Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming championship game and the teams involved, and what each squad might do to emerge victorious.
The 55th edition of the NFL’s biggest game will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, as the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS DANGEROUS
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith it was more conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. His weapons in the passing game play to those strengths as well. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins and burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone deep, and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid.
Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers, and Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020.
Back in April the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Buffalo Bill LeSean McCoy. Williams’ opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 put the spotlight squarely on the young rookie, who got off to an encouraging start to his career but his impact on the field was reduced as time went on.
To lighten the first-year back’s load, Kansas City signed former All-Pro Le’Veon Bell in October. Bell, like his younger counterpart, is a shifty and strong runner who also excels in running routes out of the backfield and while split out at wide receiver. Unlike Edwards-Helaire though, Bell is savvier and more patient at setting up his blockers to spring for big gains and is more experienced in pass protection.
The two operate behind an offensive line that is made up of Eric Fisher and Mike Remmers at left and right tackle (Remmers has filled in for Mitchell Schwartz since Schwartz injured his back against the Bills in Week Six), Andre Wylie at one guard spot and Austin Reiter at center, and fullback Anthony Sherman is one of football’s better lead blockers. But the other starting guard position has been a revolving door this season, as Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of 2020 because of the virus. His replacement, former Baltimore Raven Kelechi Osemele, tore tendons in both knees and Nick Allegretti has settled in there. Additionally, Fisher suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the AFC title game against the Bills and won’t suit up in the Super Bowl – he will be replaced by Stefen Wisniewski.
One area of this unit that bears watching is in the red zone. In their last 24 trips inside the 20-yard line before the AFC Championship Game, Kansas City’s offense had a downturn with just 10 touchdowns scored and 11 field goals converted – leading to the team being just the 26th-best offense (45.8 percent) in that area since Week 12. The Chiefs were able to rebound against Buffalo, but can they do it again against Tampa?
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE NOT SO BAD ITSELF
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit, but between 2016-18 it took a nosedive – bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants in Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes and coverages involving mainly Cover One, Two, Zero and two-deep man with press technique by the cornerbacks and the safeties rotating before the snap.
It took about half of 2019 for the Chiefs’ defenders to get used to Spagnuolo’s playbook, but they played lights-out after Week 11 – allowing just 11.5 points-per-game, notching 10 interceptions and finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass. They also racked up 45 sacks which was 11th-best among all defenses.
This year has been a bit different. Like the rest of the NFL, Kansas City’s defensive play wasn’t great – as evidenced by them finishing 21st against the run – but the Chiefs did end 2020 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions.
A big key to Kansas City’s turnaround was the importation of former Texans and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his 1,080 snaps on the field last season – 483 at slot cornerback, 315 at box safety and nickel/dime linebacker, 173 at free safety, 82 near the defensive line and 27 at outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence are valuable to the Chiefs.
Opposite Mathieu is a combination of another versatile playmaker in Juan Thornhill and special teams ace Daniel Sorenson. The Chiefs’ other defensive backs are veterans Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton, and they will be on the field a lot on Sunday – as evidenced by Kansas City having used dime formations on 35 percent of their plays, the third-highest figure in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive tackle in the league and is the linchpin of this unit thanks to his combination of burst and power off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness and Derrick Nnadi is an up-and-coming name to watch too. At linebacker Kansas City employs two former Dallas Cowboys in Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, and third-year pro Ben Niemann rounds out this group (Niemann is usually the second-level defender used in their dime packages and will blitz from that alignment).
BUCS’ OFFENSE IS LOADED WITH TALENT
Six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady has played in many types of offenses in his career. From operating on a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to being the quarterback of a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and orchestrating an offense that revolved around tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.
For the better part of the last 20 years the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was the triggerman for this attack with the New England Patriots. Until now. Brady, seeking a new chapter elsewhere, departed over the offseason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has adjusted to head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield, vertical passing scheme quite well. Brady, even at age 43, has shown little signs of slowing down – accumulating 4,633 passing yards (the fifth-most of his 21-year career) and 40 touchdowns, the second-most he has had as a pro behind his 50 in 2007.
Helping Brady out is a plethora of dangerous options in the passing game. Before he signed in Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – a pair of fast and big-bodied red zone targets – were productive, but it seemed as if they had potential to do more damage in the NFL than they had shown with former signal caller Jameis Winston. Evans responded with a career-high 13 touchdowns and Godwin was on pace to tie his career-bests in receptions and touchdowns despite playing in only 12 games.
Bolstering the depth of this high-flying offense besides deep threat Scotty Miller and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard (who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon) were a pair of veteran imports – Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Brown, the enigmatic former All-Pro, is still as dangerous of a route-runner as ever and posted 45 catches and four touchdowns in just eight games (a projected rate of 90 receptions and eight scores over a full season).
Gronkowski – one of the league’s best to ever play tight end – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can execute almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. The wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries, forced him to take a year off in 2019 after winning a third Super Bowl with the Patriots, but came out of retirement to team up with his former quarterback again. “Gronk” got off to a bit of a slow start in 2020 while trying to get reacclimated to pro football, but ended the season tied for second on the team in touchdowns.
The Bucs also boast many options at running back. Ronald Jones had a career-high 1,143 yards from scrimmage and is backed up by short-yardage specialist Leonard Fournette and McCoy. They run behind an underrated offensive line composed of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Aaron Stinnie and Tristan Wirfs, who had an impressive rookie year at right tackle.
TAMPA’S DEFENSE IS AGGRESSIVE AND COMPLEX
Coordinator Todd Bowles – one of the NFL’s best defensive minds – runs a 3-4 scheme that is characterized by multiple fronts and blitzes and uses plenty of stunts and slants at the line of scrimmage to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the back end, Bowles prefers disguised coverages defined by Cover Four and man-press coverage to take away quick throws and disrupt timing between wideouts and pass distributors – a stark contrast to the old “Tampa Two” zone coverage that the Buccaneers leaned on for nearly 25 years.
Tampa Bay has an excellent front-seven up front. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Vita Vea and trade deadline pickup Steve McClendon are the team’s main defensive linemen. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are a scary one-two punch at outside linebacker and have had much success as pocket disrupters throughout their careers, and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David might be the fastest pair at their positions in pro football (David is the better of the two in pass coverage though).
While the Bucs were the best defense in the league against the run and fourth in sacks, they were just 21st against the pass and could probably stand to add some talent in their secondary. Beyond promising safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, their cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell – leave a bit to be desired. Look for Davis, who has size and physicality, to be matched up more often on Kelce in this outing.
STATS AND MUSINGS
- One of Spagnuolo’s favorite types of blitzes is a “Mike-Star” blitz where the middle linebacker and slot cornerback both rush the passer. This can be defeated via three-by-one trips formations, which the Bucs use a decent amount – will “Spags” move away from this type of scheme on Sunday?
- Kansas City likes to have their receivers run curl routes underneath to influence mid-level defenders to open up space downfield for Hill and Hardman. Conversely, great speed down the field can also influence two-deep safety looks to create opportunities underneath.
- Could the Chiefs also use post-wheel combinations against Tampa? They’re good routes to use against Cover Three and quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
- Speaking of wheel routes, the Chiefs have a concept in their playbook called All-Go Special Halfback Seam, where Hill goes in motion across the formation, Kelce works the middle, Watkins runs downfield on a go route and a running back comes out of the backfield on said wheel route. This could probably work against the Bucs’ favored defensive coverages.
- Kansas City also uses plenty of presnap motion. One such play of theirs that is used frequently is called “Weezy Right Lollipop” in an ode to rapper Lil’ Wayne. Hill motions across the formation three times to misdirect defenders before Mahomes will dump the ball off to a running back in the opposite side of the third motion. Could we see this utilized on Sunday?
- Since Week Nine the Bucs’ offense has become more productive, with a notable uptick in usage of 12 personnel (one running back and two tight end packages) play-action and more pre-snap motion. That has helped Tampa become more productive as of late, but will this continue against Kansas City?
- Since their Week 12 loss to Kansas City Bowles has blitzed opposing quarterbacks at the highest rate in the NFL. Will he continue to apply pressure on Mahomes despite the young quarterback possessing the best passer rating against the blitz all season (134.2)?
- Also, Hill’s speed was a major factor against the Buccaneers in their previous matchup – resulting in 13 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns (mainly against Cover One and two-deep man coverage). Will Bowles go back to his preferred quarters coverage this time around?
- Kansas City’s defense inside the 20-yard line has been porous in 2020 – allowing a touchdown more than 76 percent of the time. Can Tampa find a way to take advantage of this weakness?
- The Chiefs have recently made a habit of winning close games. Eight of their last nine victories, including the postseason, have come by no more than six points.
- In five career games against Spagnuolo (including Super Bowl XLII) Brady has been sacked 13 times – an average of nearly three times a game, well above his per-game average. How Tampa deals with Kansas City’s pressure schemes bears watching.
- The Chiefs are looking to become the first team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls and are attempting to win the third title in franchise history. Conversely, Tom Brady is trying to win his seventh ring and the Bucs are aiming to win the second championship in team annals.
- Additionally, Brady is one of just two athletes among the four major North American sports to make 10 championship appearances since 1990 (LeBron James is the other), has joined Peyton Manning as the second signal caller to take two different teams to the Super Bowl and is the first quarterback to win championships in both the AFC and NFC.