All season long, there was this idea that the Kansas City Chiefs had another gear. When the playoffs and the Super Bowl came, the Chiefs would look different than they did throughout the regular season. But it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who completely veered from their regular season strategy in order to come away with the surprising 31-9 blowout victory in Super Bowl LV.
Todd Bowles has been one of the most aggressive defensive playcallers throughout his career. During the regular season, the Buccaneers had the fifth-highest blitz rate in the league at 39%. Early in the game it looked like this was going to be a kitchen sink-type game for Bowles and the Bucs’ defense. On the Chiefs’ second third down of the first drive, the Buccaneers showed a two-deep look but rotated to single high and brought a five-man blitz in front of dime personnel (six defensive backs) which Tampa Bay used on just 1% of their defensive snaps during the regular season — a whole eight snaps.
On a third-and-11 on the following drive, Tampa Bay sent another blitz in dime personnel, but this time, both linebackers dropped into coverage and two cornerbacks came on the blitz. Jamel Dean was a free rusher and forced Patrick Mahomes from the pocket. Mahomes eventually scrambled to force a deep incompletion to Tyreek Hill that led to a field goal.
After those few early blitzes, the Buccaneers barely sent more than four for the remainder of the game. Tampa Bay blitzed Mahomes on just 9.6% of his dropbacks, which was the lowest blitz rate for a Bowles-led defense over at least the past five seasons, according to Next Gen Stats.
Despite the limiting blitzing, the Buccaneers were able to get pressure with the four-man rush. The Chiefs were down two tackles, though they spent most of the season without Mitchell Schwartz. Eric Fisher tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game and the offensive line needed some shuffling. That was a problem against Tampa Bay’s defensive line that featured Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on the edge. Barrett was the standout on the line, as he has been for much of the past two seasons. He had eight pressures (19.5% pressure rate) and four quarterback hits in the game and was a constant early disrupter on plays.
Mahomes was under pressure for 32.7% of his dropbacks and that often forced him to bail from the pocket and buy time in the hope that something would develop down the field. Mahomes averaged 3.47 seconds to throw during the game (he averaged 2.89 during the regular season) and much of that extra time came from fleeing early pressure. Though he only took three sacks, Mahomes was hit eight times.
Even when Mahomes was able to create something out of nothing behind the line of scrimmage, there weren’t many options down the field. Mahomes had some superhuman efforts to get throws off with Buccaneers defenders on top of him, including a throw released horizontally that hit his receiver in the face in the end zone.
Some of the four-man rush looks Bowles threw at Mahomes were wild, especially on third down. In the second quarter, the Bucs had another dime personnel look that showed a potential five-man rush. At the snap, only three rushed and linebacker Devin White had a delayed rush. The delay off the line allowed an untouched pressure which rushed a throw to Kelce for an incompletion.
Then on a third-and-7 in the third quarter, the Buccaneers loaded up the defensive left side of the line with Barrett, Vita Vea, and Ndamukong Suh all lined up to the left of the center. Then at the snap, they ran a stunt that had Barrett loop all the way around the right. One-on-one pressure from Suh forced Mahomes into the looping Barrett and the quarterback had to turn for a forced short throw to Travis Kelce.
Tampa’s four-man rush was backed by a great plan in the secondary. After getting killed with single-high coverage in the first meeting between these two teams, the Buccaneers used a two-high look on 87% of their defensive plays, the highest-rate for a Bowles defense in the Next Gen Stats era.
Teams had used two-high looks against the Chiefs throughout the season in an attempt to stop the big play. That definitely worked for the Buccaneers as Mahomes was 0-for-5 with an interception on passes that traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Losing those explosive plays hadn’t completely limited the Chiefs during the regular season. Mahomes was more than willing to take the short and intermediate throws, usually to Kelce, and keep the ball moving.
But with the pressure getting home with four which left seven in coverage and those two deep looks, the short throws weren’t there either. Mahomes was often left to force passes into tight coverage, something he hadn’t done often in his career and an idea the entire Kansas City offense has been built around eliminating.
Among 197 qualified quarterback seasons, Patrick Mahomes’s three seasons as a starter have the third (18), eighth (20), and 11th (19) lowest tight window throw rates, per @NextGenStats, all with at least a league-average aDOT pic.twitter.com/6x8Q7yNg40
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) February 4, 2021
According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes threw into tight coverage on 20.4% of his pass attempts against the Buccaneers. It was just the seventh time in his career that he eclipsed the 20% and the first time in the 2020 season. Six quarterbacks this season averaged over a 20% tight window throw rate. Mahomes has as many career games with a tight window throw rate under 5% as he does games over 20%. In those games of at least 20%, Mahomes is 4-3, including this game and a loss to the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. The defenses that pop up on the list of games in which that occurred are the types that can create pressure with four and play great coverage behind it. The tight coverage also turned into nine passes defensed for the Buccaneers, the most ever against a Mahomes-led team.
Patrick Mahomes Career Games With Tight Window Throw Rate Over 20%
|Year||Week||Opponent||Tight Window %||Passes Defensed|
Tampa Bay’s corners also completely took away the outside for the Chiefs. Mahomes was 13-of-16 for 185 yards in the middle of the field — much of which came in the second half when they started with those throws to Kelce against the two-high looks — but he was just 11-of-21 for 54 on throws to the outside past the line of scrimmage. He was just 1-of-10 for 12 yards on outside throws beyond 10 yards.
The Buccaneers’ corners were helped out by the two-deep shells but they were able to keep Kansas City’s receivers mostly in check. Carlton Davis was the victim in the Week 12 meeting, but he allowed only two receptions for 14 yards on four targets as the closest defender in this game.
All of this combined for a performance that saw Mahomes average 5.5 yards per attempt. -0.19 EPA per play according to nflfastR, and a 49.9 QBR — his second career game with a QBR under 50. This also shows the magic of Mahomes. With everything that went wrong in the game. he was still barely below average with his results.
Short And Simple
Tom Brady won Super Bowl MVP, but his performance was sparked by a perfect game plan from Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich. Like Bowles, Steve Spagnuolo has loved to bring the blitz during his time as Kansas City’s defensive coordinator and the Buccaneers were ready for it in this game.
Brady was blitzed on 23.3% of his dropbacks, still below the Chiefs’ season average, but he was pressured just five times all game — 16.7% of his total dropbacks. So much of this came from Brady getting the ball out quickly. He averaged just 2.27 seconds to throw, which was well below his 2.57-second regular season average. Getting rid of the ball that quickly nearly eliminates the amount of pressure that can get home. According to Next Gen Stats only seven sacks all season across the NFL happened faster than Brady’s average time to throw in the Super Bowl.
After a regular season that saw the Buccaneers have one of the most vertical offenses in the league — Brady had the third-highest average depth of target in the league at 9.3 yards — the Bucs opted to stay short in the Super Bowl. Brady’s average depth of target was just 6.3 yards past the line of scrimmage in the game and he only attempted four passes with one completion over 20 air yards.
Those short throws were better designed than most of what the Buccaneers had run for much of the season, which was more reliant on Brady making throws down the field. For the second game in a row, Tampa Bay ran a play for Rob Gronkowski that looked like it could have come from the Kansas City playbook.
On a second-and-5 from the Kansas City 8-yard line, the Buccaneers ran an RPO that had Gronk cross the formation after the snap away from the run action, behind the line of scrimmage. All the movement created an open lane for a catch and run into the end zone.
The play was designed to put Daniel Sorensen in conflict. Sorensen was in man coverage against Gronkowksi as he moved from left to right. But as Sorensen moved with the tight end, he had to look back to see if the ball was handed off. By the time he turned his head back to the receiver, a pick from Mike Evans was waiting. Watch Sorensen’s head (49) in the shot below:
Tampa Bay also heavily relied on play-action in the game in an attempt to slow down any potential Kansas City blitzes. Brady used play-action on 43.3% of his dropbacks and went 10-of-13 for 135 yards on those play-action attempts while he went 11-of-16 for 66 yards without it, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Part of Tampa Bay’s turnaround through the second half of the season came with a heavier use of play-action. Through the first Kansas City game and before the Buccaneers’ bye, Brady used play-action in just 18.9% of his dropbacks per Sports Info Solutions. That increased to over a quarter of his dropbacks through the second half of the season and through the playoffs. Brady’s performance has been significantly better with more play-action this season.
Tom Brady Play-Action Splits, 2020
|Weeks||Play-Action %||YPA w/ PA||YPA w/o PA|
Those short passes off play-action and RPO’s allowed the Buccaneers to control much of the pacing on offense. Brady completed 72.4% of his passes and only threw into a tight window on 6.9% of his pass attempts. Early on, the Buccaneers were also aided by a few defensive penalties that kept the ball in the offense’s hands with six first downs converted by penalty in the first half. Brady’s second touchdown pass to Gronkowski came after an offsides penalty on a field goal attempt that gave the Buccaneers a first down. Tampa Bay was able to spread the ball around and Gronowski led the team with just 67 receiving yards.
Brady only averaged 6.9 yards per pass attempt, but there wasn’t much of a need to do more than that. He still finished with 0.26 EPA per play, in the 77th percentile of quarterback performances per rbsdm.com, and an 81.8 QBR.
The Bucs even threw some curveballs in the running game. During the regular season, Tampa Bay had some kind of puller on just 11.1% of their running plays, which was the seventh-lowest rate in the league. The run game was mostly duo and zone runs. But in the third quarter, the Bucs pulled a guard to lead the way on what turned into a 27-yard touchdown run from Leonard Fournette.
The biggest knock on the Buccaneers offense throughout the season was their love of the early down run. But they stuck with it in this game and it worked against a Chiefs defensive line that wasn’t able to create an impact on first contact. Tampa Bay averaged 0.18 EPA per play on early down runs in the game (though the Bucs were still significantly better with 0.61 EPA per play on early down passes).
Everything the Buccaneers did in this game worked. They were already counterpunching before the first punch was thrown by the Chiefs. The aggressive defensive attack on the first two drives became a dangerous passive attack that still created pressure. The offense used Kansas City’s aggressiveness against itself and worked the body with short, efficient passes that kept the ball moving down the field. There are few more true team efforts than what the Buccaneers accomplished in Super Bowl LV.