The first matchup between the Chiefs Defense and Buccaneers Offense was really a tale of two defenses. The more aggressive the Chiefs were, the more success they had. The less aggressive they were, the more success the Buccaneers had.
As you can see below, the Chiefs were more successful playing man coverage than zone:
The Chiefs also had more success blitzing:
The difference between playing man and blitzing and sitting back in zone with a normal pass rush was staggering:
So why did Kansas City’s aggressive approach work? Well, it’s simple. Their blitzes were able to hit home, giving Brady less time to throw. The Chiefs’ defensive backs are also an underrated group when it comes to coverage. Put those two together, and life was more difficult for Brady vs. man coverage and blitzes. We football analysts often try to make things complicated, but football is sometimes a very simple game.
Still, there is a little more to it than that. Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo found ways to bring more pass rushers than the Buccaneers had blockers on multiple plays. In man coverage, this forced Tom Brady to pick a matchup pre-snap and have to stick with it knowing that he wouldn’t have time to sit in the pocket. That meant he had to guess right based on the matchups and the routes called. Sometimes, he was able to do that. Not always, though, and that slowed down Tampa’s offense. Not to mention, Brady’s ability to scan the field and find an open receiver from the pocket late in the down is one of his greatest strengths, and the Chiefs were able to neutralize it.
Take this 2nd-and-6 on the Buccaneers’ first drive of the game. Kansas City was able to split the left tackle and left guard. Then they brought two pass rushers in between, where Tampa had only one man to block (running back Ronald Jones).
The result was a free rusher in on Brady.
The Chiefs played man coverage behind their blitz. Brady didn’t have time to scan the field and find Cameron Brate (#84) open underneath. He had to choose his matchup pre-snap and try to execute. He chose Mike Evans’ route on the outside against Bashaud Breeland.
Mike Evans isn’t exactly a bad option to have to choose. But even he isn’t going to get open on every play.
On this 3rd-and-3 later in the first quarter, the Buccaneers came out in a 4-WR set with Antonio Brown aligned in the backfield.
The idea here was to get Brown matched up on a safety (preferably Daniel Sorensen down by the line of scrimmage) and have him run a wheel route out of the backfield. Ideally, Sorensen would get caught up in traffic, allowing Brown to beat him downfield.
Instead, Sorensen blitzed and the Chiefs matched up on Brown with safety Juan Thornhill, who was 8 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Thornhill stayed on top of Brown’s wheel route. Brady had already chosen the wheel pre-snap, though. Once he saw that Brown was covered after the snap, he knew he didn’t have time to go elsewhere with the ball and threw it out of bounds.
Again, Brady didn’t have time to sit in the pocket and work through his progressions because of the pass rush and another free rusher closing fast. The Chiefs again attacked with a pressure scheme that got 4 pass rushers on 3 blockers, this time to the right side of the formation.
In the third quarter with the Buccaneers driving and searching for momentum, the Chiefs again brought pressure with tight man coverage behind it to get a critical interception.
Again, Brady was forced to pick a matchup pre-snap and stick with it. From the end zone angle, you can see that he threw this ball way too far inside, likely because his throwing motion was rushed due to the pressure. The Chiefs didn’t bring more pass rushers than Tampa could protect here, but they did get a favorable matchup with the dangerous Tyrann Mathieu rushing against running back Ronald Jones.
The Chiefs have been an aggressive defense all year. Steve Spagnuolo probably feels that he can be for a few reasons. First, that secondary is good enough for its DBs to be in 1-on-1 coverage consistently. Second, he has Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback. Points are not at a premium for the Chiefs. With that offense, the game can be won by Spagnuolo’s defense stealing a possession or two with turnovers and game-changing plays. If they take a chance and get burned for a big play or a touchdown, so what? Mahomes and company can get it back in a heartbeat.
In the Super Bowl, it’s unlikely that the Chiefs will play man coverage and blitz on every play. So there will be some opportunities for the Buccaneers when they sit back in zone and rush 4. But expect the Chiefs to play more on the aggressive end of the spectrum until Tampa proves they can beat that style of play consistently. In that Week 12 matchup, Spagnuolo called a blitz on more than 50% of Tampa’s called passes. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar number on Super Sunday. You can bet that handling Kansas City’s aggressive style of play is what Tom Brady and the Buccaneers Offense will be preparing for all week.