MAQB: Super Bowl X-Factors on the Buccaneers' and Chiefs' Defenses

Everyone loves to talk about Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, but two keys to the game could be on the other side of the ball.
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We are six days from the Super Bowl and seven from the 2021 offseason. Here’s what’s happening around the league …

Carlton Davis, Matt Campbell and Aaron Rodgers

• Underrated Super Bowl LV Factor No. 1: The Buccaneers’ secondary. Here’s a story for you, along those lines. Going into last year’s draft, I’d mentioned that Tampa had a big-time need at corner to fill. And I got some pushback from people in that building. They really liked their young corner group, they said. I’d see, they said. Whatever, I thought. Well, turns out, they had every right to be optimistic. Carlton Davis has evolved into the top-10 corner Bruce Arians believed he could be—he’d flashed that ability before, most prominently in Week 16 of 2019 by following DeAndre Hopkins everywhere, and holding the then Texans’ star to five catches and 23 yards. And Sean Murphy-Bunting, who was very up-and-down this year, has rounded into shape just in time; the team loved his ball skills coming out, and thought he’d work out the rough spots in his game over time, and sure enough he’s had three picks in the playoffs and they all resulted in touchdowns. The former is 24, the latter is 23. The former is evolving into a No. 1 corner, the latter a very versatile and valuable inside/outside playmaker. And with the underappreciated Jordan Whitehead and rising star Antoine Winfield behind them (if healthy), a better-than-you think or, at least, better-than-I-thought Buccaneers secondary gives Tampa a fighting chance to slow Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

• Underrated Super Bowl LV Factor No. 2: Steve Spagnuolo. The K.C. defensive coordinator may not be a Tom Brady Kryptonite, but I think he’s as close to it as anyone’s going to come. He’s called five games on defense against Brady. He’s 3–2 in them. The rundown on Brady’s numbers vs. Spags:

Week 17, 2007 (NYG, L): 32-for-42, 356 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 116.8 rating.

Super Bowl XLII (NYG, W): 29-for-48, 266 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 82.5 rating.

Week 10, 2015 (NYG, L): 26-for-42, 334 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 92.8 rating.

Week 14, 2019 (KC, W): 19-for-36, 169 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 63.3 rating.

Week 12, 2020 (KC, W): 27-for-41, 345 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 96.1 rating.

The aggregate (133-for-209, 63.6%, 1,470 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs, 89.2 rating) gives Brady a worse completion percentage, and significantly worse TD to INT ratio and passer rating than his career averages.

And this might be the operative number: In those five games, Spagnuolo’s defenses have registered 13 sacks, with at least three in three of the last four meetings. That’s a big deal, for sure, because getting to Brady has to be central to any formula to beat him. How has Spagnuolo done it in the past? He’s done all he can to shield his defense’s intentions to Brady’s adjustments. Super Bowl XLII is a perfect example. For that game, the Giants’ plan was to go into each snap on defense with two calls. The first was what they’d show out of the huddle. The second was what they shifted to once Brady started adjusting the offense. And it worked like a charm. And I’m not saying you just dust that plan off again. What I am saying is that it’s a good window into what Spagnuolo would do to overcome Brady in the past—he knew if he gave Brady the answers to the test he was screwed. So he didn’t give him the answers to the test, and the Giants sacked him five times in that game. We’ll see if he can drum up something similar this time around.

• A fun leftover from the coaching carousel: Five of the seven NFL teams with openings tried to get Iowa State coach Matt Campbell to interview. And one, I’m told, was on the verge of offering its job, to the point where a flight and in-person meeting were planned. That meeting never happened, of course. Campbell pulled his name out of the running for NFL jobs at that point, wanting to see the job through in Ames, where he’ll have nearly every significant player from this year’s Fiesta Bowl champion returning to what’s expected to be a preseason top-10 team. But he most certainly is interested in the NFL, and is trending toward being to the 2022 NFL hiring cycle what Matt Rhule was to the 2020 round. Rhule’s pattern from 2018 to 20 (curiosity in 2018, target in 2019, belle of the ball in 2020) looks like it could mirror Campbell’s from 2020 to 22.

• So who finished second in the Matthew Stafford derby? I’m told the Panthers, at one point on Saturday, were to the point where they were in the process of obtaining Stafford’s medicals from Detroit. Obviously, things changed from there, with the Rams’ persistence and aggression winning the day. But if you figured the Panthers’ haul for Stafford was strong—the eighth pick, plus another pick—then I’d say the sellers in this equation would agree with you, because they almost took it.

• One other thing that I think is important to mention on the Stafford deal is that the Lions really did want to walk away with a quarterback. My understanding is Lions coach Dan Campbell wanted, at the very least, a guy he could see as a starter for the next couple years. So yeah, moving Goff’s contract was a big part of the deal for the Rams—but it also gives the Lions something that their new head coach very clearly wanted, and might well have asked for as part of any of these potential deals.

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• From Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, on Aaron Rodgers: “I don’t think I have to do a lot of assuring him because I think obviously his play speaks for itself. I will say this: We’re really excited not only for next year but the years to come. He’s playing at such a high level that he always has, and I think this year was a special team. It didn’t finish like we wanted to finish, but I think everybody’s purely motivated to get back and I think, like I said, I don’t think there’s anything that we have to do. He’s our quarterback, and he’s our leader.” I said it in the MMQB column, and I’ll say again that this is the absolutely right move. But I’m going to add this: I do think there’s something the Packers might want to do (if not have to do), if they want a happy quarterback, and that’s show him they’re all-in for the short-term. There are, of course, different ways to do it. But I’d bet that a part of Rodgers’s comments of Jan. 25 were a result of looking at what the Bills did for Josh Allen, the Bucs did for Tom Brady and the Chiefs did for Patrick Mahomes. And I’m saying that as someone who thinks Rodgers already has a good crew around him.

• I really liked this line from Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa: “With the way things went last year, you always have to prove yourself to do better, and I want to do better.” He’s right, too. It would be irresponsible for Miami not to look at Zach Wilson and Justin Fields, and determine whether taking one or the other at No. 3 would represent an upgrade. Brian Flores and Chris Grier, in all likelihood, won’t be drafting that high again for quite some time. And it’s Tagovailoa’s responsibility to continue to prove he’s the best man for the job. No one should make it more complicated than that.

• Really awesome to see old Patriot Tedy Bruschi take on a role as senior advisor to the head coach at his alma mater, Arizona—and it’ll be a cool job for him. He and new Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch struck up a relationship when Fisch became a candidate in Tucson (they talked and Zoomed regularly through the interview process) and I know Bruschi could feel the excitement for Fisch’s arrival on campus, which got him excited enough to take Fisch up on his offer of a role within the program. Bruschi’s day job will still be at ESPN, and he’ll still live on the East Coast, but he’ll have a real presence in a program where his name still carries a ton of weight.

• While we’re on the topic of second careers for retired player, it surprised positively no one to see Jason Witten get into coaching. The ex-Cowboys star was named head coach at Liberty Christian in suburban Dallas on Monday. What will be interesting is where this takes Witten. I do know he’d expressed an interest in coaching to those in the Cowboys’ building, and was advised on his way out, after the 2019 season, to try and pick a place where he could learn more football and about coaching. Which, and this is just my opinion, probably had to play into his decision to go play for Jon Gruden in Vegas this year. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see Witten in the NFL again, at some point, and this time with a headset on.

• I saw some of the Chad Wheeler pictures the other day for the first time. And I’d advise you avoid them if you can. They’re horrific, and should put Wheeler away for a long time.