Prior to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Wild Card game at Washington in early January, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich was asked how his crew would handle a strong defense that featured one of the league's best pass-rushing fronts. Leftwich's response, in part, was this:
"I've got to put these guys in position to do the things that they need to do to give ourselves an opportunity to win the football game."
Leftwich shared that thought, in some form or another, many times during the 2020 season, which ended with the Buccaneers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after a Super Bowl LV victory over Kansas City. Essentially, he's saying that he and the coaching staff have to devise a game plan that would counter the opposing defense's strengths and take advantage of its weaknesses, and then it was up to the players to execute it. Like most coordinators, Leftwich didn't feel the need to share what that game plan was before the game itself took place.
The Buccaneers had an offensive game plan for the Chiefs now seems very clear in retrospect. It centered on effective play-action fakes and getting the ball out of Tom Brady's hand quickly. Thanks to good execution of that plan by the players, it worked. The result was a smooth and mistake-free offense that, at one point, scored on five of six consecutive drives, with the other one ending at Kansas City's one-yard line. The result was a dominant 31-9 win and the second championship in franchise history.
The heavy usage of play-action in the passing game was pretty easy to spot during the game and later confirmed by NFL Next Gen Stats. According to Next Gen, Brady executed a play-action fake on 43% of his dropbacks. Next Gen has been tracking this and many other things since 2016 and that is the single-highest rate of play-action usage that Brady has had in a game in that span.
This was the plan right from the start, and it was a new one. As a team, the Buccaneers either ran the ball or faked a handoff – what Next Gen Stats calls "run action" – on 73% of their plays in the first quarter, their highest rate in any game this season. Over the season as a whole, the Bucs used run action on just 48% of their first-quarter plays.
Brady ended up throwing 13 passes after a fake handoff and he completed 10 of them for 135 yards and all three of his touchdowns. Those numbers produce a near-perfect passer rating of 149.0. Obviously, those fakes are meant to move defenders in the wrong direction, and that's exactly what they did. At the point of the catch or incompletion, Brady's targeted pass-catchers had an average of 4.0 yards of separation from the nearest defender. That's the best average separation the Buccaneers got in any game during the entire 2020 season.
One notable exception to that was Rob Gronkowski's second touchdown catch of the game, a 17-yarder in the second quarter. On the play, Gronkowski ran a route into the end zone and broke right towards the sideline. Brady's initial run through his reads didn't prompt a throw but he enjoyed enough time in the pocket for his receivers to improvise and, seeing this, Gronkowski spun around and headed back towards the middle of the end zone. Brady caught the motion and threw the ball almost immediately after Gronkowski started to spin back. When Brady let the pass go, his target had only one yard of separation from cornerback L'Jarius Snead; by the time Gronkowski and the ball met he had 3.8 yards of separation.
(By the way, Gronkowski showed off more than his mind-meld with Brady on that play. He also demonstrated that he has quite a bit of speed left in his legs during the game, reaching a top speed of 11.64 miles per hour within one second of beginning his route. If that seems fast, it is. His season average in this category was 8.42 miles per hour within the first second.)
For most of the evening, Brady let it rip a lot quicker than he did on that second touchdown pass to Gronkowski. According to Next Gen Stats, his average time from the snap to the throw was 2.27 seconds, and that helped keep the Chiefs' pass rush from getting home. Brady was only pressured five times on his 30 dropbacks, including just one sack.
This was particularly true in the first half as the Bucs roared out to their 21-6 halftime lead. Brady's average time to throw in the first two quarters was 2.18 seconds, the lowest he's clocked in any game since NGS began tracking in 2016. Many of those quick passes were also short, such as the eight-yard play-action touchdown pass to Gronkowski in the first quarter. Brady's first-half passes only traveled an average of 3.7 air yards per attempt, the second shortest he has measured in the first half of a game since 2016.
Leftwich and the Bucs' coaching staff put the offense in a position to succeed in the Super Bowl by emphasizing run-action and calling plays that let Brady get rid of the ball quickly. Brady and company then executed the plan very well, and now the Buccaneers are NFL champions again.