There is plenty of time between Championship Sunday and Super Bowl Sunday for narratives to take root -- and some are stronger than others. Below, Keegan Abdoo and Mike Band apply Next Gen Stats to discern the truth behind five bold-type narratives surrounding Super Bowl LV.
1) Tom Brady is a system quarterback
Band: At 43 years old, Brady is redefining the quarterback age curve. It may be easy to assume the six-time Super Bowl champion has adapted his game to rely more on football IQ than arm talent ... but that's not what the numbers are telling us.
Veteran quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers have all seen dramatic declines in downfield passing propensity in the twilight years of their respective careers, relying more on processing skills and a quick-passing game to, as the great Hank Stram would say, matriculate the ball down the field. On the contrary, Brady has trended in the opposite direction during his first season in Bruce Arians' aerial passing attack and three years removed from his age-40 season. Brady led all qualified quarterbacks in air yards per attempt (9.6) and deep-pass rate (15 percent) during the regular season.
Among 2020 quarterbacks, the correlation between air yards and age has a negative slope -- except when it comes to Brady, the anomaly among veteran signal-callers.
Not only has Brady thrown downfield at a high rate, but he's been successful when throwing downfield, more so in the latter part of the season. Ironically, it was Brady's Week 12 matchup against this same Chiefs defense that could be defined as the turning point for Brady and the Buccaneers' vertical passing game. Brady finished the game 4-of-7 for 152 yards and one TD (with one INT) on deep passes in the three-point loss to Kansas City. Overall, Brady has thrown at least one touchdown pass over 20 yards downfield in seven of his last eight games:
Tom Brady's deep passing (20-plus air yards)
NOTE: CPOE = Completion Percentage over Expected
THE TRUTH: The reason for Brady's deep success this season is not absolute, but rather an amalgamation of Tampa having one of the most talented group of pass catchers with elite ball skills, an offensive-minded coach who loves to challenge defenses vertically and a signal-caller boasting 21 years of NFL experience with an arm that can still sling it.
2) The Buccaneers' defense should blitz Patrick Mahomes
Abdoo: Kansas City's offense has often seemed unstoppable with Mahomes at the helm over the last three-plus seasons. So what could possibly slow down the Chiefs' potent attack? For starters -- pun intended -- the offense will be without both left tackle Eric Fisher (tore Achilles in AFC Championship Game) and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (out since Week 6 with a back injury). Without Fisher in the game against the Bills, Mahomes compensated by getting the ball out quick (average time to throw: 2.40 seconds), a trend we might see continue in the Super Bowl.
So how will Kansas City protect Mahomes? It might come down to play design more than reliance on personnel. The Chiefs already utilize the widest O-line splits in the NFL by a considerable amount, with an average width of 7.04 yards from left to right tackle, almost a full yard wider than the league average (6.30 yards). Wide splits -- especially on passing plays -- could help compensate for the loss of Fisher, as this approach forces pass rushers to take a longer path to get to the quarterback.
The question on the mind of Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles leading up to game day: Should he bring the heat, as his defense has been designed to do?
Since 2016, Bowles-led defenses have finished in the top six in blitz rate every season. However, in their Week 12 matchup against this same Mahomes-led offense, the Buccaneers blitzed on just 17 percent of dropbacks, the lowest rate a Bowles-led unit blitzed in a game over that same time span.
Bowles would be wise not to blitz too often on Sunday -- no one has been better against the blitz over the last three seasons than No. 15 on the Chiefs.
There's a reason why Mahomes has been blitzed at the lowest rate among qualified quarterbacks over the last three seasons. No QB averages more expected points added per dropback than Mahomes against the blitz since he became the Chiefs full-time starter in 2018.
Rather than blitzing, the Bucs have a chance to overwhelm Chiefs backup tackles Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie by running defensive line games in order to create miscommunication up front. Led by edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul -- who are paired with Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea along the interior -- the Buccaneers have the personnel to create pressure with just a four-man pass rush.
THE TRUTH: Blitzing Mahomes is a dangerous proposition. Tampa Bay's best chance at disrupting K.C.'s passing game is to rely on its talented rotation along the defensive line.
3) The Chiefs' offense is all about the vertical passing game
Band: It has actually been the short, quick passing game that's been key for the Chiefs' offense during their postseason run. Mahomes has averaged six or fewer air yards per pass attempt in back-to-back games -- 6.0 in the Divisional Round win over the Browns and 5.8 in the AFC Championship Game defeat of the Bills -- his two shortest games by air yards since the Week 1 win over the Texans (4.7).
While the Chiefs have the talent to lean on an aggressive downfield passing attack -- SEE: Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman, among others -- the true strength of the Andy Reid-Mahomes brain trust is a willingness to adapt and take what the defense gives K.C. The threat of the vertical passing game has forced opponents to play deep against the Chiefs' offense. As such, Kansas City opponents aligned their safeties at an average depth of 13.8 yards (deepest in NFL) and showed two-high safety shells on 52 percent of snaps this season (third-highest in NFL) to force the Chiefs to throw underneath.
In response, Mahomes has thrown deep less often in each season as a starter, with defenses positioning their safeties farther away from the line of scrimmage. By focusing on the threat of the deep pass, defenses are leaving open spots in high-probability areas of the field where Kelce can find open holes in the defense and Hill has room to create big plays with yards after the catch.
No matter how defenses play against Mahomes, the Chiefs signal-caller consistently finds open receivers. Mahomes has ranked in the top three among qualified quarterbacks in average target separation in every full season of his career (2020: 3.8 yards, second among qualified QB).
THE TRUTH: If defenses continue to play deep against the Chiefs, Mahomes and his talented pass catchers will find space to exploit underneath. It may come down to whether Tampa's talented linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White can help support the secondary when it comes to limiting big plays in the passing game.
4) Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the league
Abdoo: Kelce is widely recognized as the most dynamic pass catcher at the tight end position across the NFL. The more accurate label, however, might just be top-five receiver in the league. Simply put, Travis Kelce has wide receiver skills with the build of a tight end and is changing offensive strategy as we know it.
Kelce lines up in wide alignment on 32 percent of snaps, four times the average tight end (8 percent) and is regularly featured as the X receiver in the formation. Kelce has gained over 1,000 receiving yards from a detached alignment (wide or slot) in each of the last three seasons -- all other tight ends have combined for zero such seasons in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).
Kelce's wide receiver traits extend to his route tree in Kansas City's offense -- Kelce has gained over 100 receiving yards on seven different routes this season, tied for most in the NFL with Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson. No other tight end did so on more than four.
Be sure to watch out for Kelce in Y-Iso Trips packages on Sunday. Kelce aligned as the isolated receiver on 29 percent of routes this season (only TE with at least 100 routes over 16 percent) and is especially dangerous when Tyreek Hill aligns as the inside trips receiver on the other side. The Chiefs' offense has used such a formation on 107 plays this season, including the playoffs, averaging 8.9 yards per play in trips with Kelce isolated and 7.3 yards per play in all other trips packages.
THE TRUTH: Kelce's actual role in Kansas City's offense is closer to an X receiver than it is to a tight end. He deserves to be in the discussion for best receiver in the league, period.
5) Rob Gronkowski has lost a step since coming out of retirement
Band: Gronk, if you are reading this, I am here to defend you! The Buccaneers tight end, and longtime target of Tom Brady, has been faster off the line of scrimmage as a route runner this season with the Buccaneers compared to 2018 with the Patriots:
Rob Gronkowski's average top speed within 1, 2 & 3 seconds of a route
|Within 1 second
|Within 2 seconds
|Within 3 seconds
|Gronk in 2018
|Gronk in 2020
|Three-year TE average
In his first season in Tampa Bay, Gronkowski has lined up more as a true tight end than during his time with the Patriots. Gronkowski has lined up attached to the offensive line at the line of scrimmage on 88 percent of snaps this season with the Buccaneers, over 20 percentage points higher than in 2018 with the Patriots (66 percent). The change in roles has led to a decline in production aligned in the slot or wide, though Gronkowski has still hauled in four touchdowns from a detached alignment and is one Brady's favorite targets in the red area. Gronk and Mike Evans tied for the team lead in pass targets in the end zone (14 each, tied for third-most league wide). No other Buccaneers player had more than five.
THE TRUTH: While Gronkowski's volume production is down from his peak years in New England, the veteran tight end has still managed to carve out a valuable role in what may be the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. And no, he hasn't lost a step. He's been faster as a route runner.