Tag Archives: Devin White

Chasing Patrick: Super Bowl LV Review – Part Two

There is 6:30 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay leading 28-9.  Kansas City has the ball, facing a third-and-13 from its own 22-yard line.

The Chiefs line up with Demarcus Robinson lined tight to the right side of the formation and three receivers out to the left.  Tight end Travis Kelce was split the closest to the line, with Tyreek Hill just inside the numbers on that side. Sammy Watkins is flanked out furthest to the sideline.

Tampa Bay, comfortable with their lead, is sitting in cover-three, with cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean each responsible for his respective sideline, and Mike Edwards playing deep centerfield.

Hill and Kelce both begin with runs up the center of the field, holding Edwards in the middle.  At about 12 yards, Kelce breaks off his vertical and starts settling in under the zone.  At the point where he settles, he’s about one yard shy of the first down.  In the short-middle zone, safety Antoine Winfield reacts to Kelce and closes on him.  Also reacting is Davis, who stops dropping deep and stays level with Kelce.  In fact, Jordan Whitehead – who had been tracking Robinson’s slower vertical up the right sideline, also turned his attention to Kelce – so Travis had succeeded in drawing away – to one degree or another – three-fifths of the Tampa Bay secondary.

Robinson was now running free up the right sideline, and Hill was sliding over into the undefended area behind all of the defenders who were congregating around Kelce.  In zone defense, when a defender stops dropping or abandons his zone entirely, it causes a domino effect.  In this case, Edwards realized that Hill would be undefended once he reached the deep spot in the zone that Davis should be occupying.  Mike had very little choice.  He had to abandon his middle zone to attend to Hill.  That was all well and good, but the other deep receiver – Watkins – was bending his route into the void that Edwards left behind him.

So Patrick Mahomes, one of football’s deadliest weapons, has – at a critical juncture of Super Bowl LV – two open receivers, either one of which could have scored the touchdown that puts Kansas City right back in the game.

And it couldn’t have mattered less.

Let me be clear about this.  Tampa Bay absolutely didn’t need to blitz or run any defensive line stunts to get pressure on the quarterback.  The essential element of their game plan was to line up somebody (usually linebacker Shaquil Barrett) over Kansas City’s substitute right tackle – Andrew Wylie – and have him run right by Wylie to chase the quarterback.  Part B of the essential game plan placed another pass rusher (usually Jason Pierre-Paul) over Kansas City’s other transplanted tackle (Mike Remmers – who was normally the right tackle now switched over to the left side) and sending him past Remmers to meet Barrett at the quarterback.  Shaq and Jason essentially spent the bulk of Super Bowl LV racing each other to the quarterback.

Nonetheless, from time-to-time, Tampa Bay did blitz and/or run a stunt up front – just to keep things interesting, I suppose.  This was one such instance.  As you can imagine, running stunts against an offensive line where three of the five members were playing out of position proved to be more than just mildly effective.

On this play, it was Pierre-Paul lining up over Wylie, with linebacker Devin White on the line next to him – aligned over Stefan Wisniewski (the other backup on the line) – and Ndamukong Suh playing nose tackle over center Austin Reiter.  From the other side of the line, Barrett would get Remmers with Lavonte David, also on the line, aligned over Nick Allegretti.  The stunt sent Pierre-Paul and David inside, with Suh and White looping around into the vacancies.  The design worked perfectly for Suh, sending Ndamukong hurtling past the beleaguered Wylie.  But Allegretti made the adjustment on the left side and picked up White.  No matter, though, as Reiter wasn’t aware of the stunt and allowed David to slip right in behind him.

As with the majority of plays on this long afternoon for the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes had immediate company in his backfield.  One step before both Suh and David would pull him down – and while Robinson and Watkins were in the process of breaking open – Patrick flung the football in the general direction of Tyreek Hill.  Coming up behind Hill, Edwards deflected the ball away from Tyreek – the rebound dropping right into the lap of Winfield for an interception.

I’m not sure any single play tells the story of Tampa Bay’s 31-9 Super Bowl victory (gamebook) (summary) more completely than this one.  On a play where Tampa Bay could easily have surrendered a critical touchdown, they instead come up with an equally critical interception on plays by two defenders (Edwards and Winfield) who were not where they were supposed to be.

That’s how the day went for the former champs.

Tampa Bay advanced the ball just 11 yards after the turnover, but that was all they needed to set up Ryan Succop’s 52-yard field goal that provided the final points of the game.

Pressure Kills

As with most Super Bowls, the days leading up to SB LV were rife with speculations about matchups and coverage schemes.  But Barrett and his boys rendered all that cerebration irrelevant.  In a primal display that belies the complexity of the modern game, Tampa Bay’s defensive front came after Kansas City’s talented quarterback in waves, all but completely throttling what is generally regarded as football’s most unstoppable offense.

Counting scrambles, Patrick Mahomes dropped back to pass an astonishing 56 times in this contest.  On just 22 of those drop-backs did Patrick have a reasonable opportunity to set up and look for a receiver.  When given reasonable time in the pocket – and in spite of the fact that he trailed virtually the entire game – Mahomes still acquitted himself well.  He completed 17 of those passes (77.57%) for 180 yards and 7 first downs – a passer rating of 100.57.

But the other 34 pass attempts were mostly nightmares for Patrick and the Chiefs.  Running for his life, Mahomes was just 9 for 27 (33.33%) for 90 yards (3.33 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions, 3 sacks (for 27 yards of losses) and 4 scrambles – a 12.89 rating on the passes when the pressure was at least enough to hurry him.

That Tampa Bay was able to bring that kind of pressure on 57.7% of his passes was remarkable.  Even more impressive was their ability to bring that pressure 51% of the time without blitzing.  In keeping with the aggressive approach that defines coach Bruce Arians’ philosophy, Tampa Bay blitzed the quarterback 39% of the time during the regular season – the fifth-highest rate in football.  On Super Bowl Sunday, they brought that extra rusher just 5 times in 56 drop-backs.

They backed off the blitz because they didn’t need to blitz.  The four man rush – with the occasional twist thrown in – was doing just fine.  This was, in fact, the greatest irony of Super Bowl LV.  The oft-criticized Tampa Bay pass defense was able to hand Patrick Mahomes the worst day of his young career by playing predominantly to their weakness.

What Tampa Bay has done best all year is playing man defense and blitzing to get pressure.  Against Kansas City, they played just 14 snaps of man coverage, and didn’t blitz once when they did.  All five of their blitzes came in support of zone defenses.  But with a substantial lead, and with the front four dominating, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles decided to play it safe in the secondary and just let Barrett, Pierre-Paul and the others do their thing.

And so, Tampa Bay ended up playing 37 snaps (66.1%) of straight zone with no blitz.  A season-long weakness, their undisciplined zones presented Mahomes and KC with numerous opportunities while the rush consistently prevented them from taking advantage.

Shaq

The MVP award was presented – at the end of the day – to quarterback Tom Brady.  This was not an unworthy choice.  Brady (as we discussed in Part One of our Super Bowl analysis) led his resurgent offense to the 31 points that provided the defense with its substantial lead.

Had I been given a vote, though, I think I would have cast mine for linebacker Shaquil Barrett.  Defensive statistics are notoriously insufficient in quantifying a defender’s impact on the game.  Shaq earned one of the three sacks Tampa Bay registered against the mercurial Mr. Mahomes, and was credited with 4 of the 8 official “hits” that Tampa Bay managed against Patrick.

Exactly what’s behind that “hit” number, I’m not sure.  But charting the game I had Patrick rushed 16 times (that’s a situation where the pressure forces him to throw before he’s ready and also includes the times he was chased around the backfield, but not necessarily hit). I had 7 other times where he was being contacted as he was throwing or immediately after he released the ball.  These were not necessarily knock downs, but he at least found himself pushed or shoved at the conclusion of those plays.  In addition to the three sacks that they eventually got, I had four other plays where he was all but down, and somehow managed to get the throw away.

Counting the one scramble in which Patrick was actually flushed out of the pocket by the pass rush, I had Barrett as the primary source of pressure on 9 of those 31 plays.  This is an uncommon level of disruption from a single defender.  On five of those plays he blew past Wylie.  He victimized Remmers on two other occasions.  He came free on a stunt once, and the other time a running back decided he would rather not block him.

Hearkening back to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, Barrett had himself about as fine a set of playoff games as I can recall in quite some time.  Again the official numbers don’t tell the full story, but Shaq was awarded three sacks and four other hits against the Packers for Championship and Super Bowl totals of 4 sacks and 8 hits in the two climactic games of the season.

But, of course, Shaq was also working against second string blockers in those two games.  An injury to David Bakhtiari – one of football’s most proficient tackles – left Aaron Rodgers’ right side protected by Ricky Wagner.  This year, Kansas City lost three-fifth of its starting offensive line from the 2019 Super Bowl team.  Both tackles (Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher) were lost to injury (and the tackles weren’t the strongest aspect of this team to begin with), and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff opted out of the season.  A medical doctor, the heroic Duvernay-Tardiff chose to spend the pandemic year on the “offensive line,” if you will, of the COVID defense team.  So often, we seem to shrug off situations that develop on the offensive line.  Good teams always seem to have capable backups.  But the line matters – it matters quite a bit.

Everyone who replaced the lost members of the 2019 offensive line (Nick Allegretti, Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie) struggled mightily in pass protection in Super Bowl LV.  This is especially true of Wylie.  I said earlier that I would have given Shaq Barrett my MVP vote?  You could make a case that Tampa Bay’s true MVP was whoever got to line up opposite Wylie.  Of the 31 disruptive pass rushes I identified above, 12 came principally from the player that Andrew was supposed to block – including two of the three sacks (the third was a coverage sack).

Lost in the obscurity of last year’s 7-9 team, Barrett – in his first year in Tampa Bay and his first year as a starter – exploded onto the scene as a pass rusher.  In four years in Denver, Shaq totaled 14 sacks in 1856 defensive snaps – a sack for every 132.57 defensive plays he was on the field for.  In 2019 he surprised the football universe, leading the NFL in sacks with 19.5 during his 889 plays – one for each 45.59 snaps.  During the 2020 regular season, Barrett regressed to a number more in line with his career norms.  In 822 snaps he collected 8 quarterback sacks – one for each 102.75 plays.

This made his stellar 2019 season seem like an outlier – at least until he lit up the Packers and Chiefs in the last two games of the season – his final 4 sacks coming over his final 126 plays – one every 31.5 snaps.

What this suggests as far as Barrett’s future in the NFL is speculative at this point.  The fact, though, that the most dominant stretch of Shaq’s season came against teams that could only oppose him with second string tackles is consistent with the good fortune that has smiled down on Tampa Bay in abundance since their record dropped to 7-5 after their Week 12 loss the first time they played Kansas City.

With the increase in pressure, Tampa Bay didn’t have to worry about keeping Mahomes in the pocket.  A major concern for some teams, Patrick was just 2 for 11 (18.81%) outside the pocket for but 3 yards.  He was also sacked once out of the pocket, and threw as many interceptions (2) as he had completions. His passer rating out of the pocket was a perfect (for Tampa Bay) 0.00.

Downfield passing was also not an issue for the Bucs.  Throwing to targets at least ten yards downfield, Mahomes was just 5 for 17 (27.41%) for an even 100 yards, but also both his interceptions – a rating of 12.01.  This number includes 0-for-6 with an interception on throws to targets 20 yards or more downfield.

It was a more thorough and complete dismantling of this offense than anyone – including, probably, Tampa Bay – could have possibly imagined.

Still Leaky in Zone Coverage

About the only area where the formerly explosive Kansas City offense did have substantial success was over the middle of the field.  This was the area where – when he had the time to do so – Patrick could get linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David to wander out of their zone responsibilities.  For all of his struggles on the perimeters, when throwing to the middle of the field, Mahomes was 14 of 17 (82.35%) for 199 yards (11.71 per attempted pass).  It worked out to a Mahomes-like 115.44 passer rating.  Throwing against White’s primary zone coverage, Patrick was 6-for-8 for 63 yards.  He was 5-for-7 for 46 yards against David’s zone responsibility (these two didn’t always have just middle of the field responsibilities, of course, but on any given play one or the other usually did).

As against Buffalo, tight end Travis Kelce was a palpable weapon both against the Tampa Bay zones (he caught 9 of 11 passes thrown to him against zone coverages for 121 yards), and over the middle of the field (he caught 8 of 11 targets over the middle for 116 yards).  Tyreek Hill also did most of his damage over the middle, where he caught all 5 passes thrown to him for 70 yards.

Breath-Taking in Man

While the evolution of the game dictated predominant zone coverages (and Tampa Bay was in zone 75% of the time), the 14 snaps of man coverage that they played demonstrated again how proficient this team is in man coverage.

Let’s begin with Kelce – who mostly ate up Tampa’s zones.  Against man coverage, Travis managed separation from his defender just 3 times the entire game.  This includes getting open just once in 7 matchups with David (although, in fairness to Travis, Lavonte’s first move against Kelce was usually the grabbing of his shoulder pads), and just once in 4 routes run against Mike Edwards.  Kelce was targeted just 4 times against man coverages, catching just 1 pass for 12 yards.

David and Edwards were both terrific in the few man opportunities presented to them.  Devonte White also covered very well – although he was only on running back Darrell Williams.  But the one whose stock has really risen during the postseason is cornerback Carlton Davis.

Carlton’s – previous to this postseason – isn’t a name that was much tossed around as a shut-down corner.  He was always respected, but not usually categorized with the NFL’s elite corners.  This playoff run challenged that perception.  In the two games previous to Super Bowl LV, Davis was primarily responsible for shutting down (first) New Orleans’ Michael Thomas (0 completions in 4 targets with only 0.82 average yards of separation), and then Green Bay’s Davante Adams.  Adams did finish with 9 catches for just 67 yards, but wasn’t covered by Davis all the time.  Against Carlton, Adams caught only 3 passes on 5 targets for just 26 yards.  One of those receptions came after Davante pushed Davis to the ground (an act that will usually draw a pass interference penalty).

Carlton topped off his impressive playoff run with stellar performances (in man coverage) against Hill (who never beat him in the 4 routes he ran against him) and Kelce (who was 0-for-2 against Davis).  Overall, in Tampa Bay’s 14 snaps of man, only two Kansas City receivers managed any separation from Davis.  Once, Carlton gave a surprisingly large cushion to Demarcus Robinson, who ran a short comeback (the throw went to Kelce on that play). A bit earlier, Sammy Watkins found a little room on a curl in front of Davis (again the throw went elsewhere).  And that was it.  No other receivers ever managed to get open against him, and no passes were even throw in the direction of the man that Davis had in man coverage during the game.

The combination of pressure and tight coverage relegated Mahomes to just 3 for 11 for 47 yards against man coverage (he was also sacked once and forced to scramble twice).  For the game, Kansas City’s talented wide receivers were held to just 8.7 yards per reception.

Hill finished the game with 7 catches for 73 yards that included 2 catches for 35 yards against man.  As Tampa Bay’s corners rarely switch sides to match a particular defender on a particular receiver, Kansas City was easily able to get Tyreek away from Davis by aligning him to the left of the formation (where Jamel Dean would cover him) or by putting him in the slot (where he would be Sean Murphy-Bunting’s problem).  Both of those alignments provided better opportunities.  Tyreek beat Dean on 2 of 3 routes, and Murphy-Bunting on 3 of 5 – a couple of those against Sean were deep routes where Hill beat him right off the snap.  It was certainly something that KC might have gone to more often – but, of course, there were the persistent problems with pass protection that prevented Hill from having a more productive day than he did.

This Slow Start Snowballed

In winning all of their five previous playoff games, Kansas City trailed by at least nine points early in four of them – so the Chiefs are no strangers to slow starts, and not usually ones to panic if things start off a little negatively.  This time, however, the slow start snowballed on them.  The offense (hampered as it was) never did find a rhythm – especially early.  Mahomes started the game 3 for 12 and finished the first half just 9 of 19 (47.4%) for only 67 yards.

The big difference this time around, though, was that the defense wasn’t able to keep the game close.  When Tampa Bay scored a touchdown on its first drive of the second half, it was their fourth touchdown in their previous five drives and left the KC offense looking up a very steep incline.  Tampa Bay led at that point 28-9 with just 22:45 left in the contest.  Already struggling for answers, the Chiefs would now spend the rest of the game in a pass-only mode that would play right into the hands of the Tampa Bay pass rush.  Patrick would throw the ball 30 times in the second half – 21 of those in the fourth quarter alone.  He would throw for 203 second half yards, but after suffering neither a sack nor an interception in the first half, the second half would bring him multiples of both.

In fact, Kansas City spent nearly half of its offensive life in what was, essentially, garbage time.  Of the 69 plays they ran, 30 of them came with the Chiefs facing a 22 point deficit.  Of Mahomes’ 270 passing yards, 195 came in garbage time.  Of Kelce’s game-high 133 receiving yards, 78 came in the fourth quarter in a 31-9 game.

In such opportunities as Mahomes and the passing game had – both early and late – to get themselves back into the game, they found themselves turned away by the uncompromising Tampa Bay defense.

The Chiefs finished the game 3 of 13 on third down (they had been the third-best third-down team in football, converting 49% of them).  Patrick was only 4 of 12 on that down for 46 yards.  Only 2 of his completions were sufficient for first downs, and one of his 8 incompletions ended up in the hands of the defense.  His passer rating on third down ended as a dismal 11.11.

Even worse, he was 0 for his first 8 third down passes, not completing his first until there was 5:43 left in the game and Kansas City trailing by the 22 point final score.

The Chiefs were also 0-for-3 in the red zone.  Patrick completed just 3 of his 8 passes there for 8 yards.  Not only did he fail to throw a red zone touchdown pass, but none of his completions even produced a first down.  Additionally, his last pass of the season – from the Tampa Bay 10-yard line – was intercepted.

What the Chiefs Should Have Done

Tampa Bay’s defense certainly limited Kansas City’s opportunities, but other teams have faced similar difficulties and made adjustments to improve their situation.  In fact, during much of the season Tampa Bay’s offense was, itself, frequently side-tracked with similar difficulties – a situation that they successfully addressed in their late season re-bound and inspired post-season run.

But Kansas City never made any of these adjustments – even though there were clearly options available to them.

Designate More Pass Blockers

As I pointed out in Part One of this discussion, through most of the early part of the season, the Bucs had some significant issues keeping their quarterback upright.  Coming down the stretch, the Bucs adopted one of the simplest and most effective answers to the problem.  They kept more men in the backfield to pick up pass rushers.  Up until the Super Bowl, tight end Rob Gronkowski had done much more pass blocking than route running.

If a situation ever called for pass-blocking help, this one certainly did.  But, with a handful of exceptions, the Chiefs never offered their beleaguered linemen any support.  And such support as was granted was nothing more than an occasional chip by a back or tight end in a hurry to get out in the pattern.  Without notable exception, Kansas City left their flailing tackles all alone on Barrett, Pierre-Paul, Suh and others.

I am a great admirer of Andy Reid and his offensive design.  As with most people who follow the NFL, I place Reid and his staff among the elite offensive minds in the game.  That being said, I think any other coaching staff in football – watching the opposing pass rush destroying their season – would have made some adjustment.  If nothing else, they would have gone to more two tight-end sets, lining either Nick Keizer or Deon Yelder next to Wylie to help relieve the pressure there, while keeping the back in legitimately to help the other tackle Remmers – not to take a quick glance at Remmers and then hustle into the pattern.  For whatever reason, though, the Chiefs never made that move.

During the 56 Kansas City called pass plays, the Chiefs had a second tight end on the field just 5 times – and on 3 of those, both tight ends released into the pattern.  And so, the Chief coaching staff stood by silently and watched their tackles being abused and their quarterback chased around the backfield for play-after-play.

Now, of course, more dedicated blockers may have been an invitation for Tampa Bay to blitz more, but even at that I would take my chances.

Or, Kansas City could have employed another proven tactic for slowing a pass rush.  They could have . . .

Run The Ball

By about the mid-season mark, few teams in football were more run-averse that Tampa Bay.  On more than one occasion, I’ve pointed out that they had all of 5 running plays in their Week Nine loss to New Orleans.  But that adjustment’s been made, and the revived running game has been a critical part of their late season surge.  In the playoffs, the Bucs averaged more than 30 runs per game.  As precise and effective as Tom Brady and the passing attack were, I give more credit to the running game that thumped the KC defense to the tune of 33 runs for 145 yards.  One of my principle points in Part One was the boost that the running game gives the passing game.

As far as Kansas City goes, a call for more running might seem a bit counter-intuitive – considering the struggles that the offensive line was having.  But the fact is that the Kansas City line was only struggling with the pass blocking aspect.  The few times that Kansas City did run the ball, that same line acquitted themselves quite well.

In spite of the fact that Tampa Bay finished the regular season first against the run (they allowed 80.6 yards per game and 3.6 per attempt), Kansas City pushed them around a little as they averaged 6.3 yards on their 17 rushes.

To get an accurate feel for the success of the Chief running game, though, you have to subtract out Mahomes’ 5 runs for 33 yards and Tyreek Hill’s sweep for 5 more yards.  That still leaves 69 yards gained by the running backs on 11 attempts – the same 6.3 yard average.  And this wasn’t a case of one or two big runs skewing the averages.  KC earned at least 5 yards on 6 of the 11 runs.  The 6.3 yards per run were significantly more than the 4.7 they gained per pass.

It’s a small sample size, but the KC offensive line looked so much more confident and at ease when they ran the ball that it’s still a wonder why they didn’t do more of it.  They were especially effective the few times they attacked the middle of the Buccaneer line.

Kansas City only ran between the guards 5 times in the game, but 4 of those runs gained at least five yards, and the 5 rushes together totaled 47 yards.  Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David – who is one of the strengths of this run defense – only made two tackles against the run in this one – one ten yards from scrimmage, and the other after an 11-yard gain.

What a difference it might have made, say after Tampa Bay’s second touchdown had put them ahead 14-3 with still 6:05 left in the first half, if the Chiefs had made the attempt to re-gain control of the line of scrimmage with their running game.  What a boon it would have been to that battered offensive line to get the opportunity to take the game to the Buccaneer front seven for a while.

Along with calming the pass rush, such an approach might have even brought the play-action pass back into the mix – only 6 of Mahomes’ 49 passes employed even a slight hint of play-action.

Instead, though, by that time KC was pretty much done running the ball.  After 8 runs in their first 19 plays (including 3 Patrick Mahomes’ scrambles), the Chiefs would only hand the ball off 7 more times over their final 40 plays – and on just 3 of their final 34.

Would it have made a significant difference?  I believe that it would have.  To be honest with you, Tampa Bay spent the entire game daring Kansas City to run as they sat in their two-deep safety looks the entire game.  For the entire second half of the game, I don’t believe Tampa Bay ever put more than six defenders in the box.

I am fairly convinced that – as soon as they realized the mismatch playing out before them – the KC coaches could have altered the course of the game with a few reasonable adjustments.  More two tight-end sets, more running the ball, and a few more pass blockers when Mahomes was going to throw.  Simple steps, but enough, I think to put them back on equal footing with Tampa Bay.  Which begs the question that, in my mind, hung over the entire Super Bowl.

Why Didn’t They Do It?

The exact reason why the former champs didn’t make some simple adjustments is, of course, something I can’t say with any degree of certainty.  I’m not afraid to speculate though.

Patrick Mahomes has been the starting quarterback in Kansas City for 46 regular season and 8 playoff games.  During that span – up until Super Bowl Sunday two weeks ago – the Kansas City Chiefs had never run into a situation that their passing game couldn’t handle.  Blitzes, exotic coverages, injuries, deficits, poor officiating – over the course of Mahomes’ three seasons at the helm in KC, he, his un-paralleled awareness, his collection of talented (and scary) receivers, and the creativeness of the offensive scheme have overcome all previous obstacles put in their way.  Many times, the confluence of all of this has seemed almost magical.

Why didn’t the Chiefs make some necessary adjustments?  I think it’s because they’ve never ever had to with Mahomes back there.  On some level, I think they all believed that somehow or other – one way or another – Mahomes or somebody would make a play and everything in their universe would be OK again.  That’s kind of the way it’s been in the playoffs the last couple of years.  The team off to a not so good start.  Somebody makes just one play.  The team exhales and becomes the invincible Chiefs that we’ve gotten accustomed to these last couple of years.

On Super Bowl Sunday, nobody made that play (at least not a play that counted – more on that in Part Three).  On Super Bowl Sunday, the hole just kept getting deeper.  In a significant way, Super Bowl LV served to teach the team that may still be football’s next dynasty a little about their own mortality.

What impact that may have on the franchise in the coming seasons is something that we’ll pry into a little deeper in Part Three

Part Three – which I hope to have up in another day or so – will conclude the fifth season of randomcardinalstats.com.  Unless something compelling forces me to open the blog before then, you will next hear from me in mid-April as we open the 2021 baseball season.

But before we get there, I’ve got a little more Super Bowl ground to cover.

Packers Not Ready for Prime Time

In his final game of the 2020 season, Green Bay defense end/linebacker Preston Smith had very little impact.  But he did have a few moments.

With 18 seconds left in the first half of a still very close game, Smith’s (Preston) inside rush was too quick for Smith (Donovan), Tampa Bay’s offensive left tackle, allowing Preston nearly immediate access to quarterback Tom Brady.

Facing a third-and-four from the Green Bay 45, Tampa Bay had lined up with three wide-receivers to the left, and tight end Cameron Brate as the lone eligible receiver on the right end of the formation.  The Packers answered with man coverage.  Brate would put a double-move on safety Adrian Amos and streak up the sideline, but Amos wouldn’t bite and stayed with Cameron on his trip downfield.  Brady had a check-down as running back Leonard Fournette circled out of the backfield, but Smith (Preston) was in so quickly on the Buccaneers veteran quarterback that Fournette didn’t have a chance to get to the line before Tom had to get rid of the ball.  To his left were a lot of defenders shadowing a lot of receivers, so Brady heaved the ball up the right sideline, hoping that either Brate could make a play on the ball, or that it would just sail out of bounds.

The ball wasn’t thrown far enough outside to do either.

Thrown higher than it was far, the football tailed to the inside.  It was well away from Brate and Amos – so neither of them could make a play on the ball – but (in Goldilocks terms) it was “just right” for the safety to that side – third-year player Will Redmond.  In the Packers’ split safety design, the other safety, Darnell Savage, was occupied to three-receiver side.  But all Redmond had to focus on was Cameron Brate working his way up the sideline.

Ambling to that sideline, Will looked up to find the ball floating right toward him – and watched in agony as the ball bounced harmlessly off his outstretched hands.  At the time, this was understood to be a significant drop – how significant would only be understood after the game was over.

As I write about these games, I try to look for that moment – that singular play – that sends one team inexorably on to victory.  In this game, that wasn’t possible.  As Tampa Bay moved on to Super Bowl LV courtesy of a 31-26 conquest of the Green Bay Packers (gamebook) (summary), there were nearly a dozen plays that could easily have re-written history.  A couple of them were poor decisions by the officiating crew (who, I think, were borrowed from a nearby hockey rink), most of them were breakdowns by the offense, and a few – like this one – were defensive gaffes.  All added together, this litany of woulda/shoulda/coulda sentenced the Packers to another off-season of head-shaking.

In almost all of these cases, the plays were much like this.  The hard part of the play was already achieved.  In this case, Green Bay had managed to get quick pressure on Brady – something they almost never did on Championship Sunday; they kept the intended receiver covered – an area that was a little hit-and-miss for the early part of the game; and they had a player (Redmond) in position to make a game-changing play.  All afternoon it was the comparatively routine part of the play (here, the act of catching a football right in his hands) that bedeviled the Packers.

Before this game began, I expressed my concern about this Green Bay team, feeling that their advancement to top seed in their conference and subsequent progress to the Championship Game was too easily achieved.  I wondered if they would be able to withstand a team that could offer them a stiffer challenge than they had so far faced.  For three hours and fourteen agonizing minutes (for Packer fans) on that afternoon the Green Bay team proved themselves not ready for prime time as they simply and repeatedly refused to claim a game that was consistently sitting there for the taking.  In the second half, Tom Brady would end three successive drives with interceptions.  The Packers would turn those turnovers into all of six points – and came close to not getting those.

But that’s just the beginning of the story – the offensive side of it.  There was considerably more.  This moment that I began with – this missed interception by Redmond – I chose because it was the moment that precede the onslaught.  It was (if you will) that last moment of grace extended to the Packers before the blade fell.

When Will dropped that ball, it was still a four-point game, and the Buccaneers were faced with a fourth-down.  Six football snaps later, Green Bay trailed 28-10 and spent the rest of the day in catch-up mode.  In terms of game-clock time, it was an 84-second implosion that sent the Halas Trophy on its way to Florida.

That dropped interception was a distressing moment, but not the worst moment for the defense by a long shot.  That would come two plays later, on a play that would elicit a “My God!” exclamation from color man Troy Aikman, after Tampa Bay had converted the fourth down.  With but 8 seconds left in the half, the Bucs had the ball on Green Bay’s 39-yard line.

A Head-Shaker

With time (probably) for one last play (the Bucs had just used their final time out), Green Bay ran a Cover-5 – kind of halfway between Cover-4 and an outright prevent defense.  Green Bay had the four defensive backs responsible each for a deep fourth of the field, with a fifth safety behind them as a final fail-safe.  Defending the deep left sideline was cornerback Kevin King.  His assignment was relatively simple.  Don’t let anyone behind you.

You could almost hear the heads of the viewing audience explode along with Aikman’s as King stood – rooted in place, staring into the backfield – as receiver Scott Miller just ran right past him.  Brady’s toss hit him perfectly in the hands, and Tampa Bay closed the first half with a gift touchdown.  On the third play from scrimmage in the second half, 1000-yard rusher Aaron Jones fumbled, giving the Bucs the ball on the Green Bay eight-yard line.  And one play later, the Packers had been saddled with an 18-point deficit.

The Almost Come-Back

From that point on, the Packers mounted just enough of a comeback to offer their fans a brief hope of a miracle in the offing.  In the end – like everything else on this day – the effort would come up just short.  Appropriately, the final blow would come from the all-but-invisible officiating team.

It’s an old hockey tradition – and one of the things that marks hockey as an inferior sport – that the officials don’t bring their whistles with them in the third period.  The philosophy, as I understand it, is that the officials don’t want to “impact” the game.  Let the players determine the outcome, while we stay out of it.  You rarely see this kind of unprofessionalism in more legitimate sports like baseball and football, as the officiators there understand that there are few things they can do that will impact a game more than disappearing.

And yet, on Championship Sunday in Green Bay, the Packers and Bucs got a crew of hockey officials – which meant that anything goes in the secondary.  The broadcast booth brought us replays of – oh – half a dozen pass interference penalties that should have been called.  The only one that was impactful – as did everything else that day – added damage to the Packers.  Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ three-touchdown day was marred by a single interception executed by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, and made possible by one of the more obvious of the missed interference calls.  As Packer receiver Allen Lazard was starting to separate from Murphy-Bunting, Sean simply grabbed Lazard by the shoulder pads and pulled the two players closer together.

But this was just one of many examples of defenders latching onto receivers, turning them by their shoulder pads, etc. – the kinds of activities that will draw penalty flags from most crews on most Sundays.  But not this one.

The Buccaneers were not the only ones taking advantage of the officiators’ negligence.  Green Bay, in fact, got away with the game’s single most egregious missed call.  In what would turn out to be the final Green Bay drive of the season, receiver Davante Adams achieved his separation from Murphy-Bunting through the simple expedient of pushing him to the ground.  As if unaware of the irony involved, Sean sat on the turf, looking around at the officials with his arms spread in the attitude of asking, “Where’s the flag?” Where, indeed?

The permissiveness of the officials spread to the line-play as well.  Not only were there no pass interference penalties called (at least for the first 58 minutes of the game), there were no holding penalties called – offensive or defensive – and not because the line play was pristine.  On the play after the Adams play just mentioned, Davante caught another pass for 11 yards.  On the play, the left side of the Green Bay offensive line (Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner) had their respective Tampa Bay defensive linemen in such a tight hold you would have thought it was the final dance on prom night.

Of course, there was no flag thrown.  Let the players play.  At least that’s how it was until there was 1:46 left in the game.

Tampa Bay has their final five-point lead and the ball, but they face a third-and-four on their own 37-yard line.  With a stop here, the Packers would get the ball back – presumably – in solid field position with a minute and a half (or so) left and a time out – conditions favorable for a potential thrilling finish.

For a moment, as Brady’s third-down pass sailed well over the head of Tyler Johnson, it looked like Green Bay had managed that needed stop.  And then the flag came sailing in.  As Johnson was on his way to the sideline running his cross, the defender covering him (Kevin King, again) reached out and briefly grabbed his jersey.  It was enough for back judge Perry Paganelli to throw the game’s lone flag for any of the misbehaviors that had characterized the secondary play to that point.

And with that, the Packer season came to an end.

Tough to Take

To be clear, it was a penalty.  In most other games on most other Sunday’s, this flag would only have been mildly controversial.  But this play wasn’t even remotely worse than many violations previously ignored.  Moreover, the pass wasn’t catchable.  It wasn’t a question of the potential lost step.  Johnson was running horizontally to the sideline, and the throw sailed well over his head.  Toss in the fact that the call (coming at the point of the game that it did) left Green Bay with no chance to answer or recover.

The circumstance that deprived Rodgers and the offense of their one last chance makes it a little tough to take.  All the more so because the penalty was unnecessary.  Whether the call should or shouldn’t have been made, there was no need for King’s actions.  The ball was over-thrown.  Again, the hard part was taken care of.  It was the inability to execute the “routine” part of the play that ultimately proved Green Bay’s downfall.

But, again, let’s be clear about this game.  This was a contest that Green Bay did not deserve to win.  In fact, even if the penalty was ignored and the Packers did get the ball back I am doubtful that they would have finished the comeback.  In a game in which the offense had wasted so many opportunities, it’s hard to believe that this wouldn’t be just one more missed chance.  During the regular season, the Green Bay offense scored the most points and gained the fifth most yards in the NFL, with quarterback Rodgers leading the league in most of the relevant passing numbers – including his 121.5 passer rating.

But this loss falls squarely on the shoulders of Rodgers and the offense.  Setting aside penalties that were and weren’t called, setting aside some damaging misses by the defense, Green Bay’s elite offense had ample chances to take down a beatable Tampa Bay defense.  There were ample throws available for Rodgers – throws that he either didn’t make, or didn’t execute when he did make them.

For all the controversy surrounding Aaron’s supporting cast on the offensive side of the ball, this is a loss that he is as responsible for as anyone else in the organization.

Rodger’s Good, but Not Great Day

As his 101.56 passer rating testifies, Aaron Rodgers had a lot of great moments against the Buc defense.  In particular, Aaron was on top of his game on third down.  Rarely better, Aaron was 8 for 11 on that down for 129 yards (an average of 11.73 yards per pass, and 16.13 yards per completion) with 2 touchdowns – an impressive 151.14 passer rating.  He was also instrumental in bringing Green Bay back from behind.  He threw the ball 41 times in the game while trailing by at least 7 points.  He completed 30 of those passes for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns – a 119.36 passer rating.  But – and this is a telling number – in those periods of the game where it was close – early in the game before Tampa Bay had mounted its lead and later when Green Bay had crept back into things – Aaron was a pedestrian 3 for 7 for 32 yards, 1 first down, no touchdowns and that interception.

It is patently unfair to hold quarterbacks to any kind of perfect standard.  Every quarterback in every game misses some open receivers.  Even so, I think even Rodgers himself – after watching the tape – would agree that there were a lot of throws left on the table.

There is 12:19 left in the second quarter.  Trailing 14-7, the Packers face second-and-ten on their own 25.  Davante Adams – coming off a huge 115-catch, 1374-yard, 18-touchdown season lined up in the slot to the left, where he would draw tight, bump-and-run coverage from Murphy-Bunting. Davante left Sean in his dust, winning immediately off the snap and gaining separation with every step.  It looked like Aaron saw him – it seemed that he glanced right at him at the snap.  But for some reason never threw him the ball.  He settled for a 12-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

On the interception to Lazard, Aaron had his choice of two in-breaking routes to choose from.  Breaking from the right sideline into the middle of the field, tight end Robert Tonyan opened up later in the route when linebacker Lavonte David stumbled in coverage.  Rodgers would have had to wait another half second on this one, but there was little pressure, so he did have the time.

These were a couple of the opportunities he had against man coverage – we haven’t even started on the opportunities presented by Tampa’s still struggling zones.

Two Goal Line Stands

The microcosm of Green Bay’s day came in the form of two goal line stands.  After a four-yard run from Jones gave them a first down, Green Bay had a first-and-goal on the Buc six-yard line with 5:13 left in the first half.  They trailed 14-7 at this point.

On first down, Adams – the recipient of 57 touchdown passes from Rodgers over their careers – lined up close to the line on the left, with Tampa Bay’s best corner – Carlton Davis – lining directly over him in press coverage.  As Aikman in the booth drew a circle around all of the open area behind and to the right of Davis he said “I expect Aaron will be all over this.”  Again, Adams won off the line, getting Davis both backing up and veering inside, while Adams broke wide open to the outside.  The difficult part was achieved.  Now football’s second-leading receiver just had to catch the ball.

But Rodgers threw the ball out in front – expecting Adams to keep running to the sideline, while Davante turned the route up-field, as though he were going for the back corner.  The result was that the throw ended up behind Davante, who turned and got a hand on the pass, but couldn’t haul it in.

There was 5:11 left in the first half of a seven-point game, but as Adams lay face down on the grass in the end zone, I began to realize that Green Bay was going to lose this game.

On second down, this time with Adams in the slot on the right (and still covered by Davis), Green Bay tried another goal-line favorite – the flat pass in front of the flag.  Adams was open on this pass, too, but linebacker David was able to leap into the passing lane and deflect the pass.  And now, it was third down.

This time it would be Adams in the back of the end zone, under the goal post. Green Bay set up with three receivers to the right, with Valdes-Scantling the nearest and Lazard the farthest, lining up nearest the sideline.  In between them, in the traditional slot, Adams drew coverage this time from Murphy-Bunting, who had him in man coverage, but played with outside leverage, hoping to turn Davante back inside, where he thought he would have some help.

The help never materialized.  Valdes-Scantling cleared the whole middle of defenders with his middle vertical, and Davante broke cleanly inside.  For the third straight play, Aaron Rodgers had Davante Adams wide open either in or near the end zone.  And for the third straight play, they misconnected.  This time Rodgers simply threw it behind Adams.  Davante pirouetted in midair, and managed to catch the ball.  But now, off balance, he had no chance to get either foot in bounds.

And out came the field goal unit.

They were back down there with 2:22 left in the game, first-and-goal at the eight, trailing 31-23.  It was the same story.  A miscommunication on first down found Lazard not even looking for the ball thrown in his direction, and then two final incompletions to Adams.  On both of the final plays, Rodgers started to scramble, and – especially with the last one – it looked like he might have the necessary room to make it to the line.  But at the last moment before taking off, Aaron second-guessed himself and threw uncatchable balls in Adams’ general direction.

Rodgers finished the day just 4 of 11 (36.36%) in the red zone for just 28 yards (2.55 yards/attempt).  He did cap two drives with touchdown passes, but left two other big ones on the table.  Eight of the 11 passes went to Adams, who caught only three of them.

Even the traditional Green Bay weather let them down.  The snow predicted all week never showed up.  The day was chilly (29 degrees at kickoff) but dry.  As the game started, the sun even came out – shining brilliantly, of course, on the Tampa Bay sideline.

For the fourth time, now, in the last seven seasons, the Packers have fallen one win short of the Super Bowl.  This time, though, the problem wasn’t the roster.  The team they fielded two Sunday’s ago was every bit talented enough to win that game.  But they weren’t mentally and emotionally ready to beat a vulnerable Tampa Bay team.

And those are the questions they will have to find answers for over the long, long offseason.

What to Make of the Buccaneers?

And so it’s off to the Super Bowl for Tampa Bay – just the way everyone thought it would be when they signed Brady.  As we’ve kind of documented all season, this team has transformed itself from mid-season to this point.  The change has been less about Brady than it’s been about the philosophy around him.  Two big commitments this team has made have transformed this group.

First, this Tampa Bay team is committed to balance.  The Bucs ran the ball 24 times against Green Bay – and this even though their running game was almost entirely unproductive.  The 24 runs produced just 76 yards (3.2 per), but even that is a little misleading.  Remove Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run, and Tampa Bay’s other 23 runs managed just 56 yards (2.4 per), as this team found it all but impossible to dislodge Kenny Clark from the middle and/or Dean Lowry from the edge.

Only five of their other 22 running attempts (subtracting Brady’s final kneel-down) managed as many as four yards.  And yet, they kept running.  This discipline shows considerable growth in offensive philosophy.

The other, even more spectacular commitment, was to keeping Tom Brady upright in the pocket.  If you will think back to the mid-season 38-3 beating they absorbed from New Orleans, you will remember Brady getting hammered on nearly every pass play.  In the playoffs, they have now faced three of football’s better pass rushes, with Tom rarely disturbed behind center.

Two Sundays ago, they made Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith disappear.  Tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs handled him with little incident.  But it’s more than just stellar play from their tackles.  Tampa Bay is now willingly committing extra shoulders to pass blocking.  It’s become almost common to see them keeping seven – and sometimes more – in to block.  Late in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers answered a six-man pass rush from Green Bay with 8 blockers – leaving just two receivers in the route.

For the game, in 37 drop-backs, Brady was essentially unbothered 73% of the time.  Of the times that he did see some pressure, only 4 times (10.8%) was it significant pressure (he was hit three times and sacked just once).  Wary of his great experience, Green Bay blitzed him infrequently – only 8 times – and almost always with no success.  They did force one interception, but the other seven times, they didn’t get especially close.  He completed 5 of the other 7 passes against the Packer blitzes for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Extra men in blocking makes blitzing as especially dangerous proposition against this offense.

But even as things have improved on the Suncoast, the frankensteining of the mostly disparate Arians and Brady core offenses still leaks in spots.  As witnessed by their presence in Super Bowl LV, this is a very dangerous offense, but not indefensible.

Offensive Issues Still Un-Reconciled

One of the curious developments over time in Tampa Bay is that even as the running game has become more and more physical, the passing part of the offense – especially the quarterback – has become almost contact-phobic.  I said earlier that Za’Daruis Smith disappeared.  That’s not entirely fair.  A lot of the reason the Packer pass rush was AWOL was nothing more than Brady’s penchant for unloading the ball at the first hint of trouble.  I would say that on about half of Smith’s rushes, Brady had the ball out of his hands before Za’Darius had taken his third step.

On those rare instances when Green Bay could put a little pressure on Tom, the results were worthwhile.  It was only six times that they hurried him without hitting him, but Brady was only 3 for 6 for just 9 yards on those plays.

It has gotten increasingly hard to pressure Tom, and this will be Kansas City’s challenge.  The teams they have faced so far in the playoffs have featured edge rushers.  In Chris Jones, Kansas City has one of football’s better middle rushers.  It could make a difference.

The other thing that has become very obvious about Tampa Bay is that they are still very “big play” dependent.  The team that can force them to put together long drives will probably shut this offense down.  In three playoff games – totaling 33 drives – Tampa Bay has put together just 4 ten-play drives – all resulting in field goals.

Further, in those three games, the Bucs have scored 10 touchdowns – 6 of them off of turnovers.

While scoring touchdowns after taking the ball away from your opponent is praiseworthy execution (and a skill that will win a good many games), what happens when you run into an opponent that doesn’t turn the ball over and doesn’t give up the big play.  What happens if Kansas City doesn’t shoot itself in the foot the way that Green Bay did? 

Going into the Super Bowl depending on Patrick Mahomes to miss Travis Kelce multiple times when he is wide open in the end zone is probably not a winning game plan.

Which brings us to Tampa Bay’s defense

Not Really In the Zone

Trading off the higher completion percentages usually allowed by zone defenses with the greater yardage per completion usually seen against man defenses, Aaron Rodgers’ performance against the Bucs didn’t show a great deal of difference between man and zone.

With the coverages not quite as airtight as they were against New Orleans, Aaron was 11-for-19 against Tampa Bay’s man coverages for 171 yards (15.55 yards per completion) and 2 touchdowns (with the one interception) – a 100.99 passer rating.  When faced with zone (which Tampa Bay played on 58.5% of Rodgers’ pass attempts) Aaron completed 22-of-29 (75.86%) for another 175 yards (just 7.95 yards per completion) and another touchdown – a 101.94 passer rating.

This number, though, doesn’t justly describe Tampa Bay’s weaknesses in zone coverage – a fact that makes their reliance on it all the more surprising.  Aaron Rodgers’ very first pass of the game – against the Tampa zone – is instructive.

The Buccaneers are in quarters’ coverage.  The outside corners, Davis and Jamel Dean, allow outside receivers Lazard and Tonyan to run right past them without so much as a look.  Rodgers could have thrown deep to either of them.

Inside, the safeties (who had no outside responsibilities, anyway) were not in a position to help as they were occupied watching tight end Marcedes Lewis settle into the deepish middle.  Lewis wasn’t open at this point, as linebacker Lavonte David kept dropping deep with Marcedes.  But, when running back Jones circled out of the backfield and settled into the flat, David dropped the deeper route to defend Aaron in the flat.  Rodgers delivered the ball to Lewis the moment David left him for 14 yards and a first down – a productive play, but still a curiosity that he didn’t opt for either of the open deep routes.

With 6:35 left in the third quarter, Tampa in cover-four, linebacker Devin White found himself responsible for the short zone to the offensive right side.  But White repeatedly displays a strange unwillingness to leave the middle of the field.  Even as both Adams and running back AJ Dillon floated out into the open spaces of the right underneath zone, Devin had set up camp in between the hash-marks, effectively leaving Carlton Davis to cover the entire right side of the field – setting up as easy a 13-yard catch and run as Dillon is likely to get.

White and David are great athletes.  Their raw speed gives them sideline-to-sideline range against the run and makes them more than passable in man coverage.  When Tampa Bay played man, Lavonte David was usually covering excellent tight end Tonyan.  Robert – as a result – didn’t even have a target against man coverage, making all four of his catches (for 22 yards) against zones.

But both are liabilities in zone coverage.  White, in particular, has no instinct for it.  He has no feel for when he should keep dropping and when he should move up to take away the short route; for when he should expand his zone to the sideline, and when it’s OK to hang out in the middle of the field.  He doesn’t sense the receiver behind him the way that many of the better zone defenders do.

As a result, Rodgers was 10-for-11 passing against White, 2-for-2 when Devin was in man coverage (against running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones) and 8-for-9 against his zone responsibilities – the lone incompletion logged against him coming when Jones dropped a pass in the flat.

It’s an issue that the Chiefs must certainly have noticed.

On the play mentioned above, Tampa Bay blitzed while playing zone behind it.  Blitzing is the one reliable card in coordinator Todd Bowles deck – and in some ways the best thing they did on defense against the Pack.  As far as pressure goes, the blitz didn’t work all that well.  Of the 25 blitzes that they unleashed on Rodgers, they only reached him with significant pressure twice – including no sacks. (In one of the most unusual playoff lines in memory, the two teams combined for 33 total blitzes, but neither team recorded a sack off the blitz).

As the playoffs have started, Tampa Bay has gotten much better at getting pressure from their four-man rush.  Rushing just four, the Bucs either hit or sacked Rodgers 32.1% of the time.  Mostly responsible for the increase are rush linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett

These two have raised the level of their play noticeably during this playoff run, and were absolute mismatches for Green Bay tackles Ricky Wagner and Billy Turner.  Wagner, of course, has taken the place of star tackle David Bakhtiari, who ended the season on injured reserve.  To date, Wagner has been much praised, as the offense seems not to have missed a beat in Bakhtiari’s absence.

But on Championship Sunday, he wasn’t able to contain either of the pass-rushing linemen.  This is an important development.  Remember that Kansas City lost a starting offensive tackle (Eric Fisher) in their win over Buffalo.  If Barrett and Pierre-Paul can have their way with Wagner, it’s not hard to imagine that they could wreck similar havoc against KC’s backup lineman.

Even without pressuring the Packer quarterback, the Tampa Bay blitzes did alter the Green Bay passing attack.  When Tampa Bay rushed only four, Aaron completed 15 of 23 passes for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns – a 118.39 passer rating.  When he was blitzed, those numbers regressed to 18-for-25 for 164 yards (just 9.11 per completion) and an interception to offset the lone touchdown pass – an 86.08 rating.

You will note that his completion percentage is higher when blitzed (72% to 65.22%), but for shorter yardage as Rodgers’ frequent response to the blitz was a check-down.  The blitz also rushed the throw that turned into the interception.

Entering the post-season as the fifth-most blitzing team in the NFL (at 39%), Tampa Bay upped the ante against Green Bay, sending an extra rusher at Rodgers 47.2% of the time.  They came 50% of the time when they were in man coverage, and – surprisingly – 45.2% of the time when they were in zone – a nod to the necessity of getting some kind of pressure to protect the zone coverages.

On successive plays beginning with the play at 12:20 of the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay brought both cornerbacks off the slot, playing zone behind a six-man pass rush – a move that was, at the same time, brilliant and fool-hardy.  The foolishness was the expectation that a defense that struggled to play disciplined zone defense with seven players wouldn’t be much worse with only five in coverage.

On both occasions, the weakened zone invited big plays against it.  On the first play, the two deep safeties – who always play exceedingly deep – dropped even deeper as they converged on Adams’ deep-middle route.  This allowed Green Bay to high-low White, the only defender left to cover the entire middle of the field.  Allen Lazard settled in the flat underneath and Marquez Valdes-Scantling curled in deep behind White.  True to form, Devin dropped coverage on the deeper route to cover the shorter route.

On the second play, Valdes-Scantling was mostly ignored as he streaked up the right sideline.  Meanwhile to the left side, White (who had underneath responsibility) kept dropping deeper and deeper to try to keep level with Lazard – even while Jamaal Williams and Davante Adams were both setting up underneath him in his zone, Jamaal running the short underneath route and Adams weighing in about five-yards further downfield.

The fact that Tampa Bay was burned neither time is due – in part – to the continued questionable decision-making by Rodgers, and – in part – to the brilliant aspect of the plan (the two corner blitzes further stressing the tackles who were already struggling to contain Jason and Shaq). 

The outside rushes affected both plays.  Quick pressure form Murphy-Bunting forced Rodgers to check down to Williams rather than taking the deep shot to Valdes-Scantling on the second play.  On the first play, Jamel Dean, the other blitzing corner, hit Rodgers as he was throwing – forcing an incompletion.  On that occasion, Aaron had eschewed the wide open shorter routes and was trying to throw deep down the middle to Davante Adams – even though he was the only receiver who was actually covered on the play.

Had Aaron not been hit when he threw, that pass might well have been intercepted.

This, then, is the state of the Tampa Bay defense – and offense, for that matter – as they head into their showdown with Kansas City.  They are a dangerous, but big-play reliant offense that will struggle to put together long drives.  That offense is backed by a defense that is much better in man than in zone – that for some reason is adamant about playing a lot of zone.  In either coverage, they will almost certainly not be good enough to slow the Kansas City offense – unless they get a substantial pass rush.

If Kansas City can keep Tom Brady from completing the big strike (admittedly easier said than done), can avoiding giving them short fields on turnovers, and can reasonably protect Mahomes, this could be a long afternoon for Tampa Bay.