Film Room: Tampa Bay Defense

Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Lavonte David
Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Lavonte David
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

In hindsight, it is not so hard to understand how the Kansas City Chiefs offense collapsed the way it did. The offensive line was decimated, both due to injuries from earlier in the season as well as injuries to left tackle Eric Fisher in the playoffs. Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes also had turf toe, which only served to exacerbate any issues with the offensive line. The Chiefs offense was not operating at full capacity.

Now, that is not an excuse, nor is it a means to downplay what the Bucs defense did on Sunday. Holding Mahomes to zero touchdowns is a feat, regardless of circumstance. Tampa Bay still had to craft a sharp game plan to take advantage of Kansas City's offense being hobbled.

We can suggest a number of factors, both in terms of scheme and execution, as the reason the Bucs came out on top. The pass rush was dominant all game long and with very few added blitzers, which is uncharacteristic of a Todd Bowles-led defense. Tampa Bay's cornerbacks played tough, effective press coverage all game. Bowles, in contrast to his typical approach, turned to a ton of two-deep coverages to put a hard cap on Kansas City's vertical game. It was a master class from both the coaches and players.

The culmination of all those factors working together was how well the Bucs defense took away the intermediate-to-deep middle area from Mahomes. Whether it was good zone spacing, posting the No. 3 (innermost receiver) against trips, or poaching over routes with the back-side safety, the Bucs defense almost always had an answer for the posts, seams, and overs that the Chiefs live off of. Mahomes was regularly forced to move onto his next read, which often led to him bailing out of the pocket considering how the Bucs' front was performing.

Below is one of the few instances in which the Bucs brought pressure on Sunday. The Bucs show five on the line of scrimmage from this 3-2-6 dime personnel, putting both linebackers over a guard. The linebackers pop off the line of scrimmage, while blitzing safeties replace them on either side to create a three-deep, three-under pressure. Doing so puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers to bail, locate the biggest threat to their zone, leverage it, and get eyes back to the quarterback.

Devin White (45) does a great job popping off the line of scrimmage over the right guard to do just that. White gets his depth in a hurry, then flips his hips back open and slides back to the middle of the field (right across the Super Bowl LV logo) with eyes on the quarterback, squeezing the window on the middle curl so that it's never open between White and Lavonte David's zone on the opposite side of the field. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill does well to recognize the broken play and get vertical, and it almost works out for the Chiefs, but White did well to shut down this play the way it's drawn on the whiteboard. Though not the sexiest play, it's good, sound defensive football.

This time, White (right hash) is the "poster" in a match-quarters coverage. White is responsible for walling off the No. 3 receiver from cutting inside and re-routing him vertically. With speed (i.e., a wide receiver) at the No. 3 spot, it's common for defenses to check to a call that will not ask the linebacker to carry the No. 3 and instead post it off for a poaching safety, which is what happens here. Even as fast as Hill (the No. 3 here) is off the line of scrimmage, White still manages to expand and contact him just enough to force him to widen a bit before he runs the deep over route. Mahomes opens to the weak side and is forced to bail out of the pocket before getting his eyes over to the strong side anyway, but it's still good process from White to post this well enough to pass it off to the poaching safety on the back side.

Here is another example of the strong-side linebacker playing with good spacing to pass off a route to a poaching safety. In this case, the strong-side linebacker is David (54, to the offense's right), who quite often followed Travis Kelce across the field. Even in the previous clip, David was playing weak because Kelce was to that side, yet he's playing strong here because Kelce is to that side. Anyway, David does well to expand into Kelce while gaining depth to the sticks, then flip his hips and eyes inside once Kelce gets past him. David's excellent spacing and eyes on the quarterback squeeze the window on this route right into the poaching safety, whose job is to handle the No. 3 vertical and/or across the field at this depth. Mahomes tries to hold out for his tight end to get open, but Kelce never does, resulting in a huge first-down sack for the Bucs.

The Bucs are poaching with the back-side safety again here. Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) is the poach player outside the right hash. As soon as Winfield sees the iso wide receiver do anything other than immediately burst off the line of scrimmage (i.e., to threaten a dig, post, etc.), it's his job to get his eyes back to the field and poach any crossers/overs coming back to him. With some help from nickel Sean Murphy-Bunting squeezing the No. 2 across the field, the middle of the field once again gets closed on Mahomes, forcing another sack.

Some of the Bucs' match coverages instead had the strong safety picking up the No. 3 vertical and/or across the field. Which style of match coverage the Bucs (or any defense) wants to play just depends on what or who exactly the defense wants to take away. If an offense's key threats (or "speed") are to the trips side, maybe keeping the strong safety over top and having the safety poach (and leaving the iso receiver with less guaranteed coverage) is the move. On the flip side, if the offense has their best guy all alone opposite the trips side, maybe locking the weak safety into a deep-half to ensure extra help over the top there is better.

Here is a good clip of the latter. To the bottom of the screen, cornerback Carlton Davis is in press coverage with a safety bailing deep and wide to play a deep half. The Bucs are not letting Hill, the iso receiver, win over the top. To the strong side, the safety is reading the stems of the No. 2 and No. 3 to match them vertically. The No. 2 goes under early and the No. 3 gets vertical beyond 5 yards, prompting the safety to match the deepest of the two threats, the No. 3. Mahomes tries to work back to the No. 3 cutting inside, but the safety drives on the inside shoulder in a hurry and takes the No. 3 away, again forcing Mahomes to scramble around.

Everything the Bucs defense did felt one step ahead of the Chiefs offense. The game plan was excellent and all 11 players did their jobs. Mahomes still had his usual handful of hero plays, but the Chiefs' down-to-down consistency just was not there because of how well the Bucs defense executed their plan.

It was a perfect confluence of factors for the Bucs. A slightly-hobbled Mahomes behind an all-time horrific offensive line is a good place to start for any defense. Still, it was a historic performance against an otherwise unstoppable Chiefs offense, and the Bucs defense deserves all the praise in the world for pulling it off on the biggest stage.


16 comments, Last at 19 Feb 2021, 12:10pm

#1 by Pat // Feb 11, 2021 - 11:30am

I've been crowing about David and White's play since the Super Bowl. It was crazy good. 

There've been criticisms of Reid for not running more, which is nuts - look at all the plays that are here (except the first play, which is 3rd and 10). The linebackers are all pretty tight to the line (except *maybe* the second play, but even still they're not that deep there). You're not going to check to a run against a box like that.

Which is the 'crazy good' part. Near perfect pass coverage while not cheating on the run at all. For a Reid offense that's already bad - couple that with pressure and Kelce having a bad day and that's game over.

Of course the even more insane thing is that if Kelce hadn't had a bad day, that game would've been competitive - even with the Bucs playing lights-out defense.

Points: 0

#2 by BigRichie // Feb 11, 2021 - 11:36am

What with the hilariously botched KC timeouts end of half, the game was never competitive. And I really don't think it would've been even without that free TD. The Buc offense could've done a lot more in the 2nd half than it did if so needed.

Points: 0

#8 by DIVISION // Feb 11, 2021 - 6:15pm

In reply to by BigRichie

I was looking at that and hoping Brady and co. would kill clock because I needed the 49 under for the game.  I also needed at least 40 total points for another prop bet.

I was very fortunate for that last FG.

I can't believe I missed the Gronker TD props.  It was sitting there, just begging to be taken.

I missed out on my parlays which involved a Brady MVP, over 220 YP, Fournette TD...



Points: 0

#7 by MilkmanDanimal // Feb 11, 2021 - 2:37pm

I think you can also look at that game and feel the Bucs defense actually underperformed a bit in the sense they only came away with two picks, and the latter of those was irrelevant.  We're all going to remember Mahomes making those insane throws that were almost caught, but "almost caught" is "almost intercepted", and he had at least a half-dozen throws or so that could have easily been picked off, and it's pretty miraculous only two of them were.

Points: 0

#9 by DIVISION // Feb 11, 2021 - 6:18pm

What game were you watching?

They were more cognizant of pass break-ups than INT.

If you recall, most of the important breakups on those long Mahomes incompletions were well in reach of Bucs defenders.

Mostly what I see is people saying Chiefs receivers should have caught those passes, ignoring the fact that Bucs were screening them out and had hands in their faces.  The fact that the ball hit two receivers in the facemask speaks to their inability to clearly see the ball.

Bucs defense performed well.  

Points: 0

#11 by ImNewAroundThe… // Feb 11, 2021 - 8:51pm

Agreed. If people think that running the clock down (against the best rush d no less) was the way to go, is adhering to the wrong era of football. The LBs are insanely fast. 

Points: 0

#3 by BigRichie // Feb 11, 2021 - 11:43am

Yeah, the pass rush got the attention, but the Bucs did an astounding job of covering the receivers. Especially in that first half, shut down everything deep while also accomplishing tight windows on all the short stuff, too. Extensive YAC on those short completions was never a possibility. The defender was always right there.

Considering the opposition, I think this may have been the best coverage I've ever seen. For me, replacing the previous Bucs Super Bowl thumping (which was aided by having that offense's architect now on your sideline)

Points: 0

#4 by BigRichie // Feb 11, 2021 - 11:48am

Draw plays can be effective both against zone blitzers (run at the guys who drop off; do have to guess right there, then) and teeing off D-linemen. But do the Chiefs actually run those? (asking you Chief fans) Seems to me they Andy far more prefers screens.

Points: 0

#6 by barf // Feb 11, 2021 - 12:48pm

They were running a delayed handoff to Clyde early on that was working. Not sure why they went away from that, but you make a good point. 

Points: 0

#5 by Raiderfan // Feb 11, 2021 - 12:18pm

Really great explanation—except for the part where you miss explaining how a “hobbled” Mahomes managed to run for almost 500 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Points: 0

#10 by DIVISION // Feb 11, 2021 - 6:21pm

He was running backwards to elude rushers.

The turf toe was serious, but he could still run, obviously.

His running is an undervalued part of his game.  He'll never be a Murray or Jackson, but he can be sneaky fast.


Points: 0

#15 by gomer_rs // Feb 16, 2021 - 8:34pm

Mahomes is probably more mobile than Russel Wilson despite their comparative reputations for mobility.

Points: 0

#13 by Wifan6562 // Feb 14, 2021 - 10:09pm

Yeah I agree with you here. It was part of the pregame story, but I saw nothing during the actual game to indicate he had an issue. 

Points: 0

#12 by Theo // Feb 13, 2021 - 6:25am

Am I really the only one that had White for MVP?

Dude was everywhere. 

Maybe I was paying too much attention to him and David. 

Now only if the networks would use the camera that is BEHIND the QB instead of in front...

Points: 0

#14 by DisplacedPackerFan // Feb 15, 2021 - 3:46pm

I even used bold text in the Super Bowl discussion thread to say White for MVP. Though my arguments were more about knowing his role on the defense and the front 7 being the big reason for the win. I know that with how I process visual information and the camera angles used in network broadcasts I can't really keep up with the nuances of anything outside the lines, the QB, and the running backs. Even running back route running gets murky because you don't see most of them. After getting more time to look at things and having access to different angles it's even more clear that White was the MVP.

As for better broadcast angles, I agree. More casual fans are very used to the angles that were developed in part because of 4:3 aspect ratio and lower def broadcasts. After 16:9 and at least 480p became the standards in the late 90's early 2000's they really should have started changing more than they did. We did get more wide shots, but the old methods developed from the 60's till then still dominate today. 

It would be nice if the better angles got more integrated during live play and not just occasional replay. Fans would get used to it and appreciate it more. Use the wider angles for live play, then show the close ups for replay to really emphasis that hit, or broken tackle, or pushing the pile.

Points: 0

#16 by halbort // Feb 19, 2021 - 12:10pm

They tried. But a lot of people complained.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Derrik
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Derrik Klassen. Use promo code DERRIK to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Derrik.