QR Bonus: Keys to Beating Kansas City
Last week, we looked at the worst games that Tampa Bay played this year, searching for weaknesses that might cost the Buccaneers a Lombardi Trophy. Today, we're going to do the same for Tampa Bay's Super Bowl opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs.
By DVOA, Kansas City's worst games this season (with a couple of asterisks) were, in chronological order:
- Week 1: Houston Texans 20 at Kansas City Chiefs 34. It says a lot about how good the Chiefs are that in one of their worst games of the year -- indeed, the worst game you'll read about in this column, by DVOA -- they still won by two touchdowns. And it really wasn't even that close -- Kansas City went up 31-7 early in the fourth quarter before allowing a pair of too-little, too-late touchdown drives. It was the usual big day for the Chiefs offense, though their defense did struggle, especially against the run -- in his first game in Houston, David Johnson gained 77 yards and a touchdown in only 11 carries. Will Fuller was Houston's other star, catching eight passes for 112 yards in 10 targets.
- Week 2: Kansas City Chiefs 23 at Los Angeles Chargers 20 (OT). This was Justin Herbert's debut for L.A., and he shined, throwing for 311 yards and a touchdown. The Chargers also steamrolled Kansas City for 183 yards on the ground. Los Angeles opened up a 17-6 lead before a back-and-forth fourth quarter saw Kansas City tie the game twice -- once on a 54-yard Tyreek Hill touchdown reception, then on a 30-yard Harrison Butker field goal at the gun. In overtime, the Chiefs forced a Chargers three-and-out (you probably shouldn't punt on fourth-and-1 against Patrick Mahomes in overtime) and won on a 58-yard Butker kick.
- Week 5: Las Vegas Raiders 40 at Kansas City Chiefs 32. Here it is, Mahomes' only loss in his last 26 starts including the playoffs. And it took a firestorm to make it happen -- Kansas City actually led 21-10 midway through the second quarter before the Raiders pillaged them with a 30-3 run. They did it with the big play; Derek Carr threw for 347 yards on 22 completions, an average of more than 15 yards per catch. Henry Ruggs had 118 yards and a touchdown on only two catches. Nelson Agholor and Hunter Renfrow also had 40-yard catches for Las Vegas. Mahomes did finish with 340 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he also threw an interception and was sacked three times.
- Week 11: Las Vegas Raiders 31 at Kansas City Chiefs 35. Yup, it's the Raiders again. This time the game was a back-and-forth affair that saw five lead changes in the second half, the last of those a 22-yard Travis Kelce touchdown catch that gave the Chiefs the win. It was a big night for the Chiefs' offensive stars -- Kelce had eight catches for 127 yards and a score, Hill had 11-102-1, and Mahomes finished with 348 yards. The Raiders' numbers weren't quite as spectacular; Carr only threw for 275 yards, though he did connect with Agholor, Darren Waller, and Jason Witten for touchdowns.
- Week 16: Atlanta Falcons 14 at Kansas City Chiefs 17. This was a weird game, for many reasons. It is one of two games the past two years in which Kansas City has failed to score 20 points or more. (The other was a 19-13 loss to Indianapolis in 2019.) The Falcons defense reeled in two interceptions in their own end zone, including one thrown to Mahomes by Sammy Watkins on a trick play. They should have had a third, but A.J. Terrell dropped one that might have iced the game for the Falcons. Instead, Mahomes hit Demarcus Robinson on the next play for a 25-yard touchdown, which proved to be the winning score when Younghoe Koo missed a 39-yarder on Atlanta's last drive. Mahomes' 44 passes produced only 278 yards; Kelce and Hill combined for 11 catches for 163 yards and a score, but it took them 19 targets to get there. It was a reasonably good day for Kansas City's defense, compared to the other games on this list, though Atlanta's two touchdown drives were long, covering 98 and 75 yards. Calvin Ridley had 130 yards on only five catches, the longest a 54-yarder.
If you're looking for Kansas City's 38-21 loss to the Chargers in Week 17, we threw it out. The Chiefs benched everyone that day -- 13 of their 22 starters were making their first start of the year, and only one (linebacker Damien Wilson) started more than eight other games all season. For the record, they still had an offensive DVOA of 5.9%, better than two of the games on this list, but their defensive DVOA of 40.8% was by far their worst of the year.
Some of you have also noticed that there are five games on this list instead of our usual four. That's because in two of these games -- the wins over the Raiders and Chargers -- their overall DVOA came in at exactly 12.2%. Rather than calculate that out to X decimal places to filter one or the other out, we just listed all five games.
It's also notable that with the obvious exception of Atlanta, these were all familiar opponents for Kansas City -- three games against division rivals, and one against a Houston team they had played twice the year before. Does this mean that experience against Kansas City is an advantage, and that Tampa Bay's 27-24 loss to the Chiefs in Week 12 might have taught them some valuable lessons? Unfortunately for them it appears the opposite is true; Kansas City usually plays better the second time around. They have played 13 rematches in the Mahomes era (nine divisional games, plus four playoff games against teams they played in the regular season) and gone 10-3, outscoring their opponents by 10.1 points per game -- and that's including the Chargers game this year when they clearly weren't trying. In the first round of those pairings, Kansas City went 9-4 and only outscored their opponents by 6.8 points per game, about a field goal worse.
It's also unfortunate for Tampa Bay that they are facing Patrick Mahomes, and even at Kansas City's worst, their quarterback was still very dangerous. He was definitely less efficient than his usual standards -- his 62% completion rate would have been among the worst in the NFL this year, and his 7.0 yards per pass would have been in the middle of the pack -- but he still threw 11 touchdowns with only three interceptions and five sacks. (That last number is kind of shocking -- it indicates that defenses shouldn't even bother trying to put Mahomes on the ground, just limit the damage he can do through the air.) His top receivers, as they were most of the year, were Kelce and Hill. It was a watered-down version of the normal Kansas City passing attack, but it worked. They averaged 28.2 points in these, their bad games. That's a top-10 scoring rate, even in this year with its elevated offense.
Where Kansas City's offense really changed in these games is in the rushing game -- which got better. No, really. Including scrambles (but not kneeldowns), they averaged 119.8 yards per game and 4.95 yards per carry in their worst performances, up from 109.5 and 4.55 in their other 11 outings. Their rush offense DVOA climbed from -8.0% to -0.9%. It appears that one of the keys to containing Kansas City's offense (as much as anyone was able to do that in 2020) was to let them run all over you, because even their best days rushing are still less effective than Mahomes, even when he's not at his sharpest.
That would represent a major philosophical shift for Todd Bowles' Tampa Bay defense. It's not just that they were better against the run (-31.4% DVOA, first) than they were against the pass (-5.4%, fifth). Their entire defensive game plan seemed to be built around convincing opponents not to run in the first place. By official NFL numbers, only 35% of offensive snaps against Tampa Bay were run plays, the lowest rate in the NFL. That's partly because they were often ahead in the second half and opponents were forced to pass, but opponents only ran the ball 49% of the time when they had a lead in the second half, which was also the lowest rate in the league. When the score was tied or the Buccaneers were ahead, opponents ran 29% of the time, which was sixth-lowest. This is a defense that wants the opponent to put the ball in the air as often as possible, but that's not a good way to play football against Kansas City!
What is a good way to play football against Kansas City is to abuse their porous defense and match them score for score. That starts with their run defense, which was second-worst in the league in DVOA, and played even worse than that in most of these games. Though they largely bottled up the Raiders' Josh Jacobs, they gave up 93 yards on 16 carries to L.A.'s Austin Ekeler, 78 on 12 to Las Vegas' Devontae Booker, and 46 on 10 to Atlanta's Ito Smith, in addition to David Johnson's 7.0-yard average we mentioned earlier. This could all be a good omen for Leonard Fournette, who has emerged as Tampa Bay's top runner in the playoffs after a quiet regular season. He didn't do much in the NFC Championship Game, but had 66 total rushing DYAR in the wild-card and divisional rounds.
It's the Chiefs pass defense that really struggled, however. Granted these games came against some very good quarterbacks -- Carr, Herbert, Deshaun Watson, and Matt Ryan -- but none of those men completed 70.4% or averaged 9.2 yards per throw this year, as they collectively did against the Chiefs. They also combined for 10 touchdowns with only four interceptions. They were sacked 11 times, but that hardly seemed to matter. Is this a good omen for Tom Brady, as Kansas City's run defense was for Fournette? Well, not necessarily.
A look at those team's top receivers against the Chiefs shows some wide receivers, but also a lot of tight ends (Darren Waller, Hunter Henry, Hayden Hurst) and running backs (Ekeler, David Johnson, Joshua Kelley, Todd Gurley). As we talked about last week, the Chiefs love to take away throws to wide receivers, but they will give up easy receiving yards to tight ends (61.7 yards per game, third-worst) and running backs (48.3, next to last). And, as we also talked about last week, Brady was much more effective this season when throwing to his wideouts than anywhere else.
The key, however, is not at which position those players were listed, it's how they did their damage -- the average reception allowed by Kansas City's defense in these games gained 7.0 yards after the catch. That's staggering -- the league average this season was only 5.1. This was a problem all year for Kansas City, who allowed 5.8 YAC per catch; only Miami was worse. That includes 4.9 YAC to wide receivers, 5.7 YAC to tight ends, and 8.0 YAC to running backs, ranking among the bottom seven defenses in all three categories.
Tampa Bay's offense, however, is built around deep throws, not yards after the catch -- they were 25th with 4.6 YAC per reception. Their wide receivers were mediocre in this department (4.3 average YAC, 15th), while their tight ends (4.0, 28th) and running backs (6.1, 29th) were both dreadful.
We have now looked at the worst games for both Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and in that sample it seems clear that the Chiefs are the team better equipped to exploit their opponents' weaknesses in the Super Bowl. The Bucs are far from hopeless -- they were the better team by DVOA and weighted DVOA, and they should have an advantage on the ground and in the red zone. But to win the Lombardi Trophy, they'll likely have to play a style of game unlike any they have played all year, taking away the pass instead of the run and finding some way to generate yards after the catch.