Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- How Patrick Peterson could follow in Charles Woodson's footsteps.
-- Why teams should think twice about trading for Carson Wentz.
But first, a look at what the rest of the NFL can learn from the Bucs' dominant defensive performance against the Kansas City Chiefs ...
It doesn't take long for great ideas to circulate around the NFL. In a copycat league, coaches will quickly steal and implement successful strategies to gain an edge on their opponents.
After watching the Buccaneers throttle the Chiefs' offense in a 31-9 win in Super Bowl LV, Kansas City's Andy Reid and his coaches should expect every team on their 2021 schedule to utilize bits and pieces from Tampa defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' impressive game plan. Bowles put on an absolute clinic directing a unit that kept the NFL's most explosive offense out of the end zone.
Rarely during the Patrick Mahomes era have we seen an opponent crack the Chiefs' offensive code like the Bucs did on Sunday. And it could very well signal the beginning of the end for one of the most successful runs we've ever seen in the NFL.
I know that seems like hyperbole, considering Mahomes and Co. entered Super Bowl LV on a 25-2 stretch extending back to last season. The former league MVP toyed with defenses, unleashing his unique playmaking ability and improvisational skills with such ease that the Chiefs routinely dropped 30-burgers on opponents. His superb game enabled his supporting cast to play like superheroes on the perimeter. The Chiefs were nearly impossible to defend -- until Bowles crafted a defensive masterpiece on the sport's biggest stage.
The Buccaneers' game plan was simple by design, but the flawless execution and results will encourage others to follow suit, a near-certainty not lost on the 25-year-old QB.
"As of today, I'm going to do whatever I can to look at the film and try to find ways to get better," Mahomes told reporters. "Obviously, with our offense and the success that we've had, when teams see the defensive plan that [Bowles] had and how well it worked, they're going to try and do the same thing. [I'm going to] try to find ways to combat that and kind of the evolution of our offense. We're going to have to do better things and be more efficient. That really goes with me and not always looking for the big play, but just finding ways to move the ball down the field."
After reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from Super Bowl LV, here are the tactics the Buccaneers employed to slow down the Chiefs and how opponents could implement those strategies going forward:
1) Take away the deep ball
The Chiefs are the NFL's version of the Golden State Warriors, with the deep ball fueling their offense like a barrage of three-pointers from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Let that sink in for a minute. Mahomes finished second in the league in 20-yard completions and was one of just six quarterbacks to throw for 8.0 yards or more per attempt. With Travis Kelce (23) and Tyreek Hill (20) each ranking among the top five receivers in 20-yard receptions, the Chiefs' offense was a big-play machine this season.
To prevent the ball from flying over the top of his defense, Bowles used a two-deep shell that basically lined up Tampa's safeties in the stadium parking lot. The deep alignments (around 15 yards from the line of scrimmage) enabled the safeties to keep No. 10 and No. 87 in front of them, discouraging Mahomes from pushing the ball down the field.
Although others have utilized similar tactics against the Chiefs with varying levels of success (Bills, Falcons in 2020; Colts in 2019), the Buccaneers executed the plan to perfection with their young secondary, displaying outstanding discipline and situational awareness. Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. were committed to taking away the deep ball.
"They put a cap over the top and didn't let us get behind the defense knowing how much speed we had," Kelce said in his postgame comments to reporters.
To that point, the Buccaneers' success against the Chiefs utilizing a two-deep shell (on 87% of their defensive snaps) will encourage others to play more split-safety coverage in the future.
2) Defend the sidelines
Credit Bowles for implementing a plan that not only took away the deep ball but also eliminated throws outside of the numbers. The Chiefs feasted on one-on-one matchups along the boundary throughout the season, including in their Week 12 matchup against the Buccaneers. In that initial meeting, Mahomes completed 18 of 22 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns on throws outside of the numbers. Hill was the biggest beneficiary, recording 245 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 10 receptions outside of the numbers.
With that performance in mind, Bowles made a concerted effort to take away the sidelines in Super Bowl LV. The Buccaneers combined their two-deep shell with some "Cloud/Cathy" technique and man coverage to eliminate the easy throws outside of the numbers. As a result, the Buccaneers held Mahomes to a 45.4 percent completion rate (10 of 22 pass attempts) and 50 passing yards outside the numbers while snagging a pair of interceptions.
The strategy wasn't complex or creative, but it was executed well. The Buccaneers' corners maintained their leverage in each coverage call, and their perfectly placed positioning took away Mahomes' favorite throws to his top targets, particularly Hill, who finished with 3 receiving yards on two catches outside of the numbers.
3) Get home with a four-man rush
If you poll most defensive coaches, they will quickly tell you the best way to play defense in today's NFL is to win with four-man rush concepts, with seven defenders in coverage. The simple strategy requires five-star personnel on the edges and at the defensive tackle spots. The Buccaneers have the perfect personnel to execute the plan, with Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett creating chaos as pass rushers assigned to attack the quarterback from various angles.
On the inside, Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea are explosive pocket pushers with the combination of size, strength and power to deposit interior blockers onto the laps of quarterbacks. The immediate inside pressure makes quarterbacks uncomfortable, due to the lack of space and clogged passing lanes at the line of scrimmage.
During the regular season, the Buccaneers rarely featured four-man rushes, due to Bowles' love of blitzing and creating one-on-one matchups with aggressive five-man pressures that enabled JPP and Barrett to exploit their edge battles.
In Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers flipped the script, blitzing on only 9.6 percent of their dropbacks -- and they generated 16 pressures, with a 34 percent QB pressure rate. The blitz rate was the lowest rate by a Bowles-led defensive over the last five seasons. Despite the scaled-back approach, the Buccaneers were able to generate consistent pressure and force Mahomes to run around like crazy without committing extra defenders to the rush. The former MVP nearly ran a quarter-mile (497 yards) before making throws and taking sacks against the Buccaneers.
The constant harassment and maximum coverage disrupted Mahomes' rhythm and kept the Chiefs' offense in check for four quarters.
4) Make one-on-one tackles in space
Coaches can implement all kinds of schemes and tactics to neutralize the Chiefs' explosive offense, but stopping Kansas City really comes down to making tackles in space.
The Chiefs' playmakers are a collection of track stars on the perimeter who utilize their speed and explosiveness to produce big plays on a variety of "catch-and-run" concepts. Against most opponents, the Chiefs' team speed gives them a decided advantage when they touch the ball in space as they run away from defenders in the open field. Yards after the catch (YAC) have been an underrated part of the Chiefs' offensive success on screens and crossing routes. Minimizing those gains is essential to slowing down the juggernaut, and the Buccaneers made it a top priority to hit Chiefs' playmakers immediately after each catch.
With the Buccaneers committed to playing more zone coverage in Super Bowl LV, the onus fell on Devin White and Lavonte David to get players on the ground whenever they touched the ball. The duo might be the fastest linebacker corps in football, with their speed, athleticism and physicality enabling them to track down runners quickly in the open field.
On the All-22 Coaches Film, the Buccaneers' second-level defenders ran to the ball with reckless abandon, and their hustle showed up repeatedly as they made tackle after tackle in space. The combination of effort, energy and solid tackling fundamentals from the 11 defenders on the field was essential to slowing down the Chiefs, and defensive coordinators around the league must make it a priority to knock off Reid's squad going forward.
PATRICK PETERSON'S FUTURE: Could a position change be in order?
With Patrick Peterson's contract expiring at the beginning of the new league year in March, a report emerged this week that Arizona and the eight-time Pro Bowler are set to part ways, barring a significant change in stances. Peterson himself shot down the dispatch as "a dirty rumor," saying he hadn't spoken to the team about a contract or a separation.
Still, the fact remains that the former No. 5 overall pick is currently slated to hit the open market next month. And although Peterson was once viewed as the premier shutdown corner in the game, Father Time has taken its toll on the 30-year-old, who's coming off one of the worst seasons of his decade-long tenure in the desert.
Peterson was called for a league-high 14 penalties (10 of which were accepted, per NFL Research, ranking as the second-highest total) while surrendering 50 receptions on 75 targets (per Pro Football Focus). Despite recording 61 tackles and three interceptions in 16 games this past season, Peterson looked nothing like the lockdown guy who took the league by storm as a dynamic athlete with A+ instincts and ball skills. The veteran lacks the burst to run with speedsters on the island, and his diminishing skills have led to an increase in penalties, as he grabs, clutches and holds receivers on the verge of separating at the top of routes.
Despite his flaws, though, I believe Peterson could be one of the value items on the free-agent market -- IF he moves to safety. As an instinctive playmaker with ball skills and a wealth of experience, he could extend his playing days by relocating inside to occupy the deep middle. Sure, it is not the glamorous position that made Peterson a perennial all-star, but a move to safety would enable him to rely on his experience, football IQ and playmaking ability.
We've seen elite ballhawks -- Charles Woodson and Rod Woodson, to name a couple -- cement Hall of Fame careers with exceptional play at safety. Peterson could follow their blueprint and revive his game by transitioning to a position that allows him to rely on his mind more than his body at this stage of his career. He would need to embrace the increased physicality that would come with the new role, but a successful metamorphosis could help the longtime playmaker reach legendary status among his peers.
TO CARSON WENTZ SUITORS: Buyer beware
The QB carousel is spinning out of control, with teams swapping signal-callers like crazy to upgrade the most important position on the field. Carson Wentz could be the next quarterback on the move, with the Philadelphia Eagles listening to trade offers on the former MVP candidate.
While it might seem a bit surprising that there appears to be significant interest in a quarterback who led the league in interceptions (15) and sacks (50) and posted a completion percentage and passer rating that ranked in the bottom five among 43 quarterbacks with at least four starts, it makes sense that a few QB-needy teams would want to explore a talented passer with some highlight moments on his résumé.
As a fixer-upper with curb appeal and good "bones," Wentz is certainly an intriguing prospect. The former No. 2 overall pick has played a role in leading the Eagles to three playoff appearances as a mobile playmaker with a rugged mix of arm talent, athleticism and improvisational skills. Those traits are enticing for a general manager or head coach desperate for a signal-caller with the potential to emerge as a long-term solution at the position.
That said, I would take a hard pass on Wentz, based on questions about his intangibles and leadership skills. Although I'm not in the locker room with Wentz and the Eagles, I believe how he handled Jalen Hurts' arrival and his late-season benching in favor of the second-round pick reveals a fatal flaw in Wentz's game. Despite signing a lucrative four-year extension the previous summer that demonstrated the team's commitment to him as the franchise quarterback, Wentz played awful ball for most of the 2020 campaign and reportedly lost his confidence because of Hurts' presence in the Eagles' QB room. This is baffling based on how the organization downplayed a quarterback competition at every turn while suggesting the drafting of Hurts was part of the team's desire to create a "QB factory" to produce valuable insurance players or trade commodities at an important position.
The idea that Wentz shrank in the face of a new challenge rather than elevate his game gives me pause. Just look at how Aaron Rodgers responded to the Packers selecting Jordan Love in the first round last April.
After watching Wentz fall apart with a little competition, I wonder what might happen if he encounters adversity at his next home. Will he again crumble when things get hard? Or will he compete and show the football world that he is really the guy?
When things were difficult in Philadelphia this season -- the injuries across the offense were abundant, for one -- and questions arose about a potential QB change, Wentz's play seemingly got worse. And when the switch finally did happen, the spark Hurts provided was undeniable. Can a team that acquires Wentz -- who's suffered multiple season-ending injuries in his five-year career -- put another high-end player or quality backup in the same QB room? Or will they be relegated to bringing in scrubs to assuage their new passer?
Although it's hard to put a lot of stock in quotes attributed to anonymous teammates in internet stories, questions about his leadership skills have plagued the passer for years now. Speculation certainly isn't fact, but the smoke attached to his name will need to be fully investigated by any team looking to acquire his services. The best quarterbacks are connectors with an ability to make every person in the huddle feel important, and if Wentz doesn't have that skill, it will be hard for him to ever win consistently at a high level.
Given the on-field performance, suspect competitiveness and leadership questions, I'd be hesitant to part with significant capital to take on Wentz as part of a rebuilding project this offseason.