Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs will be billed as a matchup between the greatest quarterback of all time and the young player who may one day challenge for that title. And rightfully so – Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes ranks as one of the most fascinating quarterback pairings in Super Bowl history.
Of course, as we all understand, Brady is not actually going to battle Mahomes directly once the game begins. Brady's foe will the Chiefs defense, which has allowed just 20.5 points per game in its first two playoff contests. In the Divisional Round, Kansas City held a Cleveland offense that had scored 48 points in a Wild Card win at Pittsburgh to just 17. The AFC Championship Game brought Josh Allen and a Buffalo team that was second in the league in scoring during the regular season, but the Chiefs held them to 24 points.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers ranked third in the NFL in scoring during the regular season and just became the first team in league history to score 30-plus points in three straight road playoff games. Yes, the Buccaneers are riding a winning streak of seven straight games, but the Chiefs have won 25 of their last 27, including one in Tampa earlier this year. And, yes, the Chiefs are back to defend their Super Bowl title thanks in large part to Mahomes, but the Kansas City defense is dotted with superstars, too.
So how do the Buccaneers add one more win to their streak and one more Lombardi Trophy to their lobby display against the toughest team to beat over the past two seasons? First, let's take a look at how the Buccaneers' offense matches up with the Chiefs' defense. Later in the week, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali will examine the matchup between the Chiefs' offense and Tampa Bay's defense.
Carmen will be examining a matchup between the league's top-ranked offense and sixth-ranked defense. On paper, the other matchup looks like more of an edge for Tampa Bay, which will take the seventh-ranked offense into battle with the 16th-ranked defense. (All rankings here and going forward are from the regular season.) Tampa Bay scored the third-most points in the league; Kansas City had the 11th-best scoring defense. The Bucs were second in passing yards (to Kansas City); the Chiefs were 14th in pass defense. And so on.
Of course, this matchup goes well beyond those surface numbers. The first thing to understand about Steve Spagnuolo's defense is that has been aggressive this year. That's particularly true in terms of blitzing, which Kansas City does a lot. During the regular season, the Chiefs brought five or more defenders at the quarterback on 39% of their snaps, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL, and then they upped that to 50% in the win over Cleveland to start the playoffs.
Moreover, the Chiefs aren't afraid to pull out the max blitzes. Kansas City sent six or more defenders at the quarterback on 17% of their snaps during the regular season which was more than twice the league average of 8%. This could be an opportunity for the Buccaneers, who have an offensive line playing at its highest level of the entire season in January and a quarterback who has been operating well under pressure of late. In the last four games leading up to the NFC Championship tilt in Green Bay, Brady had averaged 8.0 yards per attempt, thrown three touchdown passes and no interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 105.8.
The Chiefs' pressure rate, which was 23rd in the NFL, didn't improve much when they blitzed, rising from 22.6% with no blitz to 24.5% with extra rushers. That latter number was fourth-worst in the NFL. In terms of individual rushers, the Chiefs' most dangerous weapon is defensive tackle Chris Jones, who led the team with 7.5 sacks during the regular season. Edge rusher Frank Clark had 6.0 during the regular season and has added two more in the playoffs. Jones led the Chiefs in QB pressures for the second season in a row (the Rams' Aaron Donald is the only other interior lineman who has done that) and has a team-best 10.0% pressure rate. Clark, however, has seen his pressure rate drop for a second straight season to a career-low 6.5%. Overall, the Chiefs ranked 20th in the league in sacks generated per pass play.
The Chiefs specifically like to get aggressive with their safeties. Daniel Sorenson, who had four quarterback hits during the regular season and two more in the playoffs so far, blitzed 78 times in 2020, third-most among all NFL defensive backs. Versatile chess piece Tyrann Mathieu also blitzed 32 times. The Buccaneers' protection scheme has held up pretty well against the blitz in the playoffs, facing extra rushers 32 times and allowing 13 pressures and just two sacks.
"I think our offensive line and tight ends – they don't get enough recognition [for] how [well] they're playing these last few weeks and the protection has been outstanding," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "We missed one blitz pickup that led to an interception [in Green Bay]. That was probably the only bad play. It was a five-star game, and the five-star players should show up."
Mathieu, who originally unlocked his versatile skills under Arians in Arizona, continues to play at a superstar level. In addition to his blitzing, he led the team with six interceptions this year and has added another one in the playoffs. Mathieu, whose pre-snap location heat map on Next Gen Stats looks like a Pollock painting, can line up anywhere in the defense and cover receivers, backs and tight ends. During the regular season, he held opposing quarterbacks to a 59.9 passer rating when he was the nearest defender.
The Chiefs' pass defense gave up 236.2 yards per game and 6.78 yards per play, ranking near the middle of the pack in those categories. Charvarius Ward, who mostly plays left cornerback, wasn't as effective in 2020 as he was during a 2019 breakout season, as the former undrafted free agent had just six passes defensed and no picks and allowed a 102.8 passer rating as the nearest defender. On the other hand, rookie fourth-rounder L'Jarius Sneed has been a huge asset for the Chiefs' defense, primarily playing in the slot and making a big difference since coming back from a broken collarbone in Week 11. He had six tackles and a sack in the AFC Championship Game but did leave early due to a concussion.
Obviously, the Buccaneers' offense has the pass-catching firepower to match up against an set of NFL defensive backs, particularly if Antonio Brown returns from his knee injury to play in the Super Bowl. Assuming Sneed can recover over the next two weeks, the matchup of him against Chris Godwin in the slot could be one of the most significant in the game. Godwin is coming off a huge, 110-yard game in the NFC Championship Game and he was used extensively in the slot out of pre-snap motion. That's an element the Buccaneers have added increasingly to their offense in recent weeks.
Mike Evans, Scotty Miller and Brown could find some very good opportunities on the outside, and not just because Ward has struggled to some extent. The Chiefs' scheme is extremely aggressive in terms of press coverage. Kansas City's defensive backs pressed outside receivers on 42% of their snaps during the regular season, the highest rate in the NFL and double the league average of 21%. Ward, in particular, led the NFL by employing press coverage on 65% of his matchups on the outside; Bashaud Breeland, who plays almost exclusively on the right side of the defense, was second in the league with a 56% press coverage rate.
The Buccaneers may be able to get some big plays in the passing game by beating this press coverage. The Chiefs have allowed more downfield completions since their Week 10 bye, giving up at least 100 yards on such plays in seven of eight games through the Divisional Round. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers continue to up their aggression in downfield passing, to very good effect. Brady's passes in Green Bay last Sunday traveled an average of 11.5 yards in the air, his second-highest mark of the entire season. The Buccaneers got 160 yards and three touchdowns out of vertical routes, though Brady was also picked off three times. One of those interception, as noted above, was the result of a missed blitz pickup. Since the Chiefs are almost sure to blitz in the Super Bowl, the Bucs need to be sound in their pass protection against extra rushers in order to fully unlock their downfield passing potential.
Kansas City's run defense gave up 122.1 yards per game and 4.51 yards per carry to rank 21st and 17th in those categories, respectively. Sorenson, the team's leading tackler, is strong in run support and Anthony Hitchens is an active linebacker in the middle of the field. The Chiefs' line emphasizes getting to the passer, leaving a lot of the run-stopping work to the linebackers. Kansas City seemed to shore up their run defense in the season's second half, going on a run of allowing 89 or fewer yards in five of six weeks. However, over the last three games, the Chiefs have gone back to allowing 125.3 yards per game.
This is another area in which the Buccaneers' offensive approach and strengths could work well against Kansas City. Tampa Bay runs the ball more effectively between the tackles but the Chiefs' defense has been stronger on the edges. During the regular season, the Chiefs allowed 93 fewer rushing yards than expected (RYOE) on runs outside the tackle, according to Next Gen Stats. That was third-best in the NFL. However, the Chiefs also had a plus-108 RYOE on runs between the tackles, which was eighth-worst in the league.
Finally, the Buccaneers have good matchup, at least on paper, when they get into the red zone. Tampa Bay scored touchdowns on 68.9% of their red zone incursions during the season to rank seventh in the NFL in that category. They dipped in that regard to start the playoffs, with only four touchdowns in their first 11 red zone drives in Washington and New Orleans, but they were two-for-two in Green Bay. Meanwhile, the Chiefs' defense ranked last in the NFL during the regular season with a red zone touchdown rate of 76.6% allowed.
Of course, even with Patrick Mahomes and an incredibly potent offense, the Chiefs wouldn't have won 25 of their last 27 games with a defense that wasn't holding its own. As one would expect from a team playing in its second straight Super Bowl, Kansas City is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and is directed by a strong coaching staff. And, of course, we've already seen this matchup once this season, in a Week 12 game at Raymond James Stadium won by the Chiefs, 27-24. Tampa Bay's offense picked up 417 yards in that game but the vast majority of those yards came in the second half after Kansas City built a 20-7 halftime lead. The Bucs comeback got close but ran out of time, in part because both Mathieu and Breeland came up with huge interceptions in the third quarter.
"That game was one where I think we were down 17 and then we came storming back," said Arians. "Just couldn't get the ball back. It should be a really good game. They're a hell of a football team and they're super well coached by Andy [Reid] and his whole crew – 'Spags' and everybody. [They have] great players, so it should be fun."