NEW ORLEANS – Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis III sat back in the visiting locking room Sunday with his arms folded, soaking it all in after a 26-9 victory over the New Orleans Saints that propelled the Bucs to first place in the NFC South heading into their Week 5 bye.
The Bucs (3-1) held the Saints to just three field goals, and as Davis said with a big grin, “It's a new era. It's the Todd Bowles era, so get used to it.”
Bowles’ hard-nosed brand of defense has found an offense equally as gritty and physical. An identity they spent much of the offseason and training camp searching for has arrived in the form of a new scrappy quarterback in Baker Mayfield -- who, on one particular first-down run Sunday, scrambled for 10 yards up the middle and dove head-first.
Mayfield’s 62 scrambling yards on the season now match that of Jalen Hurts, according to ESPN Statistics & Information, although he’ll tell you it’s because teams still aren’t accounting for him as a runner, which may be the one area he’s OK with being underestimated.
“I don’t take it personally,” Mayfield said with a laugh. "I’m not the athlete that our skills guys are. I know better than that."
Mayfield couldn’t pass up the chance after the game to subtly address Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan’s comments about this being a "non-rivalry."
“It is a passionate rivalry, whether they want to say it or not,” said Mayfield, who could be seen jawing with Jordan throughout the game.
When asked about it after, Mayfield said with a chuckle, “I plead the fifth.”
Promising offensive mind and longtime Seattle Seahawks assistant Dave Canales got his first dose of the rivalry. His system -- chock full of pre-snap motion, quarterback throws on the move and getting receivers in space to gain yards after the catch -- is a derivative of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay’s system and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s system with the Seahawks.
Mind you, Bowles didn’t select Byron Leftwich as his offensive coordinator -- or any member of his staff last year -- as he inherited the previous group from former head coach Bruce Arians. But Bowles did choose Canales, whose philosophy is more about incrementally advancing the ball versus hitting that one deep shot downfield, and, in many ways, pairs better with resting an aggressive defense.
It hasn’t been a seamless changing of the guard. They were outmatched against the defending NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles on "Monday Night Football" six days prior – a game they’d hoped would be a litmus test but lost 25-11 in what several players described as a disappointing effort. Running back Rachaad White essentially ran into a brick wall of defenders when he was bottled up for a safety in the third quarter, a play Canales said he wished he could have back.
It kind of just woke us up, made us realize, ‘OK, we’re not there yet,'" cornerback Zyon McCollum said. "It really just lit a fire in us.”
On one play against the Saints, the offensive line allowed Mayfield to have 7.68 seconds until Deven Thompkins, who made a diving grab in the fourth quarter to seal the victory, emerged in the end zone. And they did it without the team's leading receiver in Mike Evans, who left at the end of the second quarter with a hamstring injury.
Currently, Mayfield’s 69.6 completion percentage is eighth best, his 69.0 total QBR is seventh and his 72.5 raw QBR is sixth. His 5.8 completion percentage above expected is sixth best, and his 3.5 touchdown to interception ratio is ninth.
“He’s a fighter. [He’s got] a ton of resilience. I think that he has been a great fit for us,” wide receiver Chris Godwin said of Mayfield. “You see him making plays, scrambling. He takes some big shots and pops back up. … It makes the offensive line want to block more. It makes us want to run our routes a little bit harder and give him a chance because we know that he is going to extend the play as much as he can to give us a chance. I am happy to have him.”
And then there’s the defense, which Davis believes is a “Super Bowl-caliber” unit.
They’re holding teams to an average of 17 points a game, which ranks seventh. They’ve surrendered just three red zone touchdowns out of 11 trips, tied for second in the league, as are their 10 takeaways.
Pro bowl safety Antoine Winfield Jr., back to his old role after a one-year stint at nickelback last season, has 2.0 sacks on eight pass-rush snaps, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and four pass breakups this season.
Backup defensive back Dee Delaney, who stepped in for an injured Jamel Dean at cornerback against the Eagles and then for safety Ryan Neal against the Saints, has two interceptions, as does rookie nickelback Christian Izien.
Pro Bowl inside linebacker Devin White, who showed his improved coverage skills with an interception off Hurts last week, said, “We’re going to the playoffs. I’m saying that right now.”
Health will play a big role in how the season shakes out. The bye week means they’ll be more than a little nicked up down the stretch, but it does give guys like Davis and Evans a chance to rest. Davis has been nursing a toe injury, while Dean has been dealing with a neck/shoulder injury, Neal has a concussion and White has a foot/groin injury.
Things don't get easier in the coming weeks, as the Bucs don't face a team with a losing record until they host the Carolina Panthers (0-4) in Week 13 -- with the Detroit Lions (3-1) up next in Week 6.
“If we were listening to everything that everyone outside of the building was saying, why even strap it up?” Godwin said. “I think the good thing about the people that we have in our building is that we are only worried about what we can control. We understand that we have to go out there and play the games. It’s up to us. We have to go out and put the work in and then go out and prove it on the field.
"Through the first month of the season, being 3-1, I think it’s a good spot. … I think we have a lot of room for improvement, but I am excited about where we are going.”