The Kansas City Chiefs are once again in the Super Bowl, facing a familiar opponent in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Chiefs defense has passed countless offensive tests this season, and it has largely held up against the NFL’s best. That test continues against a very good Buccaneers offense and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
With that in mind, let’s dig into changes in the Bucs’ personnel since Week 12 — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and run this championship season back.
For the most part, the Buccaneers have stayed healthy to close out the season. Tom Brady and his weapons look to be healthy going into the Super Bowl, and the offensive line looks to be in good shape. However, there are two key injuries on this side of the ball from the last time these two teams played.
The first player is a guaranteed change, as right guard Alex Cappa fractured his ankle in the Wild cCard round of this year’s playoffs. Aaron Stinnie — an undrafted free agent in 2018 — has played in just fourteen games in his NFL career. Stinnie was a healthy scratch just three games ago, but stepped into the starting role after Ted Larsen — Cappa’s replacement in the Wild Card round — gave up two sacks. The Buccaneers offensive line gave up 10 pressures in Week 12 to the Chiefs with their full offensive line, so it will be interesting to see how much Cappa’s injury affects the Buccaneers passing offense.
The second notable player on the Buccaneers that may miss Sunday’s game is tight end Cameron Brate. Brate showed up on Thursday’s practice report with a surprise back injury, raising questions about his ability to be effective in the offense. Brate saw six targets in the first matchup with the Chiefs and has seen heavy usage down the stretch with Tampa Bay playing more two-tight end sets. If he can’t go on Sunday — or is limited in his snaps — the Buccaneers may have to play lighter personnel than they’d like in some situations.
The offensive concept: TE leak screen with return motion fake
Arians and Brady are each excellent at manipulating focus, so it's no question they're lethal together.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) February 5, 2021
PA with return motion keeps LB eyes in the backfield. WR signals to the flat as TE leaks backside. OC and RT set up screen, and Gronk is in space with blockers in front. pic.twitter.com/NxqZksE0rY
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has been developing offensive play calls for a long time and is a master at manipulating defenders and taking advantage of incorrect reads. Brady has been playing quarterback at a ridiculously high level for over a decade and he too knows how to manipulate defenders. When they’re operating together, they can make things very difficult on the defense.
Take this play from the NFC championship game, for example. The Buccaneers are in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) with Brady under center. On the snap, the outside receiver fakes an end-around to go with Brady’s play-action, then returns back to the flat while signaling for the ball. This enthusiastic display catches the eyes of the linebackers to make sure they don’t need to trigger to the flat.
Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski has been left one-on-one with a defensive end, and he drops deep into a pass-blocking set. After initially blocking, he releases the defender and leaks into the opposite flat of the return motion. While this is occurring, the center and right tackle have pulled out in front of Gronkowski to set up a tight end screen. Brady looks off the defenders, throws to Gronkowski in the flat and watches the leak-screen gain massive yardage.
A typically-disciplined defense can struggle with this much extra window dressing on a play, but with Brady at the helm, it’s very difficult to keep track of where the play is going. The Chiefs defensive ends — particularly Frank Clark — are adept at sniffing out developing screens, so there’s hope to defend misdirection like the play above. Anthony Hitchens has also found himself routinely in the right spots this season to blow up screens for big losses. The task will be even more amplified on Sunday, as Arians and Brady will be pulling out all the stops to try to put this Chiefs defense on the back foot all game long.
The bottom line
The Buccaneers have a really good offense. Their offensive line is strong, their weapons are top-notch, and their quarterback is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. It’s a difficult challenge for every defense in the league.
But Steve Spagnuolo has not only been here before — he’s played the hero and won.
This Chiefs defense is in a strong rhythm at the right time. Spagnuolo is keeping the opposition guessing with many of his play calls, and his players are executing those calls at a high level. He’s come up against peak Brady before in this very situation, and he put on a masterclass in defensive game-planning to keep an elite offense in check. There’s little doubt in the minds of his fellow coaches — and his players — that he’ll be able to put together yet another top-notch plan to keep this offense in check.
I expect heavy blitzes early — both out of the slot and up the gut from linebackers — to force Brady into putting more air underneath the ball on his deep shots. Throughout the playoffs, defenses have found success doing just that. Brady has lofted several 50-50 balls into the secondaries he’s faced, relying on Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to come up with the ball over a defensive back. Thus far, the Buccaneers have come down with the majority of these passes, but Spagnuolo will certainly prefer those lower-percentage attempts.
The Chiefs were missing L’Jarius Sneed the last time these two teams faced, and Juan Thornhill wasn’t quite playing to the level that he has in the playoffs. They still allowed just a 33% third-down conversion rate to the Buccaneers in that matchup with Spagnuolo’s well-executed scheme. This defense will certainly appreciate the impact they’ll bring to the secondary and the ripple effect that extends to Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen.
This feels like a “Mathieu” game. If Brady is pressured through Spagnuolo’s exotic blitzes and is trying to force the ball down the field, this is a prime opportunity for Mathieu to use his high football IQ and jump a route for an impact play. Mathieu has had many statement games in his career, but doing so against an all-time quarterback — on the absolute biggest stage — is precisely the script he would write for himself.
The Chiefs' defensive line will have to play well to best a quality offensive line, but Chris Jones may find opportunities against a backup in Stinnie. We’ve seen Jones — and interior pressure — become a problem for Brady throughout his career. If Spagnuolo can get reliable pressure through the middle from his star defensive tackle, this could be a long day for the Buccaneers offensive line.
Brady has sped up his time to throw as the season has gone along, which will make an already-difficult matchup even tougher for Frank Clark and Alex Okafor in passing situations. Pressures could be at a premium for the duo, but they may find an impact sniffing out Arians’ misdirections and screens to put Tampa Bay behind the sticks in other ways.
I’ve said all year long that I believed this unit to be better than last year’s defense. They’ve played quality, cohesive football — particularly in tight game situations. In big games like this, that’s what you want to have on your side. I believe in Spagnuolo’s game plan against a very good offense. I believe in the players’ ability to execute that game plan. And I believe that the impact defenders on this team are going to make tide-turning plays.
If they do what I believe they can, they may just be fitting another ring on their fingers.