Earlier this week, we looked at some challenges the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense may face against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense in the Super Bowl. With the big game now looming around the corner, let’s flip the script and look at how the Chiefs offense can force a rather significant mismatch against the Buccaneers defense.
Tampa’s defense has been playing quality football throughout the playoffs, but there is one small obstacle standing in it sway — and that is the Chiefs’ offense. When looking at how these two teams match up, it’s easy to go back and look at their previous game, but I decided to take a different approach. I instead watched Tampa Bay’s playoff games straight through, hoping to come across trends that the Chiefs may look to exploit.
One — in particular — stuck out.
The Buccaneers play a fair amount of man coverage, and they often default to that man coverage when offenses line up in a 3x1 — three receivers to one side of the field with a single receiver to the other. The Chiefs are one of the NFL’s most notorious teams for this exact formation, and seeing how the two teams dance around, it is going to be interesting.
How Tampa Bay defends 3x1 formations
The Buccaneers haven’t played against many 3x1 formations in the playoffs, and the only team to utilize it frequently was the Green Bay Packers. Even then, the Packers weren’t stressing the Buccaneers as much as they could have by leaving a tight end to block.
3x1 basic man defense
Bucs haven't faced a ton of 3x1 in the playoffs but that's going to change against the Chiefs.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 5, 2021
The most common call is 2man with a "Cone" call to the backside. This has the BS S cut the XWR when he releases inside/under the weak CB (who then replaces deep). pic.twitter.com/scgHRGDQzE
The most common coverage that Tampa Bay ran against 3x1 formations was a 2 Man — two deep safeties with man coverage underneath — with a cone call to the weak side of the formation. This means that the back-side safety is going to take the single-side wide receiver if he releases inside and/or underneath.
The back-side cornerback then replaces the safety as the deep-half defender. Since there are no help defenders in this formation for that weak cornerback, this cone call allows the cornerback to play with aggressive outside leverage.
Since it usually plays out like man across the board, this allows RB to handle the backside WR isolated without any real help form any hook defenders.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 5, 2021
The CB then replaces the deep half S and should look to eye the #3 on a deep over/cross. pic.twitter.com/lxRUHbjrVr
This 2-Man, Cone coverage does mean that the strong-side defensive backs and the linebackers have to chase receivers across the entire field. On crossing routes, there aren’t zone defenders waiting to help or redirect the routes, and there is no help to funnel receivers. Tampa Bay plays its defensive backs tight to the line of scrimmage and very physical to disrupt the timing and allow the pass rush to get home, but it’s a high-stress coverage for the defenders against horizontal routes.
Playing man vs KC is a dangerous game but when the BS S isn't cutting an inside release of the XWR, he can immediately start eyeing the strong side WRs for crossers.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 5, 2021
Worth noting, TB stays in nickel a ton and will flex a LB out wide to cover a TE M2M on these plays. pic.twitter.com/Jv4GqjCeyM
Something worth noting: when the isolated, weak-side wide receiver releases vertically and outside of the cornerback, the weak-side safety isn’t trying to help over the top. Instead, he is reading the release of the wide receiver, and when it’s not underneath or inside, his eyes move to the strong side of the formation as he tries to pick up or help a crossing route.
The other thing worth noting from this final play: at the bottom of the screen, to the strong side of the formation is tight end Robert Tonyan. Covering him in man coverage is Levonte David, split out wide and this wasn’t the only time. Whether on the isolated side — although a little less common — or split out to the Trips side, the Buccaneers prefer to live in their nickel defense with a linebacker covering the tight end.
3x1 basic zone defense
But good QBs and teams can hit those if they windows are this open.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 5, 2021
*sidebar; could any team face lesser QBs down the stretch-->playoffs?
Cover6, and the #2 WR runs off the deep half S w/ a post & the #1 WR slides under it on the corner. CB and S a tick behind closing the hole pic.twitter.com/teyexmxnJf
Similar to the basic man-to-man coverage, the Buccaneers’ zone coverage against 3x1 formations is equally simple. Relying heavily on spot-drop coverage from split-safety looks, there isn’t much of a matching component. The Chiefs should have a special appreciation for this particular play, as it’s in the neighborhood of the infamous 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp play from Super Bowl LIV.
TB does mix in zone coverage but most commonly with spot drop elements which can lead to big gaps in cov— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 5, 2021
GB is in 4x1 here so the Cover2 call could be a counter but there are open receivers on all three levels of the field. TB's zone vs 3/4x1 is trying to force the rail shot pic.twitter.com/FpGfnMYrSs
Even more interesting — or coincidental — was the two times that Tampa Bay saw a four-strong formation, they defaulted to a spot drop Cover 2 zone. In both basic zone concepts, the goal is to force quarterbacks into taking lower-percentage throws into deep pockets, but good quarterbacks can make those throws. Giving as much space on these throws as Tampa has in these zone coverage situations isn’t making life too difficult for the Chiefs’ offense.
Blitzing the 3x1
Final little wrinkle, when facing a "tight" TE in a 3x1 -like a nub formation or the TE in-line to the trips side- the Bucs like to send DB pressure.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) February 5, 2021
Most often twisting into the middle of the formation but occasionally will come off the C-gap. Usually not well disguised either pic.twitter.com/E7SZGDAfHi
The final element of the Buccaneers 3x1 defense is the CAT blitz. Much like the rest, this isn’t exactly well-disguised. If a tight end is aligned on the line of scrimmage to either side of the 3x1 formation, the Buccaneers often bring pressure from a defensive back. Interestingly enough, it’s almost always done with man coverage behind the blitz, a five-man pressure, and the defensive back is coming through the C-gap or tighter.
It rarely results in a free rusher or quick pressure but rather serves as a means to speed up the quarterback’s clock and force the ball out early.
The Chiefs’ counter
First and foremost, the Chiefs should stick with their bread and butter on offense.
Travis Kelce aligned as the isolated-Y on 29% of his routes this season, the only tight end over 16%.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 5, 2021
The Y-Iso package is utilized as a coverage indicator by offenses, depending on who aligns across from the TE:
CB -> Zone
LB/Safety -> Man#SBLV | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/7XbUw0An30
Simply aligning in a 3x1 formation is the start. Utilizing a basic man or zone coverage read is next. There is always the chance the Buccaneers opt to play a cornerback in man coverage on Travis Kelce, but that is something the Chiefs should flush out by the end of the first quarter.
Next comes the mind games. Keeping in mind how the Buccaneers have played their 2-Man, Cone coverage, the Chiefs can play around with their isolated receiver. Challenge the Buccaneers to play man coverage with Kelce isolated to the side. If they are making the “Cone” call, you have a linebacker inserting as a deep-half defender, trying to cover deep overs. If they adjust and drop the “Cone” call, you then get a linebacker on an island against the best tight end in the league. Finally, Tampa Bay may simply be forced to default to zone coverage against this Y-Iso formation, but as a team that prefers man-to-man coverage, that’s also a win for the Chiefs.
Something else the Chiefs may consider based on how the Buccaneers have played the back-side wide receiver most commonly is utilizing Hill as the “X” receiver. If the Buccaneers are content with having the back-side safety sift down to pick-up a crosser from the strong side when the “X” releases outside and deep, they could easily put Hill back into a foot race as they did in the first matchup.
Very similar to Hill's first TD. Beats the press with his feet and uses his hands to maintain his split.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 1, 2020
The hand technique at the catch point makes this one (and the throw). Tracking the ball w/o losing speed. Doesn't show hands until last sec and catches tight to avoid a rake pic.twitter.com/rBrgeAE3S8
If the Buccaneers drop the “Cone” call and just have the safety play over the top like a traditional 2-Man coverage, all of those patented Chiefs’ over and crossing routes become wide open against man or zone coverage.
Working vs Invert Tampa2, Hill knows he's gonna be hit in the C2 hole but still brings the ball in.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 1, 2020
Good body control to work by the CB w/o being redirected but the ball tracking & ability to go up, high point the football, and then absorb the hit were great. pic.twitter.com/bBslD5g2ML
The bottom line
I have a tough time finding ways to make a case for the Buccaneers’ defense stopping the Chiefs’ offense. The pass defense could always dominate, but we’ve seen the Chiefs' quick-passing game operating at an all-time high through the playoffs. Simply put, if the offensive linemen can provide obstacles to run around, the ball has been out.
As long as the Chiefs’ pass protection can force the Buccaneers’ pass rush off a direct path, the matchup between the Chiefs’ 3x1 formation and the Buccaneers’ response to it is one of the more lopsided in this game. When the Chiefs dial up their 3x1 — and even 4x1 formations at times — look for them to find quite a bit of success as Tampa Bay struggles to find a counter.