If there were a singular moment on Sunday that encapsulated the pure chaos Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles brought into Kansas City Chiefs' backfield, it was on a third-and-11 in the first quarter as K.C. was driving at the Tampa Bay 31-yard line.
The Chiefs’ backup offensive tackles, Andrew Wylie and Mike Remmers, were already buckling under the weight of organic four-man pressure but this was Bowles’s way of saying just wait. At the outset of the play, Patrick Mahomes was looking out at one down lineman and four Tampa Bay rushers in sprinters stances. Three defensive backs were lined up across the first down marker at the 15-yard line. Jamel Dean was lined up in what looked to be press coverage against Travis Kelce on the left side.
After the snap, Dean came screaming off the edge, as did Sean Murphy-Bunting, the cornerback on the other side of the line. Lavonte David, one of the rushers in a sprinter’s stance, floated back off the line and dropped to cut off a passing lane to Kelce. While running his out-breaking route, Kelce had to spend some of his time pointing frantically into the backfield to alert Mahomes of the free rusher closing on him. Mahomes had to step up into the pocket and side-arm a 50–50 ball to Tyreek Hill (that actually hit Hill in the face mask). Sharp Football Statistics personnel logging data suggest the blitz came out of a “Dime” personnel set Tampa Bay used on just 1% of its snaps this season.
It was a sign of life to come for Mahomes, who logged 497 yards’ worth of steps trying to evade constant pressure Sunday. A graphical representation of his pocket movement compiled by NFL data expert Michael Lopez, which recorded the backfield whereabouts of each quarterback on each snap, showed Mahomes constantly working from sideline to sideline. The splay of lines looked like a firework in mid explosion. Meanwhile, Tom Brady was nothing more than a straight line, back from the center to throw.
Brady won the night’s MVP award for a tidy 21-of-29 performance for 201 yards and three touchdowns, though one could argue the recognition was also about the massive organizational culture shift that ensued upon his arrival. But it’s important not to forget Bowles, who was not eligible for an MVP vote. The work of his front four and the steadiness in Tampa’s secondary contributed to one of the more brilliant defensive performances in recent Super Bowl history. With a different quarterback under center, one could also make a fair argument for many of them for MVP consideration.
Vita Vea, for example, averaged 3.6 yards of distance from Mahomes on all of his interior rushes and was particularly bullish on his opportunities to rush from the edge position. Vea, Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh were above the league average in terms of average pressure. This, despite the fact that Tampa Bay blitzed only a handful of times after the double cornerback blitz. Just 9% of Mahomes’s dropbacks were met with a blitz (again, one of Tampa’s lowest blitz rates of the season).
The Chiefs’ offensive line, according to ESPN Stats and Info, still managed to record a pass block win rate of 67%, which shows it was not necessarily as disastrous as initially thought. That also means the Bucs were able to create pressure with just their front four, which left them with room to double or bracket Hill and keep Travis Kelce’s damage to a minimum (they logged a 34% pressure rate with just four rushers, according to Next Gen Stats). This was reflected on Mahomes’s snap-to-throw time, which was nearly 3.5 seconds, more than a second per snap longer than Brady, and his extremely low completion percentage below expectation. Basically, some of the pressure was due to Mahomes’s inability to get rid of the ball, but he did not get rid of the ball because there was nowhere to throw it.
The consistent pressure out of four-man fronts and the Buccaneers’ ability to sit in their nebulous 2-high shell defensively contributed to what I felt was the most fascinating development of the game. It almost lured the Chiefs into believing they could continue squeaking by with five-man protection. Indeed, Andy Reid did little to alter his protection plan at halftime, despite how defeated both tackles appeared by then.
After taking a spin through the second half, I counted every time the Chiefs used anything to negate the rush (exotic backfield motion, a running back staying in to chip, tight end blocking help or wide receiver chip blocking) and found five wide receiver chips in total, one running back chip and one instance of an additional tight end staying in to block (oddly, most of the time backup tight end Nick Keizer was in, he was running routes). The Chiefs used three intriguing backfield motion concepts but all on one series early in the second half before abandoning them altogether.
Next Gen Stats had the Chiefs in five-man protection a stunning 92.3% of the time, which is the third-highest total of any team since NGS started logging the statistic back in 2016.
It’s fascinating to watch a game in which a coach or coordinator has total control. In these moments, it’s almost like operating a vice grip. Bowles was able to place the Chiefs within his desired constraints and then slowly tighten the walls around them to the point that their offense finally resembled what it did in the fourth quarter: milquetoast, frantic, predictable and utterly helpless.
We might spend the coming days and weeks wondering why Reid didn’t do more to protect Mahomes. Why he and Eric Bieniemy did not do a better job of diversifying their looks and mixing up their personnel. But sometimes an opposing coach or coordinator simply presents you with a nightmare scenario from which there is no coming back. Sometimes, the game is lost before it even kicks off.