QR Bonus: Keys to Beating Tampa Bay
Each year at this time, we like to devote our Quick Reads columns to the two teams headed to the Super Bowl, looking not at when they played at their best, but when they played at their worst. The Buccaneers and Chiefs are great teams, yes, but they are not perfect. What weaknesses were opponents able to exploit and make these championship clubs look beatable -- and in some cases, beaten? Since Tampa Bay was the first team to officially clinch a berth in the Super Bowl, we'll start with them today, and cover Kansas City next week.
According to DVOA, these were the Bucs' worst four games this season, in chronological order:
- Week 5: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 19 at Chicago Bears 20. The Bucs came into Soldier Field on a Thursday night and took a 13-0 lead midway through the second quarter, but the Bears rallied to go up 14-13 at halftime. The teams traded field goals in the second half, with Cairo Santos' 38-yarder providing the final score. The Bucs had one more chance to take the lead, but failed on fourth down just shy of midfield. Tom Brady and Nick Foles (remember him?) finished with very similar statlines, with 40-some pass attempts for 250-ish yards with one touchdown and three sacks each. The Bucs had a big edge on the ground, outgaining Chicago 106 to 35 in rushing yards, but struggled to get into the end zone, finishing with one touchdown and four field goals while the Bears had two of each.
- Week 8: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 25 at New York Giants 23. In a back-and-forth Monday night affair, the Bucs and Giants produced five go-ahead scores between them. Tampa Bay got a field goal to go up 25-17 late in the game, but their defense allowed Daniel Jones to throw what could have been a game-tying 19-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, only for the two-point attempt to come up short. It was another frustrating game for Tampa Bay's offense, as they kicked four more field goals while only getting two touchdowns. (The Giants had three touchdowns and one field goal.) The passing numbers for both teams were again fairly even, but the Giants outrushed Tampa Bay 101 to 81, with each team getting 24 carries.
- Week 9: New Orleans Saints 38 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3. By DVOA, this was Tampa Bay's only truly bad game of the year … but good gravy was it a bad game, clocking in at -97.1%. Despite the adjustments for playing New Orleans, only four games all season were lower by DVOA. (The worst was New England's -110.3% DVOA in a 33-6 loss to San Francisco in Week 7.) The Saints led 31-0 at halftime, and Tampa Bay didn't score until Ryan Succop hit a field goal with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Bucs set an NFL record with only five running plays, and that includes a Blaine Gabbert kneeldown at the end of the game. The Saints, meanwhile, gained 138 yards on 37 carries (including five kneeldowns of their own), and doubled the Buccaneers in both first downs (27 to 13) and total yardage (420 to 194). Drew Brees threw four touchdowns; Brady threw three interceptions. A complete debacle on every level.
- Week 12: Kansas City Chiefs 27 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24. It must be unnerving for Bucs fans to see the Super Bowl opponent Chiefs on the other side of one of Tampa Bay's worst games, but it also speaks to how consistent the Buccaneers were that they played a dozen games better than a three-point loss to the eventual AFC champions. Regardless, this is best remembered as the Tyreek Hill game, when Kansas City's star wideout gained 139 yards on three touchdown catches -- including 44- and 75-yard scores in the first quarter alone -- on his way to a 13-catch, 269-yard day. Those two plays put Kansas City up 17-0, and Hill's 20-yarder put them up 27-10 in the third quarter. Mike Evans caught a pair of touchdowns to pull Tampa Bay within three points, but the Chiefs took the ensuing kickoff with 4:10 left to play and ran out the rest of the clock. Hill was obviously the big star of the day, but Patrick Mahomes also finished with 462 yards on 49 passes. Due to their early deficit, the Bucs only ran the ball 13 times, but still managed 75 yards. For his part, Brady managed 345 yards on 41 passes.
The most obvious takeaway from these four games is that the Bucs, at their worst, were still usually pretty good. That Saints loss is their only game with a DVOA below 0.0%. Their second-worst DVOA was 2.7% in the Kansas City loss. To put that into perspective, the Tennessee Titans' full-season DVOA was 2.9%, and that was good enough to win 11 games and a division title. And in their other 17 games, including the playoffs, Tampa Bay's DVOA was always 10.0% or higher. (They had several games between 10.0% and 20.0% -- the two listed here plus games against the Saints, Falcons, and Rams, along with the wild-card win over Washington.) It's clear that Kansas City is going to have their hands full in the Super Bowl.
But these games did expose some of Tampa Bay's flaws, including occasional difficulty finishing drives -- their offense only scored seven touchdowns in these games while settling for 10 field goal attempts (all of which were good). In their other 12 games, the Bucs offense scored 51 touchdowns and only attempted 21 field goals, so they have plenty of firepower, but limiting the damage they do on the scoreboard is crucial. Each of those seven touchdowns, by the way, came via the pass -- Brady is pretty much going to get his scores no matter what, so keeping Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones on the wrong side of the goal line is critical.
Also critical: limiting the damage Brady and the Bucs can do downfield. They averaged 10.6 yards per completion in these four games, 12.0 in their other 12. It's not that Brady never threw deep in his bad games -- there was virtually no change in his average depth of target -- but the results on those throws were radically different. Over the course of the season, Brady led the NFL with 143 throws, 2,075 yards, and 820 DYAR on deep balls (including DPIs) that traveled more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage; he was successful on 49% of those throws, with a DVOA of 81.7%. Against the Bears, Giants, Saints, and Chiefs, he still threw 36 deep balls, but only gained 355 yards and 36 DYAR on those throws. His success rate dropped to 36% and his DVOA to 5.3%.
An obvious corollary of where Brady likes to throw the ball is who he's throwing to. His most frequent receiver in Tampa Bay's bad games was Mike Evans, naturally, but after that we find a bunch of tight ends and running backs -- Rob Gronkowski, Jones, Fournette, Cameron Brate. This is partly because neither Chris Godwin nor Antonio Brown were available in Weeks 5 or 8, but that actually helps make the point: you don't want Brady throwing to his wide receivers, where he ranked third among qualifying quarterbacks with a DVOA of 60.4%. You'd rather he throw to his tight ends (38.8%, 12th) and you really want him throwing to his running backs (-31.2%, 29th). Jones and Fournette are both terrible as receivers, both finishing in the bottom eight in receiving DVOA despite getting to catch passes from Tom Brady, whose stellar resume includes a lot of success on passes to running backs (Kevin Faulk, James White, Shane Vereen, etc.) in New England.
This is all a mix of very good and very, very bad news for the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs like to use dime personnel with three safeties on the field -- Tyrann Mathieu, Daniel Sorensen, and Juan Thornhill ranked first, second, and fourth on the team in defensive snaps -- so it's no surprise that they excel in coverage against deep passes (third in DVOA, as opposed to 22nd against short passes). They are also tremendous at funneling passes away from wide receivers (56% of all targeted passes, second-lowest) and to tight ends (23%, fifth-most) and running backs (21%, eighth-most). That should make it hard for Tampa Bay to reach the red zone. Once they do, however, we should expect nothing but points, points, points. The Chiefs defense was last in DVOA in the red zone, last against red zone passes, and last on goal-to-go plays. Their relative strength here was against red zone runs … where they were next to last, ahead of only Miami. The advantage for Tampa Bay could hardly be any stronger.
As for Tampa Bay's defense: even in their bad games, they were still very effective against the run -- opposing running backs carried the ball 71 times in those contests but gained only 249 yards, an average of just 3.5 yards per carry. And it's not as if they were facing the Texans every week -- 60 of those carries went to (in descending order) Wayne Gallman, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, David Montgomery, Latavius Murray, Alvin Kamara, and Alfred Morris, all of whom averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry this year. The Bucs, in their worst games, still shut them down.
While running backs had no room to run, however, quarterbacks sometimes found ample space for big plays. Foles did not have a single non-kneeldown run against Tampa Bay (Why would he? He's Nick Foles!), but Jones gained 21 yards on two carries, and Mahomes had 29 yards on three. Taysom Hill, playing in relief of Brees, carried the ball seven times for 54 yards. That's 104 yards on only 12 carries, a healthy average of 8.7 yards a pop. Mahomes didn't run a ton this year, because he didn't need to, but he can still scoot when called upon -- officially, he was 10th among quarterbacks with 308 rushing yards, with a high of 54 yards against the Chargers in Week 2. He probably won't get that many in the Super Bowl, but he's a good candidate to bail Kansas City out of trouble with a big scramble on third-and-long.
Finally we get to the Bucs' pass defense, where the individual numbers tell an interesting story. With the obvious exception of Hill's big day, the receivers who did the most damage against Tampa Bay were secondary or tertiary options. Allen Robinson had 17 targets for Chicago but finished with negative DYAR; the Bears' DYAR leader against the Bucs was Cordarrelle Patterson, who only had three targets but caught each of them for 38 yards, including a pair of first downs. The Giants threw at least nine passes to each of Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram, but it was Golden Tate (two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown) who led them in DYAR. For the Saints, it was Adam Trautman, a third-round rookie tight end, who finished first in DYAR, thanks to three catches for 39 yards and a touchdown. While the Bucs usually fared just fine against superstars, it was these "secret weapon" types of players who often gave them trouble. That could be a lethal flaw against a Kansas City team that loves to get production from players deep down their list of receiving options -- the quartet of Sammy Watkins (who has not played since Week 16 due to a calf injury), Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, and Byron Pringle each averaged less than four catches per game, but they caught 10 touchdown passes between them.
There's the blueprint for Kansas City, then: rely more than usual on Mahomes' mobility and the deeper parts of his supporting cast on offense, while limiting the damage that Brady and his wide receivers can do deep downfield on defense. We'll back next week in search of a blueprint for Tampa Bay.