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.
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.
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.