How the Buccaneers Defense Dominated the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV

The Buccaneers’ defensive performance was one of the best in Super Bowl history. Keeping a Patrick Mahomes-led offense out of the end zone just doesn’t happen, and yet Tampa managed to do exactly that.

There were two key elements to the Buccaneers’ gameplan. First, they got pressure without sacrificing men in coverage. Tampa was able to pressure Mahomes on 29 of 56 called passes, according to ESPN Stats Info. They were able to do that despite blitzing just 7 times. They rushed more than four on just 5 of those blitzes.

The second key element of their gameplan was their coverage approach. Todd Bowles called a 1-safety shell coverage on just 7 of 56 passes. The Buccaneers played 2-shell coverages the rest of the way. Bowles had his safeties play deep throughout the night, the clear objective being to take away any big plays over the top. The Buccaneers didn’t play a ton of man coverage, but when they did they played 2-man. Bowles did not call one snap of man-free (1 deep safety). What did that mean? Tyreek Hill did not get many 1-on-1 opportunities downfield.

The Chiefs’ First Two Drives
The final numbers were much different from how the game started out, though. On the Chiefs’ first two drives, Mahomes saw three of those seven 1-shell coverages. It appeared that Bowles came out wanting to fool Mahomes with intricate disguises. It was nearly a disaster.

On this 3rd down from the Chiefs’ first drive, the Buccaneers looked like they might be playing some form of cover-2 or Tampa-2 pre-snap. Then they rotated to 3-under-3-deep and brought a 5-man pressure. Mahomes nearly found Mecole Hardman for a big play.

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It looked like Mahomes couldn’t quite follow through on this throw due to the pressure up the middle, which impacted his accuracy. It wouldn’t be the first time the pass rush made its presence felt.

On Kansas City’s next drive, Bowles blitzed 2 cornerbacks on third down. One came from the boundary and one came from the slot to the other side. Mahomes found a way to dodge the pressure and get a throw off downfield that hit Tyreek Hill between the eyes in the end zone.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love the design and aggressiveness in general. But it seemed like from that point forward, Bowles decided to avoid the risk of sacrificing coverage and allowing Mahomes to make a big play over the top after evading blitz pressure. He rushed 5 just two more times the rest of the game.

And that was because he could.

The Pass Rush
As we mentioned coming into this game, the Chiefs’ offensive line had 3 positions manned by different starters from what they used during the home stretch of the season (Mike Remmers moved from right tackle to left tackle, Andrew Wylie moved from right guard to right tackle, and Stefen Wisniewski slid into the starting role at right guard). The Buccaneers took full advantage.

The below play was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) of the game. The Chiefs were facing a 3rd-and-6 with just over a minute remaining in the first half. They came out in a 3×1 set with Travis Kelce aligned to the backside. The Buccaneers matched up in cover-4 “lock” (Quarters to the front side, man-to-man backside). They were preoccupied with Tyreek Hill and the rest of K.C.’s speed to the right of the formation, and this left Kelce alone in a 1-on-1 with space to maneuver.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

From the sideline angle, stay focused on Kelce.

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The Chiefs scored a touchdown on this exact same play against the Browns in the Divisional Round. And Kelce was open on this play too. Tough to argue he wouldn’t have gotten at least a first down here. He might have scored. But that’s not what happened. From the end zone angle you can see why.

Shaquil Barrett got quick pressure inside against right-guard-turned-right-tackle Andrew Wylie. Jason Pierre-Paul, aligned over left guard Nick Allegretti (#73), also got quick pressure. Mahomes was forced to bail from the pocket and throw the ball away.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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Think how different this game would have been if K.C. converted there. Even if they didn’t score a touchdown, they likely would have run out the clock and gone into halftime down 14-6 instead of 21-6. If they scored a touchdown on that play, it would have been a new game, especially with K.C. receiving the 2nd-half kickoff. They also probably wouldn’t have been as desperate and called all those timeouts to get the ball back at the end of the half (although who knows).

Tampa’s pressure wrecked that play, and they wrecked much of the rest of Patrick Mahomes’ night. Below, you can see Shaquil Barrett again creating pressure, this time by taking right-tackle-turned-left-tackle Mike Remmers (#75) for a ride.

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On the below 4th down, the Buccaneers used a tilted front to get a 1-on-1 matchup inside on back-up-turned-starting-right-guard Stefen Wisniewski (#61). Look at those 3 pass rushers to the left. Defensive end William Gholston (#92) beat Wisniewski and created quick inside pressure to force Mahomes out of the pocket.

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Pretty incredible throw by Mahomes there, by the way.

To a man, Tampa’s D-line dominated the Chiefs up front from start to finish. Barrett and JPP got a lot of attention, but Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea consistently generated pressure as well. Todd Bowles was ultimately able to use each of his talented pass rushers in various ways. He showed multiple fronts that either set up advantageous 1-on-1’s or enabled him to successfully scheme pressure with stunts. The talent and scheme combined to make life absolutely miserable for Mahomes.

Coverage
It wasn’t just the pressure that beat Mahomes and the Chiefs’ passing game, though. As we mentioned earlier, Bowles utilized 2-shell looks on almost every pass play. You saw the cover-4 lock on the play at the end of the first half. Below was another common look we saw from the Buccaneers.

Here, they played man coverage to Tyreek Hill’s side with a safety over the top. To the 3-receiver side, slot cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting dropped deep at the snap. This gave Tampa the ability to handle K.C.’s speed if all 3 receivers ran vertical routes. Based on the splits of the two inside receivers here, it was more likely that only one would go vertical. Murphy-Bunting and the deep safety to his side were able to play that route inside-outside to take it away.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Buccaneers’ pass rush then had the time to get to Mahomes.

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Throughout the night, the Bucs played one 2-shell coverage after another. They did everything they could to not let up any easy big plays over the top. The Chiefs made a few attempts to slow the game down and get the offense going with screens and misdirection. They were unable to, largely because of the job Lavonte David and Devin White did roaming the intermediate levels with speed and discipline. Below, watch how both of them handled this attempt at misdirection, barely reacting to the motion or Mahomes’ pump fakes.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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Their discipline allowed White and David to stop this play in its tracks. A completion likely would have resulted in a loss of yards. Again, you can see the coverage was another 2-shell look.

The Chiefs Failed to Adjust
Tampa certainly did their part on defense, but the Chiefs failed to make many adjustments. We knew coming into this game that the matchup between the Buccaneers’ pass rush and Kansas City’s protection was going to be an issue. We also suspected we’d see a lot of the same elements (if not more) of what the Chiefs did in Week 12 to keep the pass rush away from Mahomes. That included lots of RPOs, play-action, and moving pockets. In their first matchup, K.C. used these types of plays on 43% of their passes. They did so on less than 20% of their called passes in the Super Bowl.

You can say that the game got out of hand in the 2nd half on Sunday, which helped pushed those numbers down. That’s somewhat true, but it calls to light another issue with the Chiefs’ approach in the Super Bowl. They chose to be one dimensional from the start. They also completely abandoned their running game and play-action too early in the 2nd half. Even when they came out in the 3rd quarter and ripped off runs of 26 and 10 yards, seemingly because Tampa was spread out and committed to defending the pass, they abandoned it almost immediately. All it took was one 3-yard run on first down to discourage them. Andy Reid went back to an empty formation on the very next play, completely taking away the threat of the run and any ability to use play-action or RPOs off of it.

I’m not saying the Chiefs were going to run their way to a Lombardi Trophy, but they really didn’t even attempt to run the ball or even threaten with it. This is a little shocking considering the mismatch they were dealing with up front. They finished the night with 56 called passes and just 12 called runs.

As far as Patrick Mahomes is concerned, his performance wasn’t as bad as it looked while watching live on television. His team was out-coached and outplayed physically, and he was under constant duress as a result. That said, he was a little over reactive at times, sometimes moving within the pocket into pressure. On his first interception, you can see that he didn’t even set his feet at the top of his drop.

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It might not have made a huge difference. Maybe if Mahomes had set his feet he could have gotten that throw off earlier with more velocity and better ball placement.

Mahomes was clearly anticipating pressure at times, which led to a few less-than-precise throws. It’s easier said than done, but even when you’re getting pressured on more than 50% of your passes, you can’t anticipate pressure. You have no chance as a quarterback once that happens.

It’s easy to focus on what the Chiefs didn’t do, and there’s certainly validity to the point that their coaches and players had their worst game of the season. Travis Kelce had two key mishaps on 3rd downs that could have swung the momentum of the game in another direction (He dropped a perfect ball in the 2nd quarter and slipped when he had 1-on-1 coverage in the 3rd quarter). However, this butt-kicking was more a result of how well the Buccaneers played. Todd Bowles had a great plan and his players executed, resulting in an all-time Super Bowl performance. The Buccaneers Offense gets much of the fanfare, but this team isn’t Super Bowl champs without that defense.

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