Baker Mayfield didn't have his best game as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer in Week 13 against the Carolina Panthers, at least statistically. He completed fewer than 50% of his passes for the first time this season and had a deep shot to Mike Evans slip out of his hand on a rainy afternoon, turning into a floater that was intercepted downfield.
Given that the Buccaneers secured a much-needed victory to stay in the thick of the division-title hunt, he likely wasn't concerned about his statistics (though he did say he was "pissed about that one" interception after the game). Mayfield did hit Evans on the play of the day, a 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run, and he otherwise kept the football out of harm's way. That was enough for a victory in part due to one very welcome development for the Buccaneers' offense: The rushing attack was good. Again.
One week after setting a season high with 125 rushing yards and averaging 6.6 yards per tote in Indianapolis, the Bucs topped that with 128 yards in the win over Carolina and picked up 4.6 yards per attempt. An ability to move the ball on the ground on such a sloppy day was critical, and the Bucs finished the day with 28 runs and 30 Mayfield dropbacks.
The biggest area of growth, in Mayfield's assessment, is the cohesiveness of the group on running plays.
"A lot of credit to the O-line, quite honestly," said Mayfield of the ground-game improvements. "Just getting their targets right, just all being on the same page and really understanding the concepts of how their tracks mean a lot. The running back room as a whole has grown a lot – just understanding how they're supposed to set up these blocks, how they're supposed to play off the combos and just making a lot more plays in space. It's that whole unit. Not to leave out the tight ends and the receivers in the blocking schemes.
"Everybody is a part of it, so everybody just being on the same page and getting more reps at it has been the biggest improvement."
The Bucs have leaned almost exclusively on second-year back Rachaad White in their backfield. He had 20 of the 22 carries by running backs against Carolina and 15 of 16 in Indianapolis. He turned those 35 runs into 184 yards, gaining 5.3 per carry. Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales says that White has become more disciplined in how he is "pressing the runs the right way" to take advantage of the blocking scheme. Mayfield says White's vision on those plays has improved.
"He has continually improved," said Mayfield. "It's obviously a new system for him. Some of the run schemes are similar to what he has done in the past, but like I said with the run game improvement, a lot of that is on the O-line but also him with his eyes where he's looking at how to read these blocks. Obviously, he is a special athlete when he's got the ball in space. We know that, but just his improvement in setting blocks up has been a huge difference."
The Buccaneers obviously want to continue this trend as they head to Atlanta for a critical game in the playoff stretch run. In a 16-13 Falcons win in Tampa in Week Seven, the Bucs only ran for 73 yards and Mayfield's own scrambles accounted for 32 of that. Mayfield thinks his team has a more balanced and complete attack for the rematch seven weeks later.
"We're definitely a lot better on offense – looking at it detail-wise and just [our] understanding of everybody knowing exactly what we're trying to get accomplished. The first game was a little hard to watch, film-wise, going back through it and seeing the improvements that we've had. They presented different issues for us that we had to learn from. We're both different to a certain extent, so we've just got to look at the new tape and grow and learn from there."