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.
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.