Five lessons learned from Super Bowl LV and how they may apply to the 2021 Titans

Super Bowl LV was a dud from a neutral fan standpoint. The Bucs took the lead 4:33 into the game and never relinquished it. If their penalty-assisted scoring drive at the end of the first half didn’t finish off the Chiefs, their way-too-easy touchdown to open the second half certainly did, leaving the remaining quarter and a half with very little drama or excitement.

That being said, there is still plenty that can be taken away from Bucs 31, Chiefs 9. You’ve probably heard the NFL referred to as a “copycat league” before and that reputation is pretty well earned. Teams will look at Tampa Bay’s success and try to see which elements can be replicated in their own squad over the next few months.

So let’s take a look at the lessons that the Titans can learn from last night’s epic beatdown in Tampa Bay.

Lesson #1: The Chiefs are not invincible.

There would have been a certain air of hopelessness around the AFC if this game had gone differently and we’d seen a Kansas City team coming off back to back Super Bowl wins with it’s 25 year old mega-star quarterback under contract for the next decade. Don’t get me wrong… KC is still the team to beat in the AFC for 2021 (and probably will be in 2022 and 2023 too), but seeing the Bucs overwhelm Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes on the league’s biggest stage should offer some hope.

We will talk about the patchwork offensive line in a minute and it’s certainly worth noting that Mahomes wasn’t 100% physically himself due to a turf toe injury that will require offseason surgery. You won’t likely see Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie starting at tackle anytime next season and Mahomes will return to full health in 2021, but excuses aside… this beatdown proves that there are, in fact, some vents in the Death Star.

Lesson #2: Going from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady is a good thing.

The Bucs added several pieces last offseason that helped them go from 7-9 to 11-5 Super Bowl champs. Their first two draft picks — right tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. — barely left the field in their rookie seasons. Wirfs played every offensive snap in 2020 all the way through the playoffs and graded out as PFF’s third-best right tackle in football this season while Winfield played 97% of defensive snaps and consistently made big plays in the Tampa Bay secondary.

They also added “Brady guys” in free agency as Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette all joined the Bucs to chase a ring with the GOAT. Those three accounted for all four of the Tampa touchdowns in the Super Bowl.

However, the biggest addition was obviously Brady. It’s not necessarily that Brady lit the world on fire in Tampa Bay — he was very good, but not elite this year — as much as it is the gap between Winston throwing 30 interceptions and Brady throwing 12. Remember… this Bucs roster went 7-9 with a quarterback who turned the ball over 35 times a year ago including an NFL record seven pick-sixes. They didn’t need Brady to show up with a cape and drag them to the Super Bowl, they just needed competence behind center and he gave them that (and more).

Obviously, the Titans aren’t going to go get Tom Brady this offseason so I’m not sure there is much to take away here, but let’s stop with the “this could have been the Titans” stuff. First, I tend to think that Brady would have picked Tampa Bay regardless of whether the Titans actually got involved in the chase. It was objectively the better roster (again, this team went 7-9 with a nuclear meltdown happening at quarterback every other game).

But let’s entertain the idea that he might have chosen Tennessee… the Bucs defense was elite and played a huge role in them getting to the Super Bowl (more on that shortly). The Titans defense was horrific. Brady wasn’t fixing that problem and Tennessee’s offense was never the issue in 2020. Even if you want to say Brady’s playoff magic gets them past the Ravens, there is no chance that the Titans defense getting past Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes given the way they were playing late in the year.

Lesson #3: The Bucs proved that elite defense still matters.

Offense drives results in the modern NFL more than their defensive counterparts, especially over larger sample sizes. For evidence, I’ll submit the offensive and defensive DVOA rankings for the last 12 conference championship participants:

Offense: 1, 2, 4, 5, 3, 6, 7, 8, 1, 2, 3, 5

Defense: 8, 16, 19, 27, 2, 14, 15, 18, 5, 12, 17, 22

Basically, a top-8 offense is required to have any reasonable expectation of reaching a conference championship game in the modern NFL, but nine of the last 12 conference finalists have ranked 12th or worse on the defensive side of the ball. This is still very much an offense driven league.

However… the 2020 Bucs showed that elite defenses can still take over games in the postseason, even if they aren’t necessarily a requirement for making a deep run.

So let’s talk about that Bucs defense. They were really good in the regular season — 8th in points allowed, 5th in DVOA — but they kicked it up a notch in the postseason. Tampa Bay forced more turnovers (nine) than they allowed touchdowns (eight) in the playoffs and registered 10 sacks while allowing just 5.9 yards per attempt on passes. They dominated despite facing Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes over the last three games.

Remember when Tampa Bay was down 20-13 midway through the third quarter in New Orleans? The Saints had the ball near midfield and completed a pass to Jared Cook for a first down conversion into Bucs territory when Winfield punched the ball out and Devin White returned it to the New Orleans 40-yard line to set up a short touchdown drive. It was the first of three second half turnovers forced by the Tampa defense, rescuing them from what looked to be headed towards their third loss of the year to their division rivals.

They capped it off with the most dominant performance we’ve seen against a Patrick Mahomes-led football team, marking the first time in his career (high school, college, or pro) that he’s been held completely out of the end zone.

How was this Bucs defense built and how can the Titans learn from their success? It’s actually a good example of just how quick a defensive turnaround can happen. In 2018, Tampa Bay was dead last in defensive DVOA. 32 out of 32. They had some pieces already in place — Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David, and an effective-but-aging Gerald McCoy — but were poor in the secondary and lacked any real quality pieces around those three.

The next offseason they went out and signed Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh to relatively low cost one-year deals ($9.25 million for Suh and $4 million for Barrett). Barrett, in particular, turned out to be a steal. The former undrafted free agent had spent five seasons in Denver as a rotational backup behind Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Bradley Chubb, and others, never topping more than 5.5 sacks in a season. He proved to be a revelation in Tampa, leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019 and then notching eight sacks in the 2020 regular season before adding another four in the playoffs.

They also drafted well on defense, adding star linebacker Devin White with the fifth overall pick before double dipping at cornerback with Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in rounds two and three. Those three additions, combined with the two free agent signings made up five of the 11 starters on defense for the Bucs in the Super Bowl. Add that to development from 2018 draft picks Vita Vea and Carlton Davis along with the first year splash from Winfield and you have a total makeover on defense in a very short time period.

The Bucs defense leapt from 32nd in DVOA in 2018 to 6th in 2019 and 5th in 2020 thanks in large part to those personnel moves made by GM Jason Licht. The Titans would love to make a similar leap — I also wrote about the 2020 Dolphins making the jump from 32nd to 11th in defensive DVOA last week — and like Tampa, there are some pieces in place to build around. Jeffery Simmons, Harold Landry, and Kevin Byard are good football players (and you could make the argument for a few others), but they need their version of a Barrett, Suh, White, Murphy-Bunting haul to fill out around those players.

Of course coaching is a part of this discussion as well and that’s where the comparison starts to fall apart. In addition to adding quality players in 2019, the Bucs also got a whole new coaching staff that included former Jets head coach Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator. Shane Bowen is nowhere near the coordinator that Bowles was when he took the Bucs job in 2019. There are some reasons to think Bowen might be better next year than he was in 2020, but it takes some pretty blue-tinted glasses to see Bowen making that big of a jump in one offseason (though as I mentioned in the Dolphins piece, a strong roster can offset coordinator inexperience).

Lesson #4: Offensive lines are still really REALLY important.

Despite the starry quarterback matchup, this game was largely determined by the battle in the trenches. Tampa controlled the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense throughout the game.

On offense, Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones — two remarkably unremarkable running backs for their entire NFL careers before this season — combined for 150 yards rushing on 28 carries at over five yards per rush while Tom Brady was pressured on just four of his 34 dropbacks (11.8%). Chiefs pass rushers Chris Jones and Frank Clark were held to just one pressure each.

On the other side of the ball, Tampa’s front four harassed Mahomes all game, pressuring him on 37 of his 61 dropbacks (60.7%!!!). Mahomes’ night is best summarized by the graphic below.

Nearly every pass snap devolved into pure chaos within seconds of the snap for Kansas City because of the Tampa pass rush.

To be fair to the Chiefs patchwork offensive line, part of that responsibility falls on Mahomes. Part of his magic is his ability to hold the ball, avoid the rush, and make things happen outside of structure, but he held the ball way too long in this game, averaging 3.31 seconds from snap to attempt according to PFF charting, more than a full second over Brady’s 2.14 second average. That’s an eternity in pocket time.

The Bucs offensive line has been good for years, but plugging in Wirfs at right tackle in place of Demar Dotson took them over the top. It also helps that their starting five stayed remarkably healthy. Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen didn’t miss a single start, left tackle Donovan missed one game, and guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa missed three each.

The Titans are solid on the offensive line with Taylor Lewan returning from his torn ACL to join Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and Dennis Kelly. However, they’ll obviously need to improve on the defensive line to be able to truly control games in the trenches like we saw Tampa do last night.

Lesson #5: The Bucs two-high safety defenses were the secret sauce.

Why was Mahomes holding the ball so long all night? Why was Tyreek Hill a total non-factor after piling up 269 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season meeting between these teams?

The biggest reason is the Bucs use of two-high safety looks that Todd Bowles deployed consistently throughout the game. Tampa kept a safety over the top of Hill all night and dared Andy Reid to run the football. Despite having some success when they did run, the Chiefs never stuck with it, even when the game was close early. At halftime, Kansas City’s play distribution featured 24 called pass plays, five runs with either Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Darrel Williams, and one jet sweep to Hill. They would finish the game with a 54 to 12 skew towards pass calls despite averaging more yards per rush attempt than pass attempt.

It was stubborn coaching on the part of Reid and an inspired plan by Bowles which was made possible thanks to the Tampa front four’s dominance against the KC offensive line. The Bucs were consistently able to win with four, so they only sent more than that on six snaps in the Super Bowl. That gave them a numbers advantage on the back end and frustrated Mahomes.

The two-high safety look is having a bit of a resurgence over the last couple years. Former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley parlayed his success with this approach into a head coaching job with the Chargers after just one year as defensive playcaller.

At the end of the day, every defensive coordinator would love to sit in a two-high shell all game if they can though. It’s a safe defense that protects against explosive plays effectively and forces quarterbacks to make more difficult throws. However, the trick is that you have to be able to do two things effectively:

  1. Stop the run effectively with seven defenders in the box.
  2. Create pressure without blitzing.

The Chiefs never made the Bucs prove they could do the first thing and Tampa clearly had no problem taking care of the second.

This isn’t a defense that Tampa Bay lived in throughout the year. In fact, this was a huge departure from the scheme they’ve used under Bowles over the past two years. The Bucs were in two-high for an average of 6.7 snaps per game in 2020 according to SIS charting, but used it on 59 snaps in the Super Bowl. The fact that Reid and Mahomes wouldn’t have seen this on tape frequently likely adds to it’s effectiveness, but the Rams proved that you can “live” in a two-high shell throughout a season provided, of course, that you can take care of the two items mentioned above effectively (and having Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey certainly helps).

As the NFL continues to skew more and more pass heavy, I’d expect the use of two-high (or split) safety looks to continue to rise and it’s something the Titans should be looking to incorporate more into their own defensive scheme moving forward.

However, it’s only going to work if they find the right guys in the front seven to help them stop the run without an extra safety in the box and create pressure with a four man rush. They didn’t have the personnel to do either of those things in 2020, which again, brings us back to objective number one for Jon Robinson this offseason: finding better defensive linemen and linebackers.

Comments

  1. To me it’s no different than how the Giants beat Brady those two times they did: get consistent. pressure with the front four. It unlocks the ability to do so much on the back end when you have the freedom and confidence that you can pressure the quarterback without blitzing.

  2. Very good read and analysis. Thank you!

    Mike, I have a question that is slightly off topic but deals with Lession #3: “Of course coaching is a part of this discussion as well and that’s where the comparison starts to fall apart.”

    When I look at the Bucs and other teams that have been successful in recent years, it appears they have more coaches on staff. You see titles such as Running Game Coordinator, Passing Game Coordinator, Offensive Quality Control, Defensive Quality Control, even Statistical Analysis Coordinator. These are in addition to the usual OC, DC, STC and position coaches. Excluding Strength & Conditioning, the typical staff consists of 20-25 coaches. On the other hand, the Titans have a staff of 17 excluding S&C.

    Does this number of coaches seem a little light? And couldn’t the team benefit from additional coaching support? I’m sure that Amy would allow more staff if Vrabel thought he needed it. Am I missing something?

    1. Yes, and I agree with your take there. I looked last season and noticed that the 49ers had 26 non-S&C coaches on staff which I think was the highest in the league. They are also probably the best-coached team in the NFL year in and year out for my money at least.

      I certainly think that the Titans should be trying to hire more assistant coaches and building out an internal analytics department. They’ve modernized a LOT since AAS took over five years ago, but those are two areas where they’re still lagging behind. Not only does this give you additional manpower, but it also deepens your bench for promoting from within when your best assistants get picked off (which I still believe is generally a good practice for successful franchises).

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