In Week 12, the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) will travel to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. This is a game I’m personally anticipating as much as any contest this season.
While it may not have implications on the Chiefs’ AFC playoff seeding — except for their need to keep up with the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers — the game should reveal a lot about how truly well-rounded this Chiefs team is.
They may have losses in two of their last three games, but the Buccaneers are one of the NFL’s most complete teams. They can play great defense, are strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball and have the league’s most accomplished quarterback ever. Tom Brady is not the prime version of himself, but he’s played very well in spurts this season.
It should be an exciting battle to watch, and I have five things to look for while you enjoy it:
1. Getting pressure on Brady
There’s no question that the Chiefs’ pass rush hasn’t lived up to expectations over the last month. They’ve only earned three sacks total over the past three games; their zero sacks and one quarterback hit against the Las Vegas Raiders following a bye week were especially discouraging.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo shared his thoughts on the pass rush in his Friday press conference.
“Where we’ve had a little bit of struggle in my opinion, is first and second down.” Spagnuolo explained. “We’ve gone through some series where there weren’t any third downs. On first and second down with the pass rush, a lot of teams nowadays are keeping people in, tight ends, backs, and they do a really good job of it and chucking it downfield. I think a lot goes into it.”
Things won’t get easier against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers boast one of the league’s most impressive front fives — proven by having the third-lowest sack percentage in the NFL this season. However, two starting offensive linemen — left guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith — have a questionable injury designation heading into Sunday. Marpet fully participated in practice all week while Smith didn’t participate in any. If they do take the field, it would be the first time since Week 8 that Tampa had its entire starting offensive line together on the field.
Interior pressure from defensive tackle Chris Jones will be the most promising way to affect Brady, but it will take more than that to make an impact in this game. If other Chiefs pass rushers don’t step up, it will be a long day for the defense.
2. Protecting Patrick Mahomes
On the flip side, the Buccaneers also have a strong front on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, it’s likely the most productive group the Chiefs have faced since they lost right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and left guard Kelechi Osemele to injuries in Weeks 5 and 6.
Tampa Bay is sixth in the NFL with 32 sacks this season, and it creates pressure at the fourth-highest rate in the league, per Pro Football Reference. Edge rusher Shaq Barrett — who led the NFL last season with 19.5 sacks — has continued to produce: he trails only Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald in individual pressures this year. Besides Barrett, the Bucs roll out defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and defensive tackle William Gholston — who is 16th in the NFL in pressures.
They also create pressure by heavily relying on blitzes. They blitz on 42% of opposing team’s dropbacks — the second-highest rate in the NFL this year. They would be wise to reverse that trend against the Chiefs: when blitzed this season, Mahomes has averaged nine yards per attempt, thrown 12 touchdowns to zero interceptions and has a passer rating of 138.8. On 91 blitzed dropbacks, Mahomes has taken a sack or thrown it away only four times.
If Tampa Bay continues to trust their blitzes, they may be playing right into the Chiefs’ hand.
3. Defending the Tampa Bay receiving corps
For the sake of the Chiefs’ defensive secondary, the pass rush needs to play a big role in Sunday’s game. If not, this talented receiving corps will give Kansas City cornerbacks and safeties all they can handle.
The skill-position group for the Buccaneers seems to be hitting their stride. Wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are returning players that were already considered one of the league’s best pass-catching duos. Then, they influenced tight end Rob Gronkowski to return from retirement, and he has looked better as of late — catching four touchdowns in the last six games. Finally, former All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown was signed prior to Week 8. Since his debut in Week 9, Brown actually leads the team in targets and receptions.
The variety of skill sets and general depth in the Tampa receiving corps will give fits to a Chiefs secondary that has had better games than the last two weeks. Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed did return to the lineup in Week 11, but he and the rest of the defensive backfield will need help from the pass rush unit to limit big plays.
Even if the Chiefs secondary plays their best game, the receivers they’ll be facing are good enough to overcome them.
4. Taking advantage of a young Buccaneers secondary
The best way for the Chiefs to exploit this tough Tampa Bay defense is to get the football in the hands of their wide receivers. The third level of the Buccaneers’ defense has exciting players, but they are a very young and inexperienced group — two attributes that don’t bode well against an explosive passing offense like the Chiefs’.
Among the six secondary players with the most total snaps this season, the average age is not even 24 years old. It’s not that they’re playing poorly — only one of those six is allowing a passer rating over 100 — but they haven’t faced anything like what Kansas City can offer to challenge them.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is arguably better than he’s ever been at any point in his career. His 11 total touchdowns are two away from his career-high, and he’s had three-consecutive games with 98 or more receiving yards. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins will make his return from the hamstring injury he suffered in Week 5. Behind those two, wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson can make a big play at any time.
If the Buccaneers do blitz as frequently as they have this year, that should put the Chiefs receivers in advantageous situations because of one-on-one, man coverage. That’s where the big plays come, and having Watkins back may open those up even more.
5. Accounting for a talented linebacker duo
The best unit on the Buccaneers’ defense is their linebackers — and it’s because the group is very top-heavy.
Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are one of the NFL’s most electric and impactful defensive duos. They can do it all: Each has been sent to get after the quarterback on at least 70 snaps, they’ve played the third and fourth-most coverage snaps on the team, and they’re by far the team’s leaders in run stops.
When blitzing, White has been the more effective player: he has 21 total pressures this season, and he has gotten in on five sacks. In coverage, David is the more productive defender: he’s allowed only 6.1 yards per reception in coverage, he’s caught an interception and defended four other passes this year.
The two will be trusted to cover running backs and tight ends — which obviously includes Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. If they can have success containing Kelce, it would dramatically increase their chances at beating the Chiefs.