Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After the first two weeks of the 2023 season, all of the passers in the NFL have combined for a league-wide passer rating of 89.3. As one would expect, that numbers go down if we filter out everything but third-down passing, because in the majority of third-down situations the defense is correctly anticipating it will be seeing a pass.

On all non-third down plays this year, NFL quarterbacks have combined for a rating of 90.9, but it drops to 84.7 on third downs. Those passers have completed 66.4% of their attempts on non-third down plays but that drops to 63.7 on the money down. At the same time, because quarterbacks sometimes have to get more aggressive on third downs to get the ball past the sticks, yards per pass attempt figures jump from 6.65 on non-third downs to 7.10 on third downs.

That all makes sense. And then we have the curious case of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield, who through his first two starts with the team has been performing markedly better when things should be a lot harder.

Mayfield’s overall numbers include a 104.4 passer rating, a 69.1% completion percentage and a rate of 7.21 yards per pass attempt. That’s a total package with which the Buccaneers are quite pleased, no matter how you break it down. But breaking it down does provide some interesting numbers. Mayfield’s passer rating on non-third down plays is 86.3, but on third downs it’s a remarkable 132.1. He has completed 87.0% of his passes (20 of 23) on third downs, compared to 60.0% on all other downs. And his yards per attempt on third downs hasn’t just jumped up a bit, it’s gone up a lot, from 6.42 to 8.74.

So what gives? Well, small sample size aside, Mayfield credits the talented cast around him and he says he’s simply trying to get them the ball in position to make plays.

“You talk about third downs – obviously you want to get past the third-down marker – but [you want to give] your guys a chance to catch the ball in space and break tackles,” he said. “We’ve had a few of those where they catch it short and they make plays to get the first down. Just giving guys the opportunity, like I’ve mentioned before.

“We have a great skill group – really talented guys. My job is to distribute the ball to those guys and let them do all the work. So, taking what’s there. A lot of those times, yeah we might have a good play dialed up, but they cover it well so just check it down and see good things happen.”

The Buccaneers are trying to field a more balanced offense this season, and it shows in their average of 33.5 rushing attempts per game. The team’s average of 2.9 yards per attempt needs to see significant improvement, but those running plays have very rarely lost yardage. Mayfield has also only been sacked once and the Bucs have mostly avoided pre-snap penalties. All of that means they are creating third downs that don’t require exceedingly difficult yardage chunks.

“I think if we get in third-and-manageable – I know he’s got some third-and-longs – if we can get in third-and-manageable, that gives us a good chance to succeed,” said Head Coach Todd Bowles. “We’ve been running it [well] enough to get in third-and-manageable positions so we’re going to try and continue that.”

Overall, the Buccaneers have converted 43.8% of their third-down attempts this season, tied for the eighth-best mark in the league. While his passing numbers could hardly get any better, Mayfield thinks there’s room for improvement in that third-down rate.

“I think for us, we’ve been really good on the third-and-shorts,” he said. “The third-and-mediums, we need some improvement. Third-and-longs, we’ve actually been pretty decent. It’s just about getting in that manageable area – not having the extremities and just capitalizing on those.”

Mayfield is spot on. The Bucs have converted all three of their downs needing 1-3 yards so far. They’re two of four in the 4 to 6-yard range but just one for four when needing seven to 10 yards. They’ve faced four third downs needing 11 or more yards and converted two of them, which is quite good in a very small sample.

And, of course, Mayfield has yet to turn the ball over. In a way that qualifies some of the Bucs’ failed third downs as minor successes. With the field position weapon the Buccaneers have in NFC Special Teams Player of the Week Jake Camarda, having to punt is usually not the worst possible outcome.

“For me, it’s not about being perfect,” said Mayfield. “Like I keep mentioning, taking what’s there, not trying to force anything. I’ve mentioned it before, our defense is playing extremely well. Just making sure we end with the ball in our hands – if not, then we’re punting it to them. Just giving ourselves a chance to stay out of the chains, as well.”

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