. Protecting the ball has been a point of emphasis for Canales and Mayfield, and it will be of paramount importance against the 49ers.
"As long as you're taking care of the ball offensively, our defense is playing well enough to be able to [be in it]," said Mayfield. "We don't have to blow people out to win games. We don't have to score that many points, so as long as take care of the ball, stay in manageable downs-and-distances, we should be good. At the same time, we also should be scoring more than 20 each game. There [are] definitely a lot of points we have left on the board. It's knowing that we don't have to stress or press too much to score too many points, but we definitely have the capability to do it. We need to grow into that and learn that we should be able to score closer to 30 each game."