When the Kansas City Chiefs schedule was released, many circled this week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as one of the biggest matchups of the year. While the Buccaneers have not quite lived up to their preseason billing, they’re still a good team that will want to notch a statement victory against the Chiefs. Tto prevent that from happening, Kansas City will have to stop an excellent set of weapons — and a strong rushing attack.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Buccaneers’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and keep their winning streak alive.
In what was arguably the biggest move of the offseason, former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signed with Tampa Bay. Some expected Brady and Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians would unstoppable on offense. While the Tampa Bay offense has been good — sixth in the league in scoring — Brady has struggled to move the ball consistently against good teams.
The Buccaneers have strong run personnel, led by third-year running back Ronald Jones. Jones is already having the best season of his young career, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Leonard Fournette has had marginal success while rotating into the offense. Both are targeted often out of the backfield — but lately, they’ve been plagued by drops. So far, rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn and former Chief LeSean McCoy haven’t been major factors.
Tampa Bay’s strongest offensive group is at wide receiver. Mike Evans leads the team in yards, touchdowns and targets. The big-bodied receiver is a dangerous red zone threat and can rack up serious yards after contact. Chris Godwin — another big-bodied threat — lines up opposite Evans. Godwin has had limited stats this year — he’s played in just seven games — but is still a major focal point in the offense. He has been targeted at least six times in every game he’s played — and has at least five catches in all but one.
Antonio Brown was added three weeks ago. His rapport with Brady from their time together in New England seamlessly carried over to Tampa Bay; he’s regularly connected with Brady and made an immediate impact. Before Brown arrived, Scott Miller was a big part of the rotation — and rookie Tyler Johnson showed some flashes while relieving Godwin.
The Buccaneers are also loaded at tight end with Cameron Brate — and, of course, Rob Gronkowski, who has brought his years-long chemistry with Brady to Tampa Bay. Now second on the team in targets, he’s definitely a bit older (and less explosive) than before, averaging the lowest yards per target of his career. So as the season has progressed, Brate has slowly received more of the offensive snaps — and his timing with Brady has developed. He doesn’t receive a high volume of targets — as the second tight end, he is a vertical threat.
The Buccaneers may be without some key members of their offensive line against the Chiefs. Left tackle Donovan Smith has an ankle injury. He hasn’t practiced at all this week and will be a game-time decision. Left guard Ali Marpet practiced in full all week, but has not yet cleared concussion protocol. He is questionable for the game. Center A.Q. Shipley has been ruled out with a neck injury. So Ryan Jensen — who has been starting in Malpert’s place — will likely move back to his normal center position. The good news for the Buccaneers is that right guard Alex Cappa — and rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs — are both healthy and playing at a high level.
The offensive concept: wide receiver screens against slot pressure
The Bucs run a ton of screens, and will push bubble/slip screens against slot pressure.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 27, 2020
Brady diagnoses blitzer, gets the ball out quickly to avoid pressure. Evans waits and picks up the safety, giving Godwin the inside angle if he wants it. He forces missed tackle for huge gain pic.twitter.com/BUfN7iWZmt
This week’s concept is not a difficult one — but it is one that could prove deadly against a Steve Spagnuolo defense that blitzes aggressively.
The Buccaneers do attack downfield regularly enough to keep defenses honest, but they will also lean on their screen game to beat the blitz. One of their go-to calls is a wide receiver screen behind the blocks of their big-bodied receivers. These can take the form of a bubble screen attacking the sideline or a tunnel screen targeting the middle of the field. It’s a good way to get some yards against rapid pressure — and it also protects Brady.
This is a common tactic against a blitz — so it’s nothing revolutionary from the Buccaneers — but could be a potentially lethal call against a defense (like the Chiefs) that tackles poorly. Tampa Bay’s receivers are all capable of avoiding (or breaking) tackles even against teams that wrap up well — let alone ones that don’t. When run against a Spagnuolo blitz that removes another player capable of rallying to the ball, these screens could turn out to be explosive plays that help keep the Buccaneers in a shootout.
The bottom line
So far this year. the Kansas City defense has struggled against power-run teams with quick passing games. While Arians prefers to get vertical in the passing game, he’s also not afraid to take the short rhythm passes that have been open in recent Chiefs games.
If he and Brady opt to take the underneath passes, the Chiefs defense will be tasked with driving on the catch point against strong receivers who can break tackles. Against the Chiefs, that has been a recipe for success — and has been a significant factor in some of Kansas City’s closest games of the year.
Arians’ play-action passing game is also very dangerous — especially with Brown now more involved. The Chiefs have played a few more single-high safety coverages against power-run teams — and we’ve seen them struggle to keep a lid on some downfield passes. With safety Juan Thornhill now in a rotational role, this could become a larger problem. If these issues crop up again on Sunday, it could be a long day for Spagnuolo and company.
Luckily for the Chiefs, defenses have had success against Brady through interior pressure. Much has been made of the Chiefs’ lack of pressure in recent games, but this contest could end up being a get-right opportunity. Chris Jones could see some backup linemen on the interior — or at least hobbled starters — which could allow him to get into the backfield more often. Unlike some quarterbacks Kansas City has faced recently, Brady is not comfortable navigating laterally in the pocket — and that could turn Jones’ pressures into quick sacks.
When the Buccaneers drop deep to pass, all eyes will be on Kansas City’s defensive ends. For weeks, there hasn’t been consistent pressure from the outside — but with a backup at left tackle, we could see Frank Clark win more matchups, forcing the left tackle into a case of happy feet. As the game goes along, that could lead to some hurried, inaccurate throws that might turn into interceptions.
To keep up with the Chiefs’ offense, the Buccaneers will likely need to throw the ball. Even if his rushing attack is effective, Arians will not shy away from a pass-heavy script. So if the Chiefs can get early pressure on Brady, he could wilt — just as he’s done in some of this season’s previous games. If they can’t get this consistent pressure, the Chiefs will need to make open-field tackles with their linebackers and secondary to limit explosive plays against the Buccaneers’ quick-passing game.
Even against the all-star cast found in Tampa Bay’s offense, the recipe is there for the Chiefs defense to take advantage. That will, however, require much better execution than the Chiefs have presented in their most recent games.