The 2020 season officially came to a close on Sunday night when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squared off with the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. The defending champions were routed 31-9 by Tom Brady and Co. in Raymond James Stadium and looked like a shell of themselves for most of the night.
The most popular narrative in the days to come after the “Tom Brady is still the G.O.A.T in all professional sports” will be “The Buccaneers provided the blueprint on how to limit Patrick Mahomes and beat the Chiefs?”
The Baltimore Ravens have faced off and lost to the Chiefs in each of the last three regular seasons. While the first two were decided by five points or less, the most recent meeting in Week 3 of the 2020 season was a lopsided 34-20 defeat.
Lamar Jackson went as far as to call the Chiefs and Mahomes their kryptonite and insinuated that Kansas City is a hurdle they need to clear to transcend to the next level. However, on Sunday, that daunting hurdle was a minor speed bump for the Buccaneers who steamrolled their way to glory.
Where was this KC team when we played them the last 3 years— Marlon Humphrey (@marlon_humphrey) February 8, 2021
Humphrey has valid point. The Chiefs team that got blown out by the Buccaneers on Sunday wasn’t the same one that he and the Ravens played on Monday Night in primetime five months ago. Nor did they resemble the squad that handed Tampa their last loss in Week 12 before they ran the table and won the rematch for all the marbles.
This game came down to three keys that gave the Buccaneers the edge and led to them winning their second championship in franchise history in their first trip to the postseason since 2007. Tampa was the healthier, more physical, and more disciplined team on both sides of the ball.
Kansas City came into this game as the favorites despite not having their two starting tackles available and Mahomes dealing with a nagging toe injury that didn’t seem to bother him early on during the title tilt. But his ailment became clearly debilitating as the game wore on and he was running for his life for the majority of the night.
Countless pundits and football fans alike believed that the Mahomes and Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid would be able overcome their injuries up front to devise and execute a winning game plan.
However, not even the herculean efforts of the former reigning Superbowl MVP could match the phenomenal defensive performance and game plan by the Buccaneers that was the story and deciding factor of the game.
Their star-studded defensive front was able to generate relentless pressure on a hobbled Mahomes and their linebackers flew from sideline to sideline to limit Kansas City’s run after catch opportunities.
Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles learned from the regular-season meeting and flipped the script on the Chiefs with the way they chose to attack and defend one of the hottest and most potent offenses in the league over the last three years.
He was willing to yield yards on the ground by lightening the box by keeping two safeties high for nearly the entire game. After Tyreek Hill torched his secondary for over 200 yards in the first quarter alone the last time, he limited him to just 73 yards and seven catches on 10 targets in four full quarters.
The officials made it clear early in the game that they were not going to let the players ‘just play’ and there were a lot of flags flying with most being called on the Kansas City’s defense. As a team, they were flagged 11 times for 120 yards with three-quarters of the yardage coming first half alone.
The Chiefs’ defense was flagged several times in key situations for everything from holding that negated turnovers to pass interference and offsides penalties that extended scoring drives.
There are those that will argue that the officials were biased toward whatever team Brady is playing for and I am usually among them but Sunday wasn’t one of those instances.
Kansas City’s defensive backs accounted for five of their total penalties while the Buccaneers secondary was flagged just twice and one was for taunting late after the game was well in hand.
The disparity was in the way in which each unit operated in coverage. As noted previously, the referees weren’t just going to let the players play which meant that the aggressive brand of man coverage that the Chiefs’ corners and safeties are accustomed to playing would be more prone to getting called for penalties than that the Buccaneers’ who mostly played off in zone coverage.
Tampa bracketed Hill downfield all game long and after his crucial touchdown drop early in the game, Mahomes appeared to be reluctant on throwing to him in double and triple coverage.
While there are not known for their physicality, the Chiefs have been religiously praised during the Mahomes era for their tremendous depth and consistently near-flawless execution on offense. On Sunday they consistently had offensive skill players drop passes in crucial conversion situations and had touchdown passes bounce off their facemasks in the end zone.
Even Mahomes’ top two targets—Hill and tight end Travis Kelce—who are usually the most reliable, clutch, and seemingly unstoppable in the entire sport failed to come through with timely and necessary plays when the ball was thrown their way.
None of what transpired in that game consistently happens to the Chiefs on any given Sunday and neither does Mahomes being hampered by an injury or both of his bookend tackles being out with season-ending injuries. They are rarely as banged up as they were and it’s even rarer that they are as out of sync on both sides of the ball as well.
Tampa’s approach and execution of the offensive and defensive game plan that they used to beat the Chiefs worked on Sunday but are easier said than done and were aided by the favorable circumstance and matchups, especially up front in the trenches.
So, to say that they provided the Ravens or any other team the blueprint to beat Kansas City would be false. They provided a winning formula in the ideal scenario but that won’t always be the case and the Chiefs will learn from this experience and improve.
However, there were a few notes that Ravens could take from this game that might help them come out on top when they host the Chiefs in the regular season for a second straight year.
Kansas City had no answer for Tampa’s tight ends led by Rob Gronkowski who looked like his vintage self with six catches, 67 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. Cameron Brate had 26 yards on three catches and Tanner Hudson was wide open for a touchdown in the red zone but Brady slightly overthrew him on the play.
Tight ends accounted for nearly half of Brady’s total passing yardage and completions on Sunday and were targeted over on over a third of his attempts.
The Ravens are a “tight-end centric” offense according to General Manager Eric DeCosta so adding another viable receiving threat at the position to effectively replace Hayden Hurst, who they traded away last season, and complement Mark Andrews should be a priority this offseason.
Exclude Brady’s three kneel-downs to formally ice the game, Tampa was almost perfectly balanced on offense with 29 passes to 30 rushes. Even though their passing numbers weren’t gaudy, they were efficient and potent where it mattered most with three touchdowns through the air in the red zone.
The biggest determining factor in the game was ultimately the fact that the Buccaneers were able to consistently pressure Mahomes with four, sometimes even three rushers. While they only blitzed on a small percentage of the plays, when they did it was decisive, effective, and called at the right time.
Since they already have a top-shelf secondary, continuing to invest in their front seven for a second straight offseason should also be high on the Ravens priority list in the coming months after watching what the Buccaneers were able to do to Chiefs albeit with a subpar pass protecting unit.
Who knows if that they will be banged up again when they come to Baltimore? Regardless, it would be beneficial to have the requisite pieces to be able to capitalize.
Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale is lauded for his ability to scheme up and disguise pressure but the front office could make his job a lot easier by retaining their own and bringing in more players that can consistently win their one-on-ones and get to the quarterback without the aid of creative scheme, blitzes, stunts or twists.
This game was more of an anomaly for the Chiefs and a perfect storm of scheme, preparation, and circumstance for the Buccaneers.
Tampa did outcoach and out adjust Kansas City but in the end, they used a formula that the Ravens have shown that they could execute at a high level during the Jackson era - running the ball well (145-107), throwing for around 200 yards, playing great defense, forcing turnovers (two) while not turning the ball over themselves and dominating or at least winning the time of possession (31:23-28:37).