Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes spent all Sunday night scrambling, leaking out of the pocket, running.
He was trying to buy time.
In Kansas City's 31-9 loss in Super Bowl 55 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mahomes traveled an incredible 497 yards, according to NextGen Stats — nearly the length of five football fields — during dropbacks before threw the ball or was sacked.
But playing behind an undermanned and weakened offensive line was just a part of why. Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles crafted a brilliant game plan that highlighted his team's strengths: speed at every level of the defense and a pass rush that can get to the quarterback by using four players. The effect was a complete erasure of the Chiefs' downfield passing attack and throws outside the numbers.
It was the main reason the Buccaneers won their second-ever Super Bowl. And it all started with a basic concept.
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Buccaneers DL Ndamukong Suh (93) sacks Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl 55. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Bowles dialed up plays with two deep safeties on 59 of 68 of Kansas City's offensive plays, blending in zone and man coverages underneath those safeties. That clogged up the deep lanes where Mahomes usually pinpoints his passes.
That, however, was only half of it.
Tampa Bay's defensive front constantly outdueled Kansas City's O-line.
Starting two backup tackles, Mike Remmers on the left side and Andrew Wylie on the right, the Chiefs were most vulnerable where Tampa Bay is strong. Edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul constantly bullied them, forcing Mahomes to improvise and look downfield. Tampa's secondary, though, held its end and used its quickness to shadow Kansas City's targets down the field.
"The biggest thing was to cover up the receivers to make (Mahomes) hold the ball a little bit so our rush could get there," Bowles said after the game. "Mixing up the coverages and moving the guys around a bit, making him think a little bit and taking away his first read allowed those guys to get off up front and cover the guys on the back."
Bowles knew he wouldn't need to send blitzes because of the injuries along Kansas City's offensive line; the Bucs sent an extra rusher in only five of Mahomes' 52 dropbacks for a blitz rate of 9.6%.
Compare that with Tampa Bay's 39% blitz rate for the season, fifth-most in the NFL.
That's truly where the strategy paid off. The Chiefs entered the game knowing Bowles favors aggressive schemes, but great coaching means making adjustments to catch teams off guard and exploit favorable matchups. Despite a heavy dose of a pass rush of four or fewer players, the Buccaneers generated 17 pressures — for a pressure rate of 32.7% — and eight quarterback hits on Mahomes' 49 passing attempts.
Tampa clamped down in coverage even further on third downs and mixed an occasional blitz. That's why, with his receivers covered down the field, Mahomes opted to run the ball early in the game. It's also why the Chiefs had to settle for field goals or punts.
"We'd rather have him run than throw," Bowles said simply. "If he's not throwing the ball down the field, we'll take those five-, eight-yard runs every day."
Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, an explosive player who can score any time he touches the ball, became an afterthought, catching seven passes for 73 yards, though many came with the game already decided.
When these two teams played in Week 12, Hill exploded for 269 yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches. By playing the two deep safeties, it prevented Hill from beating Tampa deep. And when he caught the ball underneath, the secondary, this time, made tackles and didn't let Hill into open space.
"They played a lot of zone tonight, primarily Cover 2, Cover 4," Hill said of coverages in which the number corresponds with the number of players dropping deep into coverage. "We normally see man and that’s what we game planned for. … Todd Bowles, he did his thing tonight. He came out and they just had a better game plan."
There was no where else to go. The Buccaneers led the NFL in the regular season in rushing defense, beating out the next closest team by an average of 10 yards a game.
That left the NFL's sixth-ranked scoring offense, one with 57 touchdowns in the regular season and one considered to be one of the all-time great units, was kept entirely out of the end zone.
"We talked about beating them bad," linebacker Devin White said after the game. "We knew they weren't physical enough. They're real gimmicky on offense and, man, we don't play like that. We like smash-mouth football. We like going downhill, getting in those trenches. That's what we're built on."
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