May 18, 2021

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Super Bowl LV Preview | Football Outsiders

26 min read
Super Bowl LV Preview | Football Outsiders


One of the problems we have to deal with in writing a Super Bowl preview is repetitiveness. When we’re down to only two teams to write about, it means we’ve written a lot about them already. We covered Kansas City and Tampa Bay plenty during the regular season. We’ve now written about Kansas City in two playoff previews and Tampa Bay in three. They’re the only two teams we’ve covered for the last two weeks. So I apologize that my introduction to this Super Bowl LV preview is going to go over some familiar territory. Nonetheless, it’s the elephant in the room that has to be addressed if we’re talking about the top-line stats of this matchup.

Kansas City has been the Super Bowl favorite in Las Vegas for the entire season. The Chiefs were immediately installed as favorites in Super Bowl LV after Sunday’s games, with the line currently at -3 or -3.5 depending on where you look. Conventional wisdom may favor the Chiefs by even more, with roughly 60% of bets currently placed on the Chiefs.

Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, on the other hand, favor Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay finished the regular season second in total DVOA while Kansas City was only sixth (fifth if we don’t count the Week 17 game where the Chiefs sat starters). When we add in the playoffs, Tampa Bay moves to No. 1 in both total DVOA and weighted DVOA (which gives more weight to recent games). Kansas City, ignoring Week 17, is now third. Our ratings have said that Tampa Bay is underrated for weeks now. Tampa Bay had not fallen out of the top three in DVOA since Week 4, even when their record fell to 7-5. In addition, at no point since Week 4 has Tampa Bay had a lower DVOA than Kansas City, enclusive of all games played to that point.

The problem is what we’ve been calling the Kansas City “flip the switch” theory. The idea is that the Chiefs deliberately took things easy when they had a late lead in regular-season games. This led to a number of games where the Chiefs’ win expectancy never really fell below 95% but the score ended up close because of late scores by the opposition.

NBA analysts are used to basketball teams playing like this, but we’re not used to it in the NFL. There really hasn’t been a team that completely followed this blueprint, underwhelmed in the regular season despite winning a bunch of games and then turned it on in the playoffs with a dominant postseason march to the championship. There are some similarities between the Chiefs and the 2011 Packers or 2009 Colts, but those teams didn’t win the Super Bowl.

If the “flip the switch” theory were true, we would see evidence of the Chiefs playing a lower level with a late lead, and we would see them get significantly better once we got to the postseason. And, in fact, both of those things have happened. During the regular season, the Chiefs were significantly worse in the fourth quarter with a lead of more than a touchdown. Their offense dropped to -15.2% (21st in the NFL) and their defense rose to 23.6% (20th in the NFL). In the playoffs, the Chiefs have played their best ball. Kansas City’s DVOA for the AFC Championship was the team’s best single-game rating of the year. The week before against Cleveland, their DVOA before Patrick Mahomes got hurt was just as high.

And so, at Football Outsiders we’re stuck doing a stat-based preview of the Super Bowl while wondering if our stats for the regular season are properly capturing how good the Chiefs really are. That’s a tough predicament, and one to remember as you read through the Super Bowl LV preview below. While Tampa Bay was not good enough to beat Kansas City when the two teams faced off in Week 12, the Bucs have been the Chiefs’ match throughout the rest of the regular season. In certain areas, the Bucs have been even better in recent weeks. But what does it mean if our numbers have the two teams as fairly equal, if Kansas City is better than the numbers show?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  KC* TB
DVOA 23.0% (5) 31.5% (2)
WEI DVOA 34.1% (3) 38.7% (1)
Chiefs on Offense
  KC OFF* TB DEF
DVOA 24.9% (2) -14.6% (5)
WEI DVOA 27.3% (3) -13.9% (5)
PASS 50.0% (2) -5.4% (5)
RUSH -3.9% (12) -31.4% (1)
Buccaneers on Offense
  KC DEF* TB OFF
DVOA 2.4% (18) 19.8% (3)
WEI DVOA -3.3% (15) 27.6% (3)
PASS 3.3% (13) 37.1% (5)
RUSH 1.2% (29) -2.0% (10)
Special Teams
  KC TB
DVOA 0.5% (17) -2.9% (26)
*Week 17 not included.

All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

KC Graph TB graph

Perhaps you have heard this, but the Kansas City Chiefs offense is very good. And the main reason the Kansas City offense is so unstoppable is that they’re especially extra good on third downs. Did you have a good first down result against them? Did you force them into third-and-long? You can’t rest, because nobody is as good as Patrick Mahomes when it comes to converting third-and-long.

On first downs, the Chiefs ranked only sixth in DVOA this season. In fact, they were only 12th in passing DVOA on first downs this season. They ranked 10th in rushing DVOA. Those two figures combine to be sixth overall because the Chiefs pass on first down much more than the average team, and passing is so much more efficient than rushing.

But then the Chiefs ranked second in DVOA on second down, trailing only Green Bay, and first in DVOA on third or fourth down. This was the third straight year that the Chiefs ranked first in DVOA on third/fourth downs. The Chiefs have ranked No. 1 in DVOA on third-and-medium (3-6 yards to go) for three straight years, and they have ranked No. 2 in DVOA on third-and-long (7+ yards to go) for three straight years. Other teams have been better at third-and-long over a 16-game sample, but nobody is as consistently good in those situations as Mahomes.

Tampa Bay’s defense worked in the opposite way this year. Tampa Bay ranked third on first down and fifth on second down, but 14th on third or fourth down, including 20th on third-and-long. In the Week 12 game, Kansas City went 6-of-12 converting third downs, including three third-and-8s and a third-and-7 at the end to ice the game.

Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles likes to send pressure at the opposing quarterback, and he sends extra pass-rushers on third downs. Overall, Tampa Bay sent five or more pass rushers on 37% of pass plays this year, which ranked fourth in the league. Bowles doesn’t blitz more on third downs, but he sends more guys. On first and second down, Tampa sent five guys on 33% of passes and six or more on just 5% of passes. On third down, Tampa sent five guys on 19% of passes and six or more on 18% of passes.

Overall, Tampa’s pass defense this year was the same whether the Bucs blitzed or not, but the numbers were very different for the big blitzes vs. the five-man blitzes. Tampa allowed 7.1 yards per pass with 7.4% DVOA with five pass-rushers, but just 4.4 yards per pass with -51.9% DVOA when sending six or more.

So will they blitz Patrick Mahomes? They shouldn’t, a lesson they seemed to learn during the Week 12 game. Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league against blitzes. He had 78.2% DVOA against the blitz this season. In the Week 12 game, the Bucs blitzed Mahomes 12 times (22% of passes). All but one were five-man pressures, and all but one came in the first half of the game. Mahomes gained 9.3 yards per play with 87.6% DVOA and the only blitz in the second half turned into a 20-yard Tyreek Hill touchdown.

Besides, the Bucs should be able to pressure Mahomes with only their front four. Tampa Bay overall ranked sixth in pressure rate this year, including fourth when sending only four pass-rushers. Kansas City’s offense was 23rd in pressure rate allowed, and that was before losing left tackle Eric Fisher to an Achilles injury. He’ll be replaced by veteran journeyman Mike Remmers. Unfortunately, pressuring Mahomes doesn’t help as much as it helps against other quarterbacks. Obviously, Mahomes is better without pressure, because every quarterback is. But the Chiefs had 0.6% DVOA when Mahomes was pressured, ranking him second in the league behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick. Mahomes also can get rid of the ball quickly. In Week 12, he had his third-quickest average time to throw of the season (2.52 seconds) according to NFL Next Gen Stats. One way to deal with pressure is quick throws out of empty formations, but I don’t expect much of that: Kansas City ranked 29th in the league in frequency of empty backfields this year. But the Chiefs are sure to use rollouts, bootlegs, screens, and other strategies to get Mahomes away from the Tampa Bay pass rush.

Another way to slow down the pass rush is to get them to jump offsides, and Tampa Bay did that four times in Week 12. During the regular season, Kansas City led the league in getting opponents flagged for offsides, encroachment, or neutral zone infraction, with 26 flags including declined. And Tampa Bay was second in earning such penalties, with 24 of them on defense.

Pressure will at least limit some of those big deep plays to Tyreek Hill; Mahomes’ longest pass completion with pressure in Week 12 was a 15-yarder to Mecole Hardman. Speaking of those deep plays to Tyreek Hill, let’s talk a little bit about what Hill did in the Week 12 game: 13 catches for 269 yards. Tampa Bay trusted Carlton Davis to cover the opponent’s No. 1 receiver for most of the season. Looking at plays where SIS has Davis listed in coverage, 56% of them are against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. This went well for much of the year. Through Week 11, Davis had allowed 6.9 yards per pass with a 56% success rate when covering the opposition’s No. 1 option. Those numbers would have ranked 26th and 16th among cornerbacks this year, pretty darn good for covering the likes of Michael Thomas and Allen Robinson. Then came the Week 12 game against the Chiefs, when Davis got burned for five catches of at least 20 yards, three of which were touchdowns. Since then, the Bucs have moved Davis around a lot more. Last week, he was primarily on the outside, but switched from side to side and didn’t follow Davante Adams into the slot. In fact, he got burned on a 50-yard go-route touchdown by Marquez Valdes-Scantling when Sean Murphy-Bunting was on Davante Adams in the slot. For the full season against all receivers, Davis was middle of the pack with 7.6 yards per pass (40th) and a 51% success rate (38th).

The other outside cornerback, Jamel Dean, missed the Week 12 game and he’s been statistically the best of the Tampa Bay cornerbacks this season: 5.8 yards per pass ranks sixth and a 56% success rate ranks 16th. Dean is faster than Davis and might be a better option to cover Hill. The third cornerback, Murphy-Bunting, has been a huge playmaker in the playoffs, but his regular season was lousy: 9.8 yards per pass (76th) and 37% success rate (75th). It’s my guess that Murphy-Bunting’s season-long numbers are more telling than his playoff heroics, and the Chiefs should target him.

One way to prevent a big game from Hill is to play a lot of zone coverage. It’s not perfect — Hill’s 75-yard touchdown came against Cover-3 with Davis responsible for that deep third — but the Bucs were primarily a zone team this year, playing zone 66% of the time and man just 25% of the time according to Sports Info Solutions. In Week 12, the Bucs played man on eight plays and got burned with Mahomes going 6-of-8 for 113 yards and two touchdowns.

The problem with playing zone against the Chiefs is that tight end Travis Kelce will destroy you. Kelce is coming off the second-best tight end season in history according to Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric. In Week 12, he caught all eight of his targets for 82 yards. All eight targets came against zone coverage. Tampa Bay ranked only 25th in DVOA this year covering tight ends.

You might be surprised to see that Tampa Bay is poor covering tight ends because of the accolades given to linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. Well, White has a lot of strengths but pass coverage is not one of them. By SIS charting, he allowed 7.1 yards per pass with a 40% success rate in coverage. David was much better, with 4.3 yards per pass and a 59% success rate. The other issue here, and with all the short passes against Tampa Bay, is broken tackles. The Chiefs ranked fifth in broken tackle rate (12.0% of plays) and the Bucs were 26th on defense (11.3%). Kelce led all tight ends in broken tackles and his 24.8% broken tackle rate was a major outlier for tight ends, with Dalton Schultz as the only other tight end above 15%. And based on the regular-season SIS numbers, both David (17.6%) and White (16.0%) had worse-than-average broken tackle rates for linebackers with at least 50 tackles.

Counterintuitively, despite the broken tackles, the Buccaneers did well defending against yards after the catch. The Kansas City offense had more yards after the catch than the NFL average from every distance except for passes of 20 or more air yards, but the Bucs’ defense allowed fewer yards after the catch than the NFL average for every distance except… 20 or more air yards.

With all due respect to North Attleboro’s finest, Anthony Sherman, the Chiefs essentially use just two personnel groups except in short yardage: 11 and 12. They’re absolutely sick when throwing from 12 personnel, with 9.4 yards per play and 72.8% DVOA. And Tampa Bay had trouble with passes from multiple-tight end sets this year. They allowed 8.1 yards per play and 16.5% DVOA on passes from 12 personnel. Contrary to what you might expect, Kansas City’s biggest plays with two tight ends on the field come from their wide receivers, not from Kelce and certainly not from backup tight ends Nick Keizer and Deon Yelder. In Week 12, both the 75-yard touchdown to Hill and the 8-yard gain by Hill that ended the game in the fourth quarter came out of 12 personnel. None of Kelce’s receptions in the Week 12 game came from 12 personnel.

The Kansas City running game is probably not going to play a major role in this game. That’s a combination of Kansas City’s pass-first philosophy and Tampa Bay’s exceptional run defense. Regarding the former, Kansas City called a pass on 72% of plays in the first half this year, the highest rate in the NFL. Regarding the latter, Tampa Bay has led the league in defensive DVOA against the run for two straight seasons. The Bucs were also No. 1 in adjusted line yards against the run this season, but they didn’t allow a lot of longer runs either. Tampa Bay led the league in the fewest second-level yards per carry (5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and ranked fifth in open-field yards per carry (11+ yards past the line of scrimmage). The Kansas City running game wasn’t particularly strong at breaking those long highlight runs, either. The Chiefs did well in second-level yards per carry (seventh) but only ranked 30th in open-field yards per carry. And Tampa Bay’s defense ranked in the top six in ALY in every direction except right end where they ranked 15th — but Kansas City’s offense ranked 21st.

The Chiefs may not even want to audible to handoffs when they face light boxes. Tampa Bay was excellent against the run no matter whether the Bucs had six, seven, or eight men in the box. Kansas City was better against six-man boxes, but not with a significantly higher success rate. They had a higher DVOA because whatever long runs they did have tended to come against those six-man boxes.

Tampa Bay Run Defense by Men in Box, 2020
Men in Box Carries Yd/Car Suc% DVOA
6 104 4.36 37% -30.7%
7 134 2.80 28% -48.2%
8 67 3.30 48% -21.7%
Kansas City Run Offense by Men in Box, 2020
Men in Box Carries Yd/Car Suc% DVOA
6 118 5.42 48% 11.7%
7 128 3.98 45% -11.7%
8 67 3.39 45% -8.9%

As Vince Verhei pointed out earlier this week, Kansas City actually ran the ball better, not worse, in their worst games of the year. When they’re good, it’s because their passing game is on fire. The main problem with avoiding the running game is the question of whether the Chiefs will be able to run out the clock if they take a late lead. In the fourth quarter of games this year, Kansas City’s run DVOA dropped to -31.5% with a lead of 1-8 points and -42.8% with a lead of 9 points or more. (Remember, that’s after adjustments in DVOA that account for teams gaining fewer yards when running out the clock with leads late.) If they’re trying to ice the game with a late lead, it may behoove the Chiefs to just keep passing to try to gain enough yardage to keep the sticks moving, with short passes that don’t have a high likelihood of falling incomplete.

Those fourth-quarter troubles might be exacerbated by the fact that the Tampa Bay defense gets much better at the end of games. Tampa Bay’s performance this year suggests a situation where, like in Week 12, Kansas City gets out to a lead and Tampa Bay catches up. Tampa Bay’s defense ranked only 26th in DVOA in the first quarter of games. It then improved to 16th in the second quarter, sixth in the third quarter, and best in the league in the fourth quarter.

WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL

TB Graph KC graph

We know that offense is more consistent than defense, and more important for predicting game results. That fact might lead you to favor Kansas City in this game, except for one problem: since Week 10, Tampa Bay’s offense has actually been better than Kansas City’s.

Tampa Bay’s offense ranked only 11th in DVOA for Weeks 1-9. In Weeks 10-20, including the playoffs, the Buccaneers rank second trailing only Green Bay. Tampa Bay has a 30.5% offensive DVOA since Week 10. Kansas City, even if we remove Week 17, has a 28.5% DVOA over the same time period.

At the same time that the Tampa Bay offense has been improved, the Kansas City defense — at least against the pass — has been worse. Well, at least it was during the regular season. This is where that “flip the switch” theory comes in. The Kansas City defense has flipped the switch more than the offense has. After declining over the second half of the season, the Kansas City pass defense has reversed and been absolutely outstanding over the last two games. The run defense, which had improved, has been the league’s worst during the playoffs. I think the Chiefs will happily accept that trade-off.

Kansas City Defensive DVOA by Week, 2020
Weeks All Defense Rk vs. Pass Rk vs. Run Rk
Weeks 1-9 0.6% 14 -5.4% 6 7.7% 32
Weeks 10-16 5.2% 25 14.6% 23 -11.1% 18
Weeks 18-20 -26.9% 2 -44.5% 1 13.0% 14

Tampa Bay has not only been better on offense, but also more aggressive since these teams first met in Week 12. Tampa Bay’s use of motion has increased from 46% in Weeks 1-11 to 56% in Weeks 12-20. The latter number would have ranked fifth this season. (For those curious, the Chiefs motion on 60% of plays, which ranked third.) Week 12 was also when Tom Brady became dramatically more aggressive on third-down throws. When it is third or fourth down with less than 5 yards to go, the percentage of Brady throws that went at least 5 yards past the sticks increased from 16% before Week 12 to 66% since Week 12. Since that point of the season, Brady and Mahomes rank first and second in ALEX on third/fourth downs, 4.8 yards past the sticks for Brady and 4.5 for Mahomes.

In the previous section, I detailed Mahomes’ outstanding long-term record on third downs. Well, Brady has been better than that for the last two months. Since Week 12 and through the playoffs, Tampa Bay’s DVOA on third and fourth downs has been narrowly higher than Kansas City’s DVOA on third and fourth downs for the entire season including the playoffs (50.3% to 48.1%). And while the Chiefs’ defense ranked 13th against the pass on third downs this season, they were dead last against the run.

Kansas City had an average defense against tight ends this year, but ranked 31st against running backs in the passing game. Their defense funneled targets to the tight ends and running backs, giving up more yardage to those positions than the NFL average but less yardage to wide receivers. In the Week 12 game, Rob Gronkowski gained 106 yards on six catches (seven targets). That was 28 more yards than his most productive game this season. The 140 yards given up to tight ends (Gronkowski and Cameron Brate) was the most given up by Kansas City in any game this season. Particularly bad was a five-man blitz where defensive end Alex Okafor had to drop into coverage on Gronk while two second-level defenders came on the other side. The Chiefs should not run that in the Super Bowl.

Watch out specifically for Gronk on second downs. This year, Gronk had 41.3% DVOA on second down and 36 targets, almost as many as he had on first and third downs combined (41).

Like Kansas City, Tampa Bay excels passing with two tight ends on the field. The Bucs had 61.4% DVOA and gained 8.2 yards per play when passing from 12 or 02 personnel. Kansas City allowed 8.4 yards per play and 21.9% DVOA on passes from 12 personnel this season. Brady was 6-of-8 from these two personnel groups in the first game, including big 29- and 48-yard strikes to Gronk.

Tampa Bay is not the best team to be taking advantage of Kansas City’s weakness against running backs in the passing game. Passing to running backs was a huge part of Tom Brady’s offense in New England. Things haven’t gone as smoothly in Tampa Bay. Ronald Jones was second-to-last with -88 receiving DYAR this season, and Leonard Fournette was at -9 receiving DYAR. Sportradar lists Jones with five pass drops and Fournette with seven. However, Jones did have maybe his best pass reception of the season against Kansas City in Week 12: a 37-yard touchdown where Jones was wide open in the flat after play-action and then broke a tackle from Daniel Sorensen and went all the way to the end zone. Fournette had catches of 8, 6, and a loss of 4 yards in that game.

As far as covering the wide receivers, the Chiefs played 40% man coverage this year, one of the higher rates in the league. For the season, the Chiefs were better in man than zone. They allowed 6.8 yards per pass and 47% success rate in man, compared to 7.6 yards per pass and 54% success rate in zone. In Week 12, they split about 50-50 and the Bucs were much better against the zones: 5.0 yards per pass, -12.6% DVOA vs. man compared to 12.1 yards per pass and 66.2% DVOA vs zone. This wasn’t a first half/second half split, as the Chiefs actually played more man than zone in the second half as the Bucs were coming back. But the biggest passes of the second half came against zone, including Gronk’s two biggest gains and the 44-yard strike down the middle to Chris Godwin.

Rookie L’Jarius Sneed had the best year of the Kansas City cornerbacks, when he was healthy enough to play. He doesn’t have enough targets to be ranked among cornerbacks, but he allowed just 5.1 yards per pass with a 56% success rate. He’s also a big part of their blitz packages. Charvarius Ward was the weaker of Kansas City’s other two cornerbacks. Ward allowed 7.4 yards per pass with a 50% success rate, both ranking in the 30s. Bashaud Breeland allowed 6.8 yards per pass with a 54% success rate, both ranking in the 20s. The Kansas City cornerbacks will have to worry in this game about penalties, in particular pass interference. Defenses were flagged 23 times for pass interference on Brady throws this year, a record total in our database that goes back 35 years. Brady and the Bucs got 395 free yards out of DPI penalties. Kansas City was fifth in DPI penalties during the season, 15 total including four each for Breeland and Ward.

Another issue with the Kansas City defensive backs is broken tackles. The Chiefs defense ranked 30th in the percentage of plays with broken tackles and the problem is particularly big in the secondary, as SIS tracked Daniel Sorensen with 16 broken tackles, Tyrann Mathieu with 12, and Breeland with 11. However, Tampa Bay may not be the best team to take advantage of this weakness, as it was a weakness for them as well. Tampa Bay’s offense ranked dead last in the percentage of plays with broken tackles. Kansas City also allowed a higher average of yards after the catch than the league average at all distances — but Tampa Bay was lower than the league average in YAC at all distances except for intermediate passes of 10-19 air yards.

The Chiefs spent much of the game with two high safeties, which fits their m.o. from most of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Chiefs ranked sixth in the frequency of playing Cover-2 (20%) and third in the frequency of playing 2-Man coverage (13%). For the year, the Chiefs ranked third in the NFL against deep passes (16+ air yards) but 22nd against shorter passes. However, the Chiefs are also willing to put their cornerbacks on an island. No team played more Cover-0 this season according to ESPN Stats & Info, including five plays in Week 12 which resulted in four incomplete passes and a short gain by Cameron Brate.

This tied into a specific trend and perhaps the biggest difference between these two offenses in 2020. While Patrick Mahomes destroys the blitz, Tom Brady has struggled against blitzes for two and a half years now. Tampa Bay’s team pass DVOA dropped from 41.8% to -4.0% when opponents sent more than four pass-rushers at Brady. And Kansas City likes to blitz. They ranked fifth in blitz frequency at 35%, and No. 1 sending big blitzes of six or more at 15% — although they allowed more yards per play and a higher DVOA with big blitzes than with regular five-man blitzes. In the Week 12 game, Brady did well against the five-man blitzes (despite an interception) but got destroyed by the six-man blitzes:

Tom Brady by No. of Pass-Rushers in Week 12
Pass-Rushers Plays Yd/Play aDOT DVOA Pressure Rate INT
3-4  23 8.7 7.3 52.9% 4% 0
5 10 10.9 11.1 43.3% 20% 1
6-7 9 3.7 13.3 -94.8% 33% 1

For the season, Brady’s pressure numbers are essentially the opposite of Mahomes. Mahomes faced a lot of pressure but also was one of the league’s best quarterbacks against pressure. Tampa Bay ranked second in pressure rate on offense, in part because of Brady’s own style and ability to get rid of the ball quickly. But when Brady was marked with pressure, he was dismal, ranking 30th out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks in DVOA under pressure.

The pressure in Week 12 forced Brady into his quickest time to throw of any game this year: 2.28 seconds on average according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Note that this interesting trend of a longer depth of target when Brady was faced with more pass-rushers wasn’t found in the rest of Brady’s season.

The Chiefs really needed to bring the blitz to get consistent pressure during the 2020 regular season. Kansas City ranked only 18th in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate. With four pass-rushers, Kansas City had a 25% pressure rate which was slightly below the league average. With five or more pass-rushers, Kansas City had a 48% pressure rate, which was second in the league behind only Philadelphia.

Tampa Bay’s offensive line is nowhere near as wrecked as Kansas City’s right now but they do have their own weakness, which is backup right guard Aaron Stinnie playing in place of Alex Cappa. The Chiefs bring a lot of pressure up the middle — not just Chris Jones tied for third in the league with 39 hurries but also rookie Tershawn Wharton with 15 hurries. Given how many accolades they receive from offensive line experts, it’s a bit shocking to see that Tampa Bay ranked only 17th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate this season. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was lauded for a fantastic rookie season, somehow came out only 30th among tackles in PBWR, and left tackle Donovan Smith ranked only 51st.

Tampa Bay is a strong run-blocking line, however. The Buccaneers ranked ninth in adjusted line yards on offense, while Kansas City was just 25th on defense. Tampa Bay was stronger running to the right side, which is where Kansas City was weaker defending the run. Tampa Bay likes to run the ball a lot more than Kansas City, and the Chiefs’ relative struggle against the run will entice the Buccaneers to run more. The Buccaneers have also been running better in recent weeks. Leonard Fournette’s yards per attempt have not changed since Week 12, but his success rate has increased from 47% to 55%. Ronald Jones finished eighth among qualifying running backs this year with a 57% success rate.

It’s still generally better to pass than to run — on first downs, for example, Kansas City gave up 2.0 more yards per play on passes than on runs — but the ground-game matchup has a lot more promise for Tampa Bay than for Kansas City. But I don’t know if Tampa Bay will run as much as you might expect. Watching Tampa Bay games this year, you might have gotten the feeling that every first down was handed off to Ronald Jones for four yards, but it wasn’t really that way. Including the playoffs, Tampa Bay ran on only 33% of plays in the first half of games. Remember how Kansas City ranked 32nd in this stat in 2020? Tampa Bay ranked all the way down at 28th, running not much more than the Chiefs.

There is one time that Tampa Bay absolutely should pound the ball on the ground, however, and that is in short-yardage situations. The Tampa Bay offense was No. 1 in the league converting short-yardage runs, with an 88% conversion rate. You know about the Tom Brady sneak and its historical effectiveness but most of these conversions were by the running backs. (Brady did go 6-for-6 on sneaks during the regular season.) Meanwhile, Kansas City’s defense was dead last in preventing these conversions, with a 78% conversion rate. This ties into one of the big differences in this game, the aggressiveness of the head coaches on fourth downs. Andy Reid, who was very conservative for much of his career, has changed in the last few seasons and ranked sixth in EdjSports’ critical call index this year. Bruce Arians has always been conservative and ranked 30th in the critical call index. But both coaches have the players who should be encouraging them to go for it on fourth-and-short. Reid has Mahomes. Arians has this huge advantage in the short ground game. One typical complaint about analytics people is that we constantly suggest teams go for fourth-and-short without considering the actual players involved and the team strengths and weaknesses. This is one time where the team strengths and weaknesses clearly suggest to Tampa Bay: pound that rock in short yardage instead of punting.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The gap between these teams is larger than it looks at first glance, because the Chiefs’ rating for this year is dragged down by one horrible special teams game in Week 3 against Baltimore. They were second in 2019 and currently rank eighth in weighted DVOA for 2020. The “true quality” of their special teams is probably closer to those rankings than to this year’s No. 17 regular-season finish. Tampa Bay has had two positive special teams games in their three postseason contests, but they were generally below average for the season.

Mecole Hardman was average returning kickoffs and punts and had a 67-yard punt return touchdown against Miami. Punt returns were the biggest negative for the Kansas City special teams and that was fluky, as most of the negative value came from the occasional return attempt by Tyreek Hill (he muffed his one try) or Demarcus Robinson (remember the safety against New Orleans)? Last week’s muffed punt by Hardman was his second of the season, but those are a pretty random event. The other big negative was kickoff coverage, which was subpar (and allowed a touchdown in the Baltimore debacle mentioned above). Kicker Harrison Butker has only missed three field goals (including the playoffs) but he’s missed seven extra points (one blocked).

Tampa Bay wasn’t horrible in any particular area of special teams this year, but they were below average in all five phases that we measure. Bradley Pinion is fine on punts and kickoffs but the coverage team gave up some big returns. Jaydon Mickens returns both kickoffs and punts; his 43-yard kickoff return against Green Bay two weeks ago was his longest of the year. Ryan Succop is very average and doesn’t have as strong a leg as Butker if these teams get bogged down around the 35 and face a big decision. Butker is 5-for-5 from 50 yards or more, including the playoffs, and was 3-for-6 a year ago. Succop’s long for the year is 50 yards, and he hasn’t hit one over that distance since 2018.

One difference in special teams that goes in Tampa Bay’s favor: Kansas City had 18 penalties on special teams this season, while Tampa Bay had only seven.

OUTLOOK

On one hand, we have our stats which suggest that Tampa Bay was a better team this year than their 11-5 record showed. Including the playoffs, they were the top team in the league according to DVOA. On the other hand, we have a Kansas City team which the underlying stats suggest was not as good as its 14-2 record, a team that dramatically underplayed its Pythagorean projection based on points scored and allowed (by 3.3 wins). Normally, that would clearly suggest an upset pick, with Kansas City wrongly favored in this game.

But then there’s the “flip the switch” theory. I don’t think we can ignore the fact that the Chiefs did, in fact, ease up on opponents when they had a large fourth-quarter lead. The Buccaneers built their rating in the same situations — in fact, they had the league’s second-best defense with a two-score lead in the fourth quarter. I also feel that the matchups in this game favor the Chiefs. Nobody really has the right defense to cover both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and the Buccaneers are no exception. Tampa Bay’s ability to get pressure with just their front four will be mitigated by Patrick Mahomes’ ability to make plays under pressure. The Buccaneers should gain good yardage on the Chiefs on the ground, and their passing game has been on fire for the last two months. But at some point, the Chiefs will pressure Tom Brady with blitzes. That will lead to a mistake or two, and those turnovers will likely be the difference in the ballgame. This matchup is closer than many fans may expect, but I think we’ll see a close Kansas City victory and our first repeat champion since the New England Patriots in 2004.

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You’ll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team’s trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).


https://www.footballoutsiders.com/game-previews/2021/super-bowl-lv-preview