Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs dominated by Buccaneers’ defense in Super Bowl 55; how Tampa Bay did it

By | February 8, 2021

Patrick Mahomes had lost just one of his past 26 games as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback going into Super Bowl 55. In his three seasons at the helm, he had never experienced more than a one-possession loss, operated a touchdown-less offense or seen his team score fewer than double-digit points.

That all came to a screeching halt when Kansas City was routed by Tampa Bay 31-9 on Sunday. The Chiefs were denied a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions and Mahomes failed to get his second consecutive ring at age 25. He was shell-shocked in his worst game as a professional and in what will go down as one of the most legendary team defensive performances in NFL history, right up there with the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers.

What the 2020 Buccaneers did to rattle Mahomes in Super Bowl 55 would make Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and brand-new Hall of Famer John Lynch proud. The Chiefs were kept out of the end zone while Mahomes was sacked three times and pressured a Super Bowl-record 29 times on an uncomfortable and inefficient night (26-of-49 passing, 270 yards, zero TDs, two INTs). His 5.2 yards per attempt set a personal NFL low and his 69.3 passer rating was his second-lowest single-game mark.

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“They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good. It’s the worst I’ve been beaten in a long time,” Mahomes said.

The Chiefs’ 350 yards of total offense were empty, and they were diminished further by the offense going 3 of 13 on third down and 0 for 3 in the red zone. The Chiefs did rush for 107 yards on just 17 attempts against the Bucs’ No. 1 run defense, but a good chunk of that yardage came on Mahomes’ desperate scrambles and two bursts on a single drive by rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire. 

This wasn’t just slowing down Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense. This was an uttter beatdown, on every level. The Bucs’ defense had been building to this with strong performances against Drew Brees’ Saints in the divisional playoffs and Aaron Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC championship game. They saved their best for last against the greatest challenge of Mahomes’ Chiefs.

So how did the Buccaneers pull off what every team has failed to do against Mahomes in all of his NFL games? They simply won their battles against everyone around Mahomes and kept their foot on the gas with speed, quickness and power, doing what the Chiefs’ offense tends to do to its opponents.

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The Buccaneers went in with one major personnel advantage: red-hot edge pass rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul working on Chiefs backup offensive tackles Andrew Wylie and Mike Remmers. They exploited that mismatch, with Barrett getting another sack and Pierre-Paul disrupting other plays, including a batted ball.

After seeing his team drop Rodgers four times, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, one of the most frequent blitz-callers in the NFL (39 percent in the regular season), changed tendencies for a second straight game. He sent more than four rushers after Mahomes only five times. Barrett and JPP did win as expected, but as a literal massive bonus, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh helped by turning back the clock, going Sapp-like with inside pressure to account for half of Mahomes’ sacks.

Blazing-fast second-year linebacker Devin White had another massive game flying around in coverage and getting sideline-to-sideline to make tackles. The older Lavonte David was right there with him. With the Bucs settling into zone coverage like they did against Rodgers, both looked like Brooks making big plays in the old “Tampa 2.”

Mahomes couldn’t hold the ball long with the constant heat, and when he got it out quickly on short to intermediate routes, the Bucs swarmed to the ball with sound tackling to limit the damage from wide receiver Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce after the catch. When it wasn’t White or David owning the middle of the field, it was rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who channeled Lynch and joined White in the interception fun.

With all the work the front seven was doing and all the help Winfield was giving, the Buccaneers’ talented, but sometimes undisciplined, cornerbacks, Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, didn’t need to last long in coverage or face any real trouble downfield knowing they weren’t the last — or only — line of defense. Mahomes’ best throws came when he was on the run, scrambling to buy time, but the Buccaneers’ secondary stayed disciplined Sunday and never gave up fighting on such plays.

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Another factor: The Chiefs’ lack of a consistent third receiving option behind Hill and Kelce finally caught up to them. Hill saw double-teams and triple-teams, a natural correction after he destroyed mostly Davis one-on-one in Week 12 for 13 catches, 269 yards and three touchdowns. Hill couldn’t make enough contested catches Sunday and was held to seven receptions for 73 yards in the rematch. He even was followed around on shorter routes that started in the backfield. Other than Kelce, who also had key drops, catching 10 passes for 133 yards, there was no reliable outlet for Mahomes.

“They took away our deep stuff, they took away our sidelines. They did a good job of rallying to the football and making tackles,” Mahomes said of how the Bucs left the Chiefs’ offense discombobulated. “They executed at.a higher level defensively. They had a good game plan. We weren’t able to make adjustments and find our way into the end zone.”

There was no elaborate scheme or rocket science by Bowles. His best defensive players whipped the Chiefs’ makeshift offensive line, and the rest of the defense worked in unison to contain the Chiefs’ best offensive skill players. The numbers game was in the Buccaneers’ favor; they were able to drop seven in coverage and concentrate on just two threats.

Had the Buccaneers not tried to blitz so much — and gotten burned so badly — against the Chiefs in the first game, perhaps their mastery of Mahomes doesn’t happen. Had the plan to blitz less and play more zone coverage not worked so well against Rodgers, then it might have not been deployed as much against Mahomes. Had sturdy tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz been protecting the edges for Mahomes without help rather than Remmers and Wylie, it might have been a different story.

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But everything lined up for Tampa Bay’s strengths stacking up well against the Chiefs’ weaknesses. The Buccaneers’ offense provided a big assist by building a big first-half lead and putting Mahomes and the Chiefs in predictable passing situations that took the deep ball out of the arsenal and further compressed the short passing game. The deficit also forced Reid and coordinator Eric Bieniemy to be more predictable and less creative with their play-calling.

When laying out the Buccaneers’ blueprint for an upset before Super Bowl 55, winning on third down and pressuring Mahomes into turnovers were two crucial elements. What wasn’t expected was how they would win most every matchup everywhere on the field.

When they watch the game film, Mahomes and the Chiefs won’t be frustrated most by what they weren’t able to do, but rather that, physically and mentally, the Bucs just outplayed them, led by frontline talent and fundamental coaching.