No different than both conference championship games, this year's Super Bowl is a rematch from the regular season. The Bucs and Chiefs squared off back in Week 12, when Kansas City squeaked by in 27-24 fashion after Tampa Bay mounted a valiant, though unsuccessful, fourth-quarter comeback attempt. As both teams gear up to face off again, now is a good time to take a look back at what may have gone wrong for the losing team the first time around.
At first glance, holding the Chiefs to just 27 points is a nice feat. Kansas City averaged just over 29 points per game in 2020, so getting them right at or just under their average ain't too shabby. The Bucs had played excellent defense all season up until that point, too, which makes a sound defensive performance against the Chiefs rather believable. Unfortunately, the final scoreboard looks far more forgiving for the Bucs than the advanced numbers and the film.
The Chiefs posted their third-best passing DVOA performance of the regular season against the Bucs defense. The Chiefs passing offense only fared better in two games all season: against the Ravens in Week 3 and the Jets in Week 8. On 49 passing attempts against Tampa Bay, Patrick Mahomes racked up 37 completions for 462 yards and three touchdowns to zero interceptions. The MVP candidate found almost everything he wanted all day long.
Tampa Bay's saving grace was their red zone defense. They stopped the Chiefs from scoring a touchdown on three consecutive red zone drives in the first half, holding them to just two field goals. One drive ended on a strip-sack via Shaq Barrett while another fell short of a touchdown in part because Travis Kelce failed to execute on a cheeky reverse pass to Mahomes on a trick play. In all, the Bucs did very well to keep red zone windows tight and rally to what was in front of them.
While all those stops were certainly helpful within the context of that single game, the Bucs probably can not bet on being that strong against Mahomes in the red zone again. The Bucs are going to have to be a better defense between the 20s if they want to keep this one close. From everything we saw in the first match between these two teams, the Bucs do not seem equipped to do that, despite being an otherwise excellent defense. They have a matchup problem.
For one, wide receiver Tyreek Hill is a horrific matchup for Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis. Davis was matched up on Hill for much of the first bout and even followed him around the field in a handful of instances. Davis is among the smartest, most physical cornerbacks in the league and is surely a good player, but he just does not have the speed to keep up with a guy such as Hill on his own. Granted, few other cornerbacks do have that kind of speed, but Davis is clearly outclassed.
Hill (10) and Davis (24) are matched up at the top of the screen. The Chiefs have a play-action call with Mahomes reading the short side of the field while Hill runs an out-and-up. With Hill being as explosive as he is and Mahomes having full faith in him, Mahomes is able to let this one rip without even looking at Hill as soon as he does not like what he sees to the two-man side of the concept. Mahomes underthrows this ball a bit, but it does not matter because Hill has earned that much separation past Davis.
For reference, Davis came out of college a couple years ago with an unofficial 4.53s 40-yard dash time, which ranks in the 37th percentile among cornerbacks. Hill ran a 4.29s 40-yard dash at his pro day. Even if we assume Hill's time is a bit generous because it was at his pro day and not the combine, the difference between the two is massive.
This time, Hill is the No. 3 (innermost) player to the trips side with Davis matched up right across from him. The Chiefs have Kelce lined up as the iso receiver to the right, which is why the Bucs choose to play "corners over" and let Davis follow Hill. The new alignment bore the same results for the Chiefs, though. Hill once again got a clear step or two past Davis, granting Mahomes a clean window for yet another deep touchdown.
The easy rebuttal is to just play Man-2 or to double Hill. If a defense really wants to remove him from the game, they could. With this Chiefs offense, though, there are simply too many other dangerous threats to constantly spend resources putting down one player every snap. No NFL defense is going to play the same coverage all game long just for the sake of keeping down one particular player either. An offensive mind such as Andy Reid is going to eat that up every time.
In trying to find something to keep the Chiefs offense down, the Bucs threw out a handful of different blitz looks. Todd Bowles has schemed up one of the most threatening blitzing fronts in the league this year, both in terms of volume and effectiveness. It's no accident that linebacker Devin White has 9.0 sacks on the season. Against most quarterbacks, there is merit in the idea that speeding up the passer's process is a better bet than playing "safe" with conservative zone shells. Against Mahomes, though, blitzes are futile. Bowles and the Bucs learned that lesson the hard way.
Here is a five-man pressure out of Cover-2, which the Bucs (and Chiefs, for that matter) like to do. The Chiefs are running a spot concept to the right side. Spot can be a base Cover-2-beater because the corner route can force the cornerback to sit high versus the snag and arrow routes, or vice versa. As such, the quarterback is typically reading off the cornerback's movements for this concept versus this coverage. However, since the Bucs fly White (45) from the field to the boundary to replace the blitzing linebacker and drop off Ndamukong Suh (93) to replace White in coveage, Mahomes immediately keys White vacating the area and "replaces" him with the ball before Suh can get over there. That funky flip of the two underneath hook players might throw another quarterback for a loop, but not Mahomes.
Another five-man pressure from Cover-2, another completion for Mahomes. This time, the Bucs try sending safety Jordan Whitehead (33) from the boundary. Both linebackers are "walling" the trips side of the formation, though, and end up leaving cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) in a bind at the bottom of the screen. It's not a sound call vs. trips to begin with, and Mahomes is sharp enough to work around it with ease. As soon as Mahomes sees Kelce (87) open to the field and Murphy-Bunting does anything other than close immediately, the ball comes out right away for another easy pitch and catch.
Calling five-man pressures from two-deep against Mahomes and the Chiefs in particular is tricky. On the one hand, of course a defense wants deep help to contain Hill while still bringing some heat. On the other hand, the Chiefs constantly play with five pass-catchers in the concept and Mahomes is as sharp as any quarterback at picking out the right target underneath and firing immediately, especially when the defense is leaving a flat cornerback alone against a tight end and a running back.
Glove things up underneath and Mahomes will win over the top; bring heat and cap the deep portion of the field, and Mahomes is just going to abuse open zones underneath. It's the headache that comes with battling a quarterback as uniquely talented as Mahomes.
Not that there are any real answers to the Chiefs offense, but nothing about the Bucs' defensive arsenal, in terms of either scheme and talent, screams that they have the formula to keep Mahomes down. The Bucs' best bet in this game is to keep up in a shootout with some great offense of their own, not praying they can keep Mahomes to a "down" game.