Gritty Bucs Edge Vikings in Baker Mayfield's Debut
Chase McLaughlin's 57-yard fourth-quarter field goal gave Tampa Bay a season-opening 20-17 win at Minnesota, as the defense forced three turnovers and the offense overcame a sluggish start
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers dived into the 2023 season on Sunday in Minnesota with a new quarterback, a new playcaller and a new playmaking receiver. All three played a role in staging a rousing 20-17 upset victory over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium, but it was the team's new special teams weapon who provided the game-winning points.
Chase McLaughlin's 57-yard field goal with five minutes left in the fourth quarter gave the Buccaneers their final edge in a game in which the lead changed hands twice before. After Tampa Bay's defense forced a three-and-out – keyed by a diving third-down pass break-up by CB Carlton Davis – new starting quarterback Baker Mayfield led a successful "four-minute drill" to kill the clock and keep the ball away from Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson. Chris Godwin's impressive stretch of an 11-yard out on third-and-10 sealed the victory.
"Couldn't have drawn it up any better," said Head Coach Todd Bowles of McLaughlin's winning field goal. "That's what we got him for. He was accurate, he got it through the uprights. He made a hell of a kick."
Making his regular-season debut for the Buccaneers Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passes for 173 yards, throwing touchdown passes to Mike Evans and rookie wideout Trey Palmer. The Bucs' offense was sluggish for most of the first half, gaining just 34 yards on its first six possessions before going on a successful two-minute drill to tie the game at 10-10 at halftime. The results were better in the second half, particularly on a nine-minute touchdown drive to open the third quarter.
"Baker is gutsy, he's tough," said Bowles. "The guys played behind him. The great thing was, when he was having problems he wasn't turning it over. Our defense kept us in the game. We kept getting out but he wasn't turning the ball over. They stuck with it, they made some plays, he made some gutsy runs at the end and the offensive line came through for him, the receivers showed up and it was a great team win."
In all, Tampa Bay generated 242 yards of total offense in its first game under the direction of new Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales. The run game was up-and-down, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry, but the Bucs stuck with it, running 33 times to complement Mayfield's 34 passes.
"Schematically, they gave us a hard time in the beginning," said Bowles of the Minnesota defense. "They did some things we had to get used to. I though the adjustments Dave made at halftime were outstanding. We started moving the ball some and we stuck with it. These guys are gritty. It's a tough win, a tough place to play."
Critically, the Buccaneers won the turnover battle, 3-0. The Tampa Bay defense collected all three of its takeaways in the first half, with a first-quarter fumble recovery by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and a stunning goal-line interception by rookie safety Christian Izien killing two prime scoring opportunities for the Vikings. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. also set up a field goal drive with a sack of Cousins that forced a fumble, which he recovered at the 18.
"Honestly, hats off to the defense all day," said Mayfield. "That's an incredible offense they just wen tup against, all the turnovers they had. We started slow. They were doing a good job checking what we were checking with their blitz package. We just had to get a bead on it, got some up-tempo before the half, got it accomplished, and then an incredible kick by Chase McLaughlin."
Devin White led a consistently hard-hitting defensive with 12 tackles and fellow LB Lavonte David added eight more, including two for losses. That duo was particularly effective in stopping the Vikings' screen game, which is generally a strength. Winfield filled up the stat line with eight tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. OLB Anthony Nelson had the Buccaneers' other sack of Cousins.
Minnesota's offense collected 369 yards of offense, much of it through Jefferson, who caught nine passes for 150 yards. Cousins completed 33 of 44 passes for 344 yards, two touchdowns and an interception but the Bucs' defense got the stops when they needed them the most.
McLaughlin wasn't the only special teams standout for the Buccaneers. On an afternoon in which both teams struggled to score early, field position became very important and punter Jake Camarda averaged 54.5 yards per boot, dropping two inside the 20. WR Deven Thompkins got the Bucs' final clock-killing drive started with a twisting 16-yard punt return.
Bowles and Canales called an aggressive game, successfully converting a fourth down in their own territory in the first half and throwing on that final third down to kill the clock. Obviously, the decision to let McLaughlin try a 57-yarder was an aggressive move, as well. The fourth-down play came after the Bucs' unsuccessfully challenged a spot.
"We were going to go for it before they reviewed the spot," said Mayfield. "We were going for it. It was just a matter of who wants it more at that point. To get a win in a tough environment, a really really tough environment, on the road, it's incredible. It doesn't matter how you start, it's how you finish, and we'll only get better from here. It wasn't the prettiest day by any means on offense but we'll get a lot better."
The Vikings got the ball first and started at their 25 after a touchback. The drive seemed to get off to a good start with Mattison's seven-yard run up the gut, but the Bucs dialed up the pressure to get a three-and-out. Winfield forced a wobbly incompletion with a blitz on second down and, after a Minnesota false start, Kancey did the same thing on third-and-eight.
The Bucs' offense also went three-and-out on three passing plays. Mayfield targeted TE Ko Kieft on the first two downs, one on a short pass that was tipped at the line and one on a deeper shot that was out of reach. Mayfield was forced to check down to White on third down and it was good for just two yards. Camarda followed with a 53-yard punt that had great hang time, allowing Zyon McCollum to smother return man Brandon Powell right after he caught it.
The Vikings' second drive thus started at the 13. Minnesota got the game's initial first down on a leaping eight-yard catch by Jefferson between two defenders, then Cousins found his top receiver two plays later down the left numbers for a big gain, getting 30 yards to the Bucs' 45. A quick pass over the middle to TE T.J. Hockenson was good for another set of downs at the 34, but three plays later, on third-and-two, Cousins lost control of the ball on the snap and Tryon-Shoyinka fell on it at the 25.
White's first carry of the season was a banger up the middle for four yards, and a quick out to the left to Godwin got just enough for a first down. Two plays later, Mayfield hit TE Cade Otton on a quick pass up the left hashmarks, with Otton losing the ball as he fell and Palmer falling on it at the Vikings' 43. Minnesota challenged the ruling, however, and it was changed to an incompletion, making it third-and-six at the 39. Mayfield tried a deep shot to Evans but it was broken up, leading to a second punt. Camarda didn't hit that one as well as the first one and Minnesota got the ball back at their 26.
Tampa Bay's defense got the ball back quickly. Cousins dropped back to throw on third-and-six but never saw the blitzing Winfield, who sacked the quarterback, forcing a fumble that he also fell on at the Vikings 18. The Bucs' offense couldn't do much with the field position, though, settling for a 36-yard field goal by McLaughlin.
A flying tackle by McCollum on kickoff return man Ty Chandler forced the Vikings to start the next drive at their own 17. That one went three-and-out after Izien made a strong open-field tackle on fellow rookie WR Jordan Addison for no gain on third-and-two. A 56-yard punt and a penalty on the return team pushed the ball all the way back to the Bucs' 10 with a minute left in the opening period.
White got the drive off to a promising start with a six-yard run up the middle, but was then stopped for no gain on the next play. After switching sides to start the second quarter, the Bucs tried to convert the third down with a stretch run to the left but White was stopped three yards short. Camarda boomed a 63-yard punt and a holding penalty on the Vikings put the ball at the 17 for a field-position switch of 66 yards.
Cousins immediately got the Vikings away from their end zone with a perfect seam pass to Jefferson for 25 yards. Two plays later, Cousins threw right over another Winfield blitz to Chandler, who followed a convoy for 18 yards. Cousins finished the drive by going to his rookie, hitting Addison behind the defense for a 39-yard touchdown with 11 minutes left in the first half. That 83-yard drive gave the Vikings a 7-3 lead, their first of the day.
Deven Thompkins took the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone and was brought down at the 18. Tucker got six yards around left end on his first carry but an attempted play-action bootleg on second down was blown up by a Viking blitzer. Mayfield was able to escape a near-sack and get out of the pocket but found no one open and ran for just one yard.
The Vikings got the ball back at their 31 after the next punt and kicked right into gear with a 19-yard strike over the middle to K.J. Osborn. Three plays later on third-and-one, Cousins stood in the pocket long enough to let a crosser to Jefferson develop, hitting him in stride for 22 yards to the Bucs' 19. A play-action rollout pass to TE Josh Oliver worked to perfection, getting the ball down to the six. Tampa Bay's defense held there, however, and the Vikings settled for Greg Joseph's 24-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead with six minutes left before halftime.
After a touchback, White started the Bucs' next drive with a slashing five-yard run, but Mayfield was off target on a scrambling throw to Palmer. Mayfield was able to duck under a sack on third down but still had to throw the ball away under duress. After another booming punt by Camarda, the Vikings followed with a three-and-out and punted it back to the Bucs' 39-yard line. Two runs by White gained three yards and brought on the two-minute warning. A neutral zone infraction on the Vikings reduced the third down to two yards and Mayfield converted it with a laser through traffic to Godwin on a slant. Evans' first catch got nine more and White ran up the middle for a first down at the Vikings' 28. Two plays later, Evans got behind the defense and Mayfield hit him five yards into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
The Vikings used three plays to get a first down at their own 35 and then used their first timeout with 54 seconds remaining in the half. On the next play, Jefferson once again got open deep down the middle and Cousins hit him for a huge 42-yard gain down to the Bucs' 22. Two plays later, on second-and-one from the 13, Cousins threw on target to Osborn right at the goal line but Izien rushed in to meet the receiver and the ball at the same time and somehow came away with the interception. Izien returned it to the 16 and held on despite taking a vicious blindside hit from Jefferson. The Bucs ran once to kill the rest of the clock and take the 10-10 into halftime.
The Bucs got the ball first to start the second half and converted a third-and-six on a quick curl to Evans at the 40. An improvised toss by Mayfield to White was good for eight more and RB Chase Edmonds ran up the gut for three yards and a first down at the Minnesota 49. Two plays later Mayfield had a defender in his face as he spun off a play-action fake but still managed to get off a pass to Otton for 13 yards. Facing a third-and-six at the Vikings 29, Mayfield kept the drive alive with a quick tunnel screen to Thompkins that worked thanks to a great block from Evans.
Evans had a shot to score on the next play on a deep slant but couldn't hold onto Mayfield's pass inside the five. On third-and-eight from the 19, Mayfield had to scramble before hitting Otton near the right sideline. The play came up three yards short and the Bucs sent out McLaughlin to convert a 31-yard field goal. McLaughlin made the kick but the Bucs took the points off the clock when the Vikings were flagged for offsides, a penalty that made it first-and-goal at the eight. After a one-yard White plunge and another bootleg rollout that the Vikings sniffed, it was third-and-goal at the seven. Mayfield moved around to buy time and Palmer snuck free and into the front of the end zone, where Mayfield hit him with a sidearm dart for the go-ahead score.
The Vikings' first possession of the second half started at the 25 after another touchback, and Cousins converted a short third down with a slant to Hockenson. Mattison's nine-yard run put the ball one-yard shy of the midfield stripe and Cousins reset the downs with a sneak for three. A long-developing rollout pass to Oliver took it down to the Bucs' 30 but OLB Anthony Nelson fought through the line on the next play for a six-yard sack. That helped force a third-and-13 but Cousins kept the drive alive with a deep out to Addison right at the sticks.
Cousins then made up for a false start by standing in a collapsing pocket and hitting Hockenson over the middle to make it third-and-one at the 11. Mattison got just enough on the final play of the third quarter to make it first-and-goal at the nine. Cousins was flushed out of the pocket on the first play of the fourth quarter, eventually throwing a bit to far to get it to Mattison in the end zone. Cousins scrambled on second down and was taken down at the five by White. The Bucs appeared to get it to fourth down on a third-down incompletion but Izien was flagged for pass interference, making it first-and-goal at the one. Vea knifed through the line on first down to drop Mattison for a loss of three but the back caught a swing pass on second down and was able to fight through a tackler and dive over the line for the game-tying score.
The Bucs' next drive started with an outlet pass to Tucker that gained six yards, and the rookie then moved the chains with a nice stop-and-start run out to the left. Mayfield scrambled on third-and-eight but was chased out of bounds five yards short and the Bucs had to punt. Bucs cover men just missed downing the ball at the one before it snuck into the end zone for a touchback. Nelson and White diagnosed a rollout pass to Hockenson and White dropped him for a loss of three, helping force a Vikings three-and-out. Thompkins was dropped at the Bucs' 23 immediately after fielding Minnesota's punt.
The Bucs faced a tough decision early in the drive when a White plunge on third-and-three came up just shy of the first down, a ruling that withstood a challenge by Bowles. Bowles elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from his own 32 and Mayfield was able to push forward for just enough to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, a play-action pass to Godwin up the right numbers gained 16 yards to the Vikings' 46. The next two passes went in Evans' direction, but only one was complete, making it third-and-four at the 40. A pass to Palmer gained just a yard and the Bucs sent out their new kicker to try a 57-yard field goal. McLaughlin drilled it, giving the lead back to the visitors with five minutes to play.
Another short pass to Hockenson went the wrong way as Lavonte David met him behind the line for a loss of four. On third-and-eight, Cousins appeared to have a shot at Addison near the sideline but CB Carlton Davis flew in with a diving break-up to force a punt. Thompkins' 16-yard return of the ensuing punt gave the ball back to the Bucs' offense at 30 with four minutes to go.
White started the drive with a five-yard run up the middle and the Bucs got 15 more on a facemask penalty on the Vikings' Dean Lowry. A pass down to the line to Evans was good for six yards and the Vikings used their second timeout with 3:44 to play. White's next run made it third-and-two at the Vikings' 42 as Minnesota burned its last timeout. Mayfield faked a handoff and intended to throw it down the field but didn't like the look and took off running instead. He made the corner and got the first down at the 39, also managing to stay inbounds.
Now trying to kill the clock, the Bucs gained no yards on two runs but did bring the clock down to the two-minute warning. Rather than run once more and punt, the Bucs stayed aggressive and Godwin sealed the victory with a fabulous reaching grab of an 11-yard sideline pass. The Bucs were able to kneel out the rest of the clock.
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 11 September 2023