Struggling Buccaneers D braces for Mayfield-led Browns
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — There was a time when teams with defensive woes similar to those of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could count on the Cleveland Browns for relief.
A little over a month into the NFL season, the Browns (2-3-1) have already surpassed their win total for the past two years combined, heightening expectations for what they might be capable of accomplishing with Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
The reeling Bucs (2-3), who’ve lost three straight and are allowing a league-high 34.6 points per game, certainly aren’t in position to assume anything other than they could have their hands full when they face the No. 1 overall draft pick on Sunday.
“The work that he’s put on film — you can see why he was picked where he was picked,” coach Dirk Koetter said.
“This guy’s going to be a really good quarterback in this league,” Koetter added. “He can spin it. He can move around. He makes good decisions. He gets the ball out on time. He’s tough. He makes plays outside of the pocket, both as a thrower and as a runner. He’s impressive so far.”
That’s not encouraging news for a Tampa Bay defense that’s 31st in yards allowed (439.8) and dead last in passing (355.6).
The Bucs, who fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith and replaced him with linebackers coach Mark Duffner on the heels of consecutive losses to Pittsburgh, Chicago and Atlanta, have allowed 30 or more points in four of five games.
Opponents have scored 40-plus twice.
Duffner isn’t promising a quick fix. Improving an inconsistent pass rush will be a challenge against Cleveland if Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy and end Vinny Curry can’t play because of injuries that kept them from practicing this week.
“I believe our approach has always been we play defense as aggressively as we possibly can. That doesn’t mean necessarily all blitz or pressure,” Duffner said, not shedding much light on his philosophy.
“That means that you play hard, that you play physical, you play smart — all those words kind of go into that word, ‘aggressive,’” Duffner added. “You can play aggressive coverage and be in zone defense. You can play aggressive run defense and not be in a pressure situation.”
For their part, the Browns are preparing for Tampa Bay’s scheme.
While Hue Jackson suspects Duffner will make adjustments and try to “put his personality on play calls,” the Cleveland coach firmly believes “the scheme, and who they are, is not going to change too much.”
Mayfield is keeping an open mind.
“Teams have thrown the ball. We will see what we can do,” said Mayfield, coming off a poor performance in a 24-point loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“We will need to still be able to run the ball and establish that, but it is never about what they are doing,” the rookie added. “If they stick with what they have been doing or if they change it up, we just have to be able to do our job and adjust on the fly.”
Some things to know about the Browns and Bucs:
Mayfield was hard on himself following last week’s 38-14 loss, which he described as “the worst” of his career.
The top overall draft pick completed 22 of 46 passes for 238 yards in his third NFL start and was sacked five times by the Chargers, who were successful in keeping the rookie contained in the pocket. He struggled to find receivers, held onto the ball too long and didn’t check down to shorter routes.
Jackson expected a roller-coaster ride with his rookie and he’s getting it.
“I said this a long time ago, quarterbacks might as well start on their knees because they are going to be brought to their knees in this league,” he said. “He has to bounce back and you bounce back in a good way, you lead this team to victory this week — it is what you do. Everything we are doing and everything that we are trying to accomplish is leading to that. That is the goal.”
Pressure had been mounting on Koetter to replace Smith ever since the Bucs gave up six touchdown passes to second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky in Tampa Bay’s 48-10 loss at Chicago on Sept. 30.
Linebacker Lavonte David stressed, however, that the players are just as responsible for what’s transpired as the coaches.
“At the end of the day, it all falls on our shoulders,” David said.
“This is a team game,” Koetter agreed, “so whether it’s success or failure, everybody has to share in it — all the coaches, all the players.”
The Browns are down two starting cornerbacks with E.J. Gaines out Sunday because of a concussion.
Gaines was placed in league protocol on Thursday, leaving the Browns little time to adjust as they get ready to face the pass-heavy Bucs, who have the second-most TD passes in the league with 16. Gaines had started the previous two games for starter Terrance Mitchell, who was placed on injured reserve with a wrist injury.
T.J. Carrie will take over for Gaines, with rookie Denzel Ward on the other corner, and the Browns will try to slow Tampa’s terrific trio of receivers: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin.
“They’re good,” Jackson said. “One’s averaging 23 yards a reception, another guy with 14 yards a reception and another guy with 13 or 12. They’re all making plays and scoring touchdowns. They have some weapons. It’s a big challenge for us.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers contributed to this report.