The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense blitzed opposing quarterbacks on 38% of their dropbacks during the 2020 regular season, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL. Notably, however, they only brought extra pass-rushers on 17.6% of Patrick Mahomes' dropbacks when they faced the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12. This is nothing new for Mahomes; since he took over as the Chiefs' starter in 2018 he has been blitzed just 21.0% of the time, the lowest average for any qualifying quarterback in that span.
Presumably, Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles knows what every team in the league has gradually discovered over the last three seasons: Blitzing Patrick Mahomes is not often a winning strategy. Let's put it this way: in 2020, Mahomes compiled a passer rating of 135.3 when opponents blitzed, with 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He ranked first in those categories against the blitz, as well as in yards per pass attempt, at 9.5.
But there is an important distinction to be made here: facing a blitz and facing pressure are not the same thing. Not every blitz leads to a pressured quarterback (especially against Mahomes) and not every pressure is the result of a blitz. When it comes to facing actual pressure, the Chiefs' superstar passer at least shows some evidence of being an actual mortal.
During the regular season, Mahomes recorded a scintillating 108.2 passer rating, third in the league behind Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson. In the playoffs, he has upped that to 118.5. However, when you take the regular season and postseason together, Mahomes has a passer rating of just 78.7% this season when throwing under pressure, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The job of playing quarterback, already hard enough, becomes many times more difficult when you are throwing under duress, and that's apparently true even for the game's brightest young star.
The Buccaneers, whose defense forced seven turnovers and scored touchdowns off six of them during their three playoff road games, know that they need to keep the takeaways coming to have their best shot at claiming victory in Super Bowl LV. That's not easy against a passer who only tossed six picks in 17 games this season, including the playoffs, but it's worth noting that 10 of his 25 interceptions (including playoffs) since 2018 have been thrown while under pressure.
So will the Buccaneers change their approach in the rematch with Kansas City and dial up more blitzes, rolling the dice against Mahomes in the hopes of creating more pressure? Well, they may not have to resort to that.
Tampa Bay went into Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game facing a similar challenge. They were facing one of the NFL's best quarterbacks – perhaps the best in 2020 – and they knew it was critical to get pressure on him in order to force mistakes. Unfortunately, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers had proved difficult to sack or pressure into miscues all season.
Even so, the Bucs succeeded in that quest, sacking Rodgers a total of five times and getting pressure on 24.5% of his dropbacks. It was edge rushers Shaquil Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0) who accounted for all of those sacks. It was a great combined performance by those two, who have 50.5 sacks between them since first teaming up in 2019, but perhaps more important was how those sacks came to be.
Here's the key point: All five of the Buccaneers sacks in Green Bay came on four-man rushes. The Bucs got pressure without blitzing, which would be the best possible outcome against the Chiefs, too. Tampa Bay's four-man rush pressured Rodgers on nearly a third of his drop-backs, affecting him on 10 of 32 snaps.
Beside the great individual efforts by Barrett and Pierre-Paul, there could have been a few other factors at play in Green Bay. First, nose tackle Vita Vea heroically returned from injured reserve and was able to play 33 snaps, or close to half of the game, many of them on obvious passing downs. It seems little coincidence that a Buccaneer pass rush that had been slumping over the second half of the season suddenly caught fire again.
In addition, the Packers were playing without Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari, who had suffered a season-ending injury in Week 16. Green Bay had responded by moving right tackle Billy Turner to the left side and playing Ricky Wagner on the right edge. Pierre-Paul got both of his sacks plus four pressures rushing off Rodgers' blind side against Turner.
The Chiefs are in a similar situation after their Pro Bowl left tackle, Eric Fisher, tore an Achilles tendon in the AFC Championship Game. Assuming they stick with the lineup they used after Fisher went down in that game, right tackle Mike Remmers will move to the left side, right guard Andrew Wylie will slide over one spot to tackle and midseason acquisition Stefen Wisniewski will step in at right guard.
Remmers notably struggled at right tackle in Super Bowl 50 while playing for Carolina, though that came against an incredibly fierce Denver Broncos pass rush and Remmers has had a fine NFL career overall. Notably, Barrett was part of that Super Bowl pass rush, though he did not have a sack in the Broncos' victory. What Barrett has had is an incredible impact on the Bucs' defense since he left Denver in 2019 seeking a chance to start and get more regular snaps. In fact, his production is quite similar to that of another free agent pass-rusher the Buccaneers lured to Tampa almost two decades ago.
In 2001, Monte Kiffin and the Buccaneers convinced former Arizona Cardinals star Simeon Rice that he would be the final piece in building the league's best defense. Rice came aboard and in his first two seasons as a Buc had 32.5 sacks and 11 forced fumbles, including the playoffs. His second season ended in victory for the Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. In his first two seasons as a Buccaneer, including playoffs, Barrett has 30.5 sacks (the most in the NFL in that span) and eight forced fumbles.
And here Barrett is right where Rice was at the end of his second season with the Buccaneers, in the Super Bowl. Rice got a ring. Will Barrett? It may depend on how much heat he and his fellow pass-rushers can bring on Patrick Mahomes without resorting to the blitz.