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New Orleans Saints defense wary of Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield

'He's just one of those guys -  he's confident, he plays with swagger, he's really trying to carry the whole team on his back, be that play-maker for them'


It may not be a new Baker Mayfield that Joe Woods is seeing, but most definitely, it's an improved one as the New Orleans Saints (7-8) prepare to play Tampa Bay (8-7) on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

New Orleans needs a win to keep alive its slender playoff hopes.

With two games remaining this season, Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 who played for the Browns from 2018-21, has completed 322 of 501 passes for 3,598 yards and 26 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. He also has run 56 times for 157 yards and a touchdown.

His already has career highs for completions and rushing attempts, and is closing in on personal bests for passing attempts (534), yards (3,827), touchdowns (27) and rushing yards (165). The Buccaneers lead the NFC South Division and are on a four-game winning streak during which Mayfield has completed 76 of 121 passes for 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns, with an interception.

Woods was Cleveland's defensive coordinator from 2020-22, and has seen the jump in Mayfield's performance this season, Mayfield's first with Tampa Bay.

"I was around him for a long time, and he's just one those guys – he's confident, he plays with swagger, he's really trying to carry the whole team on his back, be that play-maker for them," Woods said. "And you can feel guys vibing off of that. Right now, he's playing really well."

Mayfield hasn't had a two-interception game this season, and completed 25 of 32 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception, against the Saints in their first meeting, a 26-9 Buccaneers victory on Oct. 1. Two of his three best games in terms of passing yards – 283 against Jacksonville and 381 against Green Bay – have occurred in the last two games.

"I feel like you can see him operating in the system, going through the progressions, making the right reads, not forcing the ball into coverage, taking what the defense is giving him," Woods said. "And I feel like part of what they're doing, they've kind of settled in to who they are as an offense, and I think he's probably very involved in terms of what they're doing, based on my experience with him at Cleveland.

"He has the ability when the pocket breaks down, the routes are covered, just to find lanes to escape. And he's a little bit more physical and tougher to bring down than you think. But that's always been him."

The result is that a Tampa Bay offense that averaged 17 points in five losses during a six-game stretch earlier this season, has put up 28.5 points during the current four-game winning streak.

Saints Coach Dennis Allen said a contributing factor has been Tampa Bay's improved run game, which averages 89.3 rushing yards per game – third fewest in the league – but has churned out 105.7 yards per game in the last three.

"I think they're playing really well," Allen said. "Offensively, over the last month they've run the ball better, so I think they're running the ball effectively. They certainly have a lot of explosive weapons in the passing game.

"I think the quarterback is playing really well. He's able to throw the ball on time with rhythm and accuracy, and when he's not he's able to create with his feet."

Mayfield's feet were an issue in the first game against New Orleans, as he kept alive plays with his mobility and also totaled season highs in carries (eight) and rushing yards (31).

And his top target, receiver Mike Evans, has notched the 10th consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season to open his career; Evans has a league-leading 13 touchdowns and 1,163 yards on 72 catches.

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