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How the Chiefs should attack the Buccaneers’ defense

Digging deeper into why the Chiefs’ 3x1 formations can be a key against Tampa Bay.

AFC Championship - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.