I don’t anticipate either team leaning on their running game to win Super Bowl LV. However, both the Chiefs and Buccaneers will want to stick with it for 4 quarters to keep the opposing pass rush honest. Tampa has had a much more balanced approach in the playoffs to do just that. They went from running the ball on 36.3% of their snaps during the regular season (3rd lowest in the NFL) to running it on 43.6% in the playoffs (Equivalent of 11th most in the NFL during the regular season). They are not doing it because they’re dominating on the ground. Tampa is averaging just 3.92 yards per rush in the playoffs. Instead, they’re doing it to keep Tom Brady upright and to make play-action more effective.
You don’t need to run the ball well to be effective with play-action. However, you do need to run the ball. The Buccaneers have made a clear effort to stick with their running game during the postseason, and they’ve increased their use of play-action. After utilizing play-action on just under 18% of their pass plays during the season (near the bottom of the NFL), they’ve increased that frequency to over 25% in the playoffs. Tom Brady has played to a 129.9 QB rating on play-action this postseason and just a 74.5 QB rating on normal dropbacks.
Play-action influences defenders at the second level, creating voids in coverage (which you’ll see on several of the throws below). But the most important thing it does for the Buccaneers is slow down the pass rush. Tom Brady can play until he’s 50 if he can throw out of clean pockets like he’s been able to throughout the playoffs, especially off of play-action.
On the below play against Washington in the Wild Card Round, watch how the Buccaneers used a pulling guard on a “trap pass” to sell the run, made the defensive line hesitate, and created a clean pocket. Brady did the rest.
On the below play against the Saints in the Divisional Round, the Buccaneers used outside zone action to stretch the D-line laterally, giving Brady time and space to find an open receiver downfield.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Buccaneers created several key completions off of play-action against the Packers. The below completion came on 3rd-and-2. Tampa’s offensive line manhandled the Packers on this play, and the run action forced Green Bay pass rushers to hold up at the line to defend the run. The result was another clean and comfortable pocket.
Brady looked like he was playing a casual game of catch with his kids on that throw.
The below touchdown against Green Bay put the Bucs up by 3 scores.
Let me know when you find the Packers’ pass rush.
To be clear, Bruce Arians did not transform his offense overnight into a conservative ground attack that pushes the ball downfield merely via play-action. However, the Buccaneers have increased their reliance on the ground game and use of play-action. In the postseason, the small things matter. Marginal improvements can make all the difference in the world. And this slight shift is one reason the Bucs have found themselves playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
In their Week 12 matchup against the Chiefs, the Buccaneers used play-action on just 6 of 42 called pass plays. They ran the ball just 13 times on 55 offensive snaps. This allowed Kansas City to be extra aggressive on defense. It would not be a surprise to see Tampa lean a little more on their run game and play-action to diminish the effectiveness of the Chiefs’ pressure schemes that were able to slow down the Buccaneers passing game last time.