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How the Chiefs should defend the Bucs on third down in the Super Bowl

The Buccaneers are dominating third-down passing; here’s how the Chiefs might slow them down.

NFL: JAN 03 Chargers at Chiefs Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Going into the 2020-21 season, the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers playing in Week 12 was one of the most anticipated matchups of the year. The Chiefs making it back to the Super Bowl shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the Buccaneers doing so might.

So how did they get here after a rocky start and an up-and-down middle of the season?

The Buccaneers were able to pull together and refocus down the stretch. Off the field, the combination of Tom Brady and head coach Bruce Arians were able to get all of the young, talented players to work together as a team. On the field, it wasn’t always easy for Tampa Bay, but in the playoffs, they’ve found their rhythm. A lot of early-down runs, a lot of isolated passing concepts and play-action and a high level of success on third down have led them to the title game.

In this post, we will focus on that last point: why the Buccaneers’ third-down passing offense has been so deadly in the playoffs and how the Chiefs might look to disrupt it.

The Buccaneers third-down passing offense

Throughout their three playoff games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have converted 51% of their third downs in which they dropped back to pass on. That conversion rate would have placed them as the best in the NFL during the regular season. Brady does an excellent job reading the defense and throwing timing routes to specific spots on the field — whether that is Sticks concepts over the middle of the field, Out routes to isolated receivers on the outside or finding his check-downs early in the progression with room to work.

Brady is always going to be excellent in that regard and schematically. There is not much teams can do to stop it outside of executing better as a defense. Where you can make up some ground is identifying some of the shot plays and specific calls the Buccaneers make on third down to supplement the timing attack.

Deep shots on third down

In each of their three playoffs games, Brady has taken more than two deep shots on third down. Most commonly, it’s on the outside to a wide receiver with a reduced split. Pushing the receiver inside the numbers gives more space to the outside to float the football up and let the receiver run underneath it. Anytime the Chiefs see a reduced split from the No. 1 receiver in a formation, they should immediately identify the possibility of a deep shot play on the outside. Many times, it comes on a single read as well as a looking off of the safety.

It’s even more common for Brady to take these deep shots if they can get a man-to-man identifier pre-snap. Most commonly, it’s Chris Godwin who is the target when they get man coverage, but any defensive back covering a wide receiver with a reduced split has to be ready. Brady is so good at throwing timing routes to the sticks that defensive backs have to respect the double moves. When working against specific alignments, it may benefit them to play top-down.

This isn’t the New England Patriots Brady offense, so this team isn’t out to papercut a defense down the field. Bruce Arians wants to take shots and is willing to throw 50-50 — or more realistically, 60-40 — balls to his guys downfield, even on third down.

Sometimes, that risk backfires on them; other times, they cash in.

Brady will get aggressive and attack downfield, even on third-and-short. When they go under center with a singleback in the backfield, the passing concept most commonly attached is a play-action deep ball. You have to respect their run game, but the first thing to identify from a coverage perspective is who is going deep.

One way teams have been able to counter some of these deep shots — especially when Brady is under center — is with defensive back blitzes. It obviously helps when the pressure isn’t picked up, but speeding up Brady’s clock on these deep shots often results in true 50-50 balls.

Play-action on short-yardage situations

Speaking of play-action, there is one other element in the play-action passing game that Brady likes to use.

When Godwin is stacked as a H-back behind the tight end, he’s often inserted as a blocker into the C-gap. He is a quality blocker who works to the second level and picks off linebackers more than adequately.

What Brady likes to do is feint the insert block and leak him out later in the rep. As he sits behind the offensive line, he is often forgotten about. Coming out of the run action, he is the first read. At times, Brady will even have Godwin fully insert in the gap and begin to climb like he’s going to block, only to continue running and transition into a route.

Similar to above, one way to counter is going to be quick pressure, as it’s a slow-developing play and the offensive formation allows multiple defenders to be blitz options. The other thing is just to be mindful of what Godwin is doing and not losing him in run action.

Screen game

One way the Buccaneers have slowed down some overload pressures is by hitting quick screens.

With seven guys near the line of scrimmage against an empty look, the ball has to come out quickly, and Brady knows that. To counter, they run a screen to the field and simply get the ball out before anyone can replace the coverage over the slot. If you are going to leave Godwin or center Ryan Jensen uncovered, the Bucs will get the screens going. With how often they go vertical on third down, defenses often play them with split-safety looks, allowing more space underneath, especially when teams want to show pressure.

How the Chiefs can counter

Disguise the coverage

There are times when it seems as though Steve Spagnuolo just takes two or three random coverage concepts and calls them independently of each other but on the same snap. It also seems like he picks a random alignment out of a hat and starts there for that snap.

This play is just extra and a half.

It plays out like Stubbie or Special coverage — a version of split-field, combination coverage that is Quarters to one side and Cover 2 to the other, and it looks so crazy start to finish. The alignment is shifted immediately before the snap, the outside receiver to the strong side is essentially removed from the coverage call and the back-side deep safety ends up playing the rollout to the strong side of the formation.

Even without the late pre-snap shifts, trying to progress through this play as a quarterback is a nightmare because the first two reads are being cone-covered by three defenders. It just wasn’t obvious until post-snap. As of two seconds pre-snap, there was a chance six or seven rushers were coming for the quarterback. It ended up only being four.

Stuff like this is par for the course with Spagnuolo, and we’ve seen it over the past two years. He’s more than capable of catching even greats like Brady off guard with these calls. With as many one-read throws as Brady likes to make, this is a great way to force him to hold onto the ball and start to get a little nervous in the pocket.

Bring the heat

It’s scary to throw heavy-blitz game plans at veteran quarterbacks because they can make you pay, but it’s a two-way street. When you show blitz as often as the Chiefs do, it becomes really difficult to read who is coming, who isn’t coming and where the dropping defenders may end up. That split second of hesitation while being forced to read the field post-snap opens the floodgates for quick slot pressures.

Utilizing the nickel defenders and safeties as blitzers off the edge against an offense that really enjoys throwing to intermediate and deep windows can throw off the timing. Just speeding up Brady’s clock can result in him throwing up passes too early or into dangerous situations. Combining that with disguised coverage could net big defensive plays.

The bottom line

If the Buccaneers are looking to continue their win streak, they will have to continue their third-down passing success.

Throughout this playoff run, they haven’t relied on just picking up first downs. They also get aggressive on these downs and pick up chunk yards. The Chiefs are uniquely set up to counter some of what Brady likes to do offensively with their disguised coverage and blitz packages, so long as they are able to defend the deep ball on third down.

The Buccaneers — despite some success — have put trends on tape throughout the postseason, and that should help the Chiefs key in on some of those deep-ball attempts.