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Three crucial questions the Buccaneers must answer during Super Bowl LV

The Bucs have their toughest challenge of the year to date.

Can Tom Brady keep up with Patrick Mahomes?
| Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucs have reached their final destination, but the journey is far from over.

There are still four quarters left to determine who goes home a champion and who has to wait another year for their shot at glory. It doesn’t get much better than Super Bowl week, especially when you have a game like this on the docket.

But Tampa Bay still has some questions to answer before it can take home the Lombardi for the second time in franchise history.


Will Tom Brady improve upon his second half performance in the NFC Championship game?

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of other players that made mistakes as well, but Brady didn’t play well at all in the second half against the Packers. In fact, the second half may have been his worst performance of the year.

There was a little bit of everything when talking about a recipe for bad quarterback play. Bad decisions and poor throws caused Brady to complete just 7-of-14 passes for 83 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions in the second half. Per Sports Info Solutions, Brady registered an incredibly inefficient -0.36 EPA/att, as well.

This is Brady’s first interception of the game. This could very well have been a miscommunication, but it’s hard not placing the majority of blame at Brady’s feet when you observe the entire play.

The Bucs come out in a 3x2 empty set with Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette stacked at the top of the alignment. Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, and Tyler Johnson make up the trips on the right side from inside-out.

Brady takes the snap and looks to the three-man side and then eyes the single-high safety. He then sees Evans breaking away from his man. However, Evans cuts toward the sideline and Brady throws it deep. This is where the miscommunication could have happened, but at the same time, Brady completely misses an open Johnson at the bottom of the screen:

I’m not sure why Brady didn’t come back to Johnson after eyeing the single-high safety. Crossing routes are well-known for beating single-high coverages and Johnson had his guy beat. Regardless of whether or not it’s a miscommunication, you can certainly argue Brady shouldn’t have been throwing in Evans direction to begin with.

It’s a lot easier to tell what’s going on with the second interception. It’s a poor throw. Yes, Mike Evans does share a small bit of responsibility on this play since it’s a ball that he could’ve caught, but Brady —simply based off reputation as the best of all-time alone— has to throw the ball better on this play. One could also argue Brady would’ve had a touchdown targeting Scotty Miller, but Evans was still a good read. The worst part about this play, though, is that it cost Tampa Bay at least three points in the fourth quarter:

Brady’s third interception is bad on the surface because it’s an interception, but when you look at the context of the play and the end result, it wasn’t as terrible as most are making it out to be. It was a busted protection on 3rd and 2, so Brady had to just get rid of the football. It’s picked off around the Green Bay 23, though, so it’s essentially a punt. However, Leonard Fournette cannot miss in pass protection like he does on this play. That’s the big takeaway, because the Chiefs are going to blitz the ever-living hell out of the Bucs:

This is obvious, but it still needs to be mentioned: The Bucs don’t stand a chance on Sunday if Brady plays like he did in the second half against the Packers. He has to improve if he wants to give his team a chance to win.

Can the offensive line save its best performance for when it matters most?

The offensive line is easily the most improved unit from the 2019 season and in fact, this may go down as the best offensive line in Bucs history. And what’s even more impressive is the unit has been just as effective without starting right guard Alex Cappa in the lineup for the last two games.

But as great as the pass protection has been and as effective as the run blocking has been, the Bucs offensive line will need to have its best game of the season on Sunday.

That’s because Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is going to have some intense, diverse, and effective blitz packages dialed up for the Bucs.

Spags went blitz-heavy on the Bucs in Week 12 and it paid off. Tampa Bay was held to 10 points in the first half and scored just one touchdown through the first eight drives of the game. Brady’s 0.11 EPA/att was his sixth-lowest mark of the year and he was picked off twice.

Both of those interceptions happened because Spagnuolo blitzed the crap out ofBrady and the Bucs offense.

The following blitz simply confuses the offensive line. The Chiefs have three potential rushers lined up on both sides of Ryan Jensen. The offensive line is already at a disadvantage based off what looks like a 6-on-5 situation, so they have to slide the protection. The Bucs slide to the offensive right, but the Chiefs end up blitzing from the defensive right. The end result is a 2-on-3 matchup with Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet against the trio of Chiefs blitzers.

Frank Clark comes free off the edge and Brady has to get rid of it again. The low throw bounces off the back of Smith’s head and ends up as an interception for Mathieu:

Remember when I said Fournette can’t afford to miss in pass pro this week? Well, Brady’s first interception in Week 12 was because Ronald Jones II couldn’t handle a blitzing Tyrann Mathieu. Brady chucks the ball downfield in hopes of making a play, but it ends up being a Chiefs turnover, instead. The offensive line will need help from the running backs in this game. This can’t happen:

Brady was hit eight times in Week 12, which tied for the second-most amount of hits in a single game throughout both the regular season and postseason. It’s no secret that pressure is the key to throwing him off his game. Per Pro Football Focus, Brady’s adjusted completion percentage drops from 79.3% when kept clean to a 57.9% when under pressure. The latter number is the fourth-worst among quarterbacks with at least 326 dropbacks during the 2020 regular season.

The good news is that the Bucs made successful adjustments as the game went on. Just watch Ryan Jensen identify Anthony Hitchens (No. 53) as the blitzer. Jensen picks him up and it allows Brady to complete a pass to Cameron Brate:

And the offensive line also has Brady, who is one of the best ever at identifying where the pressure is going to come from. He points out Daniel Sorenson (No. 49), who is “capped” by the safety. This indicates blitz. Sorenson does in fact blitz and the Chiefs are able to hit Brady, but the situation could’ve been much worse if Brady wasn’t able to help with the protection. This is still a great example of how Spags disguises his pressure. Delaying Sorenson is what really makes this play work:

It’s also going to be important for the offensive line to open up lanes for RoJo and Fournette, but it’ll be even more important for them to win in short-yardage situations. Per Football Outsiders, the Chiefs are the league’s third-worst defense when it comes to stopping the run in short-yardage situations. If the Bucs can win on first and second down, then everything should set up nicely on 3rd and short.

Will the defense be able to survive with a ‘bend but don’t break’ mentality?

Fans are probably still skeptical when it comes to Tampa Bay and zone defense after the Week 9 blowout, but it’s honestly the best game plan for Sunday’s matchup with Kansas City.

There are three reasons why the Bucs should run more zone:

  • The return of Vita Vea: The Bucs run defense is simply impenetrable with Vea in the lineup, but the pass rush is even more deadly when he’s around. Vea is a true force on the interior of the defensive line and can make anyone look silly.

Per Scott Smith of buccaneers.com, the Bucs averaged a 34% pressure rate before Vea’s Week 5 injury. That fell to a 26.9% rate once he was removed from the equation.

The third-year defensive tackle will allow Todd Bowles to rush four guys more often and the four-man pass rush should have a lot more success due to his presence. The Bucs could also mix in some simulated pressure packages, which could prove very effective if executed and utilized properly. All of this becomes possible and the potential effect of all of it becomes heightened because of Vea.

“You see the big load in front of you, the big guy in front of you – Vita is a difference-maker for our team,” Lavonte David told reporters on Tuesday. “To be such a big guy, he’s very athletic. He’s a guy that you definitely have to account for [with] about two blockers each down. His athleticism is underrated. Vita can move, he’s agile, he’s a guy who can get after the passer. He’s not just a run-stuffer.”

If there’s one true recipe for containing Mahomes and the Chiefs offense, it’s a four-man pass rush. And that in return will help the Bucs when they run zone.

  • The Chiefs were awful in the red zone back in Week 12: The Bucs held the Chiefs to just one touchdown in four trips inside the 20 and about 95% of Tampa Bay’s success had to do with the pass rush.

The defensive line routinely got after Mahomes and made his life hell the closer he got to the end zone. The best part is the fact that it didn’t take extra pass rushers to get the job done. Tampa Bay was able to get to him using four guys.

This is extremely encouraging and it makes sense as to why Tampa Bay had success in the red zone. The Chiefs want to stretch the field in every way possible and as much as possible. Well, when you get inside the 20 the field obviously shrinks and it becomes much harder to create space. If you can get to the quarterback with four guys, then chances are you are going to be forcing a lot of field goals.

There is one thing I must mention, though. I believe one reason why Tampa Bay’s red zone pass rush was so good was because the Chiefs literally left no extra blockers in to help the offensive line. It was a five-man protection on every dropback. I’d certainly expect Andy Reid to make some adjustments this time around.

Kansas City won the last game because of the big play. Deploying a zone-heavy scheme will prevent that, which could end up being the key to a Bucs win.

  • When the Bucs did run man in Week 12, they were burned badly: Per Ted Nguyen of The Athletic, the Bucs were in man coverage on just nine of Mahomes’ 53 dropbacks back in Week 12. Mahomes torched them, completing 6-of-9 passes for 113 yards. That stat line is no anomaly, however. Per SIS, Mahomes has the third-most passing yards and 12 touchdowns to just one interception when facing Cover 0, Cover 1, or Cover 2 Man. He has the third-highest EPA/att and the second-best positive play percentage among quarterbacks with at least 87 attempts.

There’s no blueprint to stopping Mahomes, but it seems like the ‘bend but don’t break’ is the best route to go. If the Bucs play it effectively, then there’s an excellent shot they will win this game. Regardless, they have to figure out a way to prevent Mahomes from throwing for over 400 yards again. It’d also be helpful if Hill doesn’t go off for 200+ receiving yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter again, too.

“It didn’t work out the first game as far as what we did and our game plan, but we’ve corrected it and we’ve got a great game plan going in,” Carlton Davis said when asked about playing Hill for the second time this season. “But I’m going in with the same mentality and that’s to dominate.”


Which question do YOU think needs to be answered the most during Super Bowl LV?

Poll

Which question do the Bucs need to answer the most during Super Bowl LV?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Will Brady be better?
    (52 votes)
  • 22%
    Can the offensive line hold up?
    (57 votes)
  • 57%
    Will the Bucs be able to survive with a heavy zone scheme on defense?
    (150 votes)
259 votes total Vote Now
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