Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense devised and executed a wildly effective scheme to contain Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LV. Mahomes was held without a touchdown pass or the first time in 31 starts and his final passer rating of 52.3 was the worst of his career in any single contest. The Buccaneers won the game and their second NFL title, 31-9, and became just the third team to hold its opponent without a touchdown on Super Bowl Sunday.
Mahomes had thrown three touchdown passes and no interceptions as the Chiefs rolled up 543 yards of offense in a 27-24 win over the Buccaneers in Tampa in Week 12. The main changes to the Bucs' approach in the Super Bowl came on the back end in terms of coverage schemes. Up front, Bowles and his players went with the same philosophy they had when they met Mahomes the first time: hold off on sending extra pass-rushers because the Chiefs' star quarterback has historically dominated against the blitz.
In fact, the Buccaneers took this philosophy to the extreme in the Super Bowl. While Bowles did dial up some creative rushes with corners or safeties coming at Mahomes, they weren't necessarily blitzes as some front-line defenders would drop into coverage. Here we're defining a blitz as a drop-back on which five or more defenders come after the quarterback. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers only brought extra rushers at Mahomes on five of his 52 dropbacks, or 9.6%.
View photos from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl LV championship parade from February 10, 2021.
That was by far the lowest single-game blitz rate in 2020 for Bowles, who has long favored more aggressive game plans. The only other time all season that the Bucs blitzed on fewer than 20% of the opposition's drop-backs was that Week 12 game against Kansas City, in which they dialed up blitzes 17.3% of the time. Among the Bucs' other 18 games in 2020, only two others featured a blitz rate lower than 30% and eight had rates of 40% or higher. The Super Bowl was also the only game all year that did not feature at least one blitz of six or more defenders by the Buccaneers; all five on Sunday were five-man blitzes.
The Super Bowl approach worked as the Bucs' defensive backs and linebackers provided tight coverage and the four-man rush was effective. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bucs pressured Mahomes on 16 of the 46 drop-backs on which they sent four pass-rushers. All three of the team's sacks came on those plays. In their back-to-back wins against Green Bay and Kansas City and their superstar quarterbacks, the Bucs' defense racked up eight sacks, all by outside linebackers and down linemen, and all on four-man rushes.
Perhaps it was due to the element of surprise since there were so few instances, but the Bucs' blitz appears to have worked in the Super Bowl, too. Next Gen only credited the Buccaneers' defense with one pressure on those five blitzes but Mahomes also only completed one of five passes for nine yards, with an interception and a passer rating of 0.0.
The Chiefs took a relatively similar approach against Tom Brady, only blitzing him on seven of 30 drop-backs, or 23.3% of the time. In this case, however, the approach comes as a bit a surprise. Kansas City was the fourth-most aggressive blitzing team in the NFL in 2020 under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and in the Week 12 meeting the Chiefs blitzed Brady on 45.2% of his drop-backs. Only once all season did Spagnuolo blitz at a lower frequency than he did in the Super Bowl, and that was a Week 13 win at New Orleans (20.0%).
Kansas City's handful of blitzes didn't work at all, producing zero sacks and pressures. Brady completed five of seven passes against the blitz for 61 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 113.7. The Chiefs did have a pressure rate of 25.0% when rushing exactly four defenders, but that was down from 30.4% in Week 12. Those pressures almost never resulted in actual contact, as Brady was only sacked once and only hit on one other drop-back. In contrast, Mahomes was hit nine times.
The NFL tracks and includes sacks and quarterback hits among the usual statistics recorded in the box score at the end of the game. They do not do the same with quarterback pressures but do have the above statistics available in their Next Gen Stats. Other sources produce their own quarterback pressure numbers and they do not always agree on the final tally. For instance, ESPN Stats & Info, a proprietary database, credited the Bucs' defense with 25 QB pressures in the Super Bowl.
Either way, the advanced statistics match the eyeball test for any fan watching Super Bowl LV. Both teams tried to pressure the opposing quarterback primarily with a four-man rush, but only one succeeded. Patrick Mahomes was under duress for much of the evening; Tom Brady was not. It might have been the difference in the game.