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Sunday's Best

Super Bowl Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: February 10, 2021, 3:33 pm ET

On Friday I'll share a number of betting and prop oriented thoughts on the game.  But those don't arise out of thin air.  They originate by digging deep into the analytics and film study of both of these teams.  After analyzing the Chiefs and the Bucs for over a week, here is a thorough deep dive into a couple critical elements of the game.

How will an injured Chiefs offensive line factor into this game?

The Chiefs will be down multiple offensive linemen from what they anticipated having at the beginning of the season.

Their projected starting offensive line for the Super Bowl includes:

LT Mike Remmers (who hasn’t played LT since 2016 and began the season as a backup)
LG Nick Allegretti (began the season as a backup, drafted in the 7th round)
C Austin Reiter (the only Week 1 starter in his position for the Chiefs)
RG Stefen Wisniewski (began the season on the Steelers and was cut by them in November)
RT Andrew Wylie (a UDFA guard, who started the season but as a guard)

What should the Chiefs do to change their offense against a strong defensive line?  Even though the Chiefs have a strong run defense, should Andy Reid run the ball more to help his offensive line?

Before we dig into historical data, we can look just to their first meeting in Tampa in week 12.  

Against the #1 run defense of the Bucs in week 12, Andy Reid’s Chiefs went 80% pass on early downs in the first three quarters, their #1 highest pass rate in any game this season.

Those passes averaged 9.6 YPA, 58% success and +0.34 EPA.

The Chiefs had absolutely no success running the ball on first down.

On first downs in the first half vs the Bucs in week 12, the Chiefs averaged 2.3 YPC, 25% success and -0.16 EPA.  Meanwhile, passes on those same first downs averaged 11.6 YPA, 56% success and +0.20 EPA.

Running on first down was not a functional strategy for success.  And to their credit, the Chiefs did not look to run the ball often on first down, going pass on 81% of their first downs in the first half (21 total plays).  

Given their pass heavy nature in the first meeting coupled with the inefficiency on the ground and efficiency through the air, I would be surprised to see the Chiefs do anything but come out passing the ball at a high rate early in the Super Bowl.  Particularly on first downs.

There was also a fundamental shift for the Chiefs down the stretch of the 2020 season which differs highly from the 2019 season.

The first 7 games of 2020, the Chiefs went 56% pass on early downs in the first three quarters.  This was 3% above average (53%) and ranked 10th highest in the NFL.

But then they faced the tougher run defense of the Jets in week 8.    The Chiefs went 79% pass on early downs in the first three quarters.  Not only was that well above their YTD average, it was a full 15% higher than any single other game on the season (64% pass vs the Chargers in week 2).

And the Chiefs blew out the Jets 35-9 with this pass-heavy approach.

And since that week 8 game, the Chiefs have gone 69% pass on early downs in the first three quarters, the #1 most pass heavy team in the NFL.

Their last four games have gone 68%, 69%, 67% and 74% pass in these situations.

In their first 7 games, they didn’t have a single game with 65% pass on early downs in the first three quarters.  In their last 11 games, they exceeded 65% pass in 9 of 11.

As mentioned, this is in stark contrast to 2019.  In 2019, the Chiefs started off pass heavy.  They exceeded 65% pass in all 6 of their first 6 games to start the season, with an average of 70% pass, by far #1 in the NFL (#2 was down at 60% pass).

But then Mahomes was injured, and the rest of the season, the Chiefs averaged 61% pass from week 7 through the Super Bowl.

This still tied them for #1 most pass-heavy in the NFL.  But they had just 2 of their final 13 games see at least 65% pass on early downs in the first three quarters.  

You can see clearly how stark the contrast was from 2019 to 2020 on these early downs in the first three quarters:

Average pass rate first stretch of 2019:  70% pass, 6 of 6 games exceeding 65% pass
Average pass rate first stretch of 2020:  56% pass, 0 of 7 games exceeding 65% pass

Average pass rate down the stretch of 2019:  61% pass, 2 of 13 games exceeding 65% pass
Average pass rate down the stretch of 2020:  69% pass, 9 of 11 games exceeding 65% pass

Given the trend to pass at such a high rate down the stretch of 2020 coupled with the successfully used strategy to pass in the week 12 meeting against the Bucs at their single highest pass rate on the season, I fully anticipate the Chiefs will engage in a pass first, pass often approach to the Super Bowl.

How have the Buccaneers fared against other pass-first offenses this season?

Tampa Bay has played just two other teams that ranked in the NFL’s top-12 in pass rate:  the Falcons and Washington in week 18.

And neither obviously have near the pass offense as do the Chiefs.

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In their first meeting in week 16, the Falcons passed the ball on 75% of early downs in the first three quarters.  These passes averaged 7.9 YPA, 59% success and +0.28 EPA.  Meanwhile, the 10 run plays they called on these early downs averaged 1.4 YPC, 30% success and -0.48 EPA.

Atlanta jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead and led 24-21 entering the fourth quarter, but narrowly lost.

Just two weeks later, the Falcons played the Bucs again.  This was week 17 of the season.  Hosting the Falcons, the Bucs had strong incentive to win for playoff seeding.  The Falcons had zero incentive and were playing with a lame-duck interim coach.  The Falcons were also playing without Julio Jones.

Interestingly, while they went pass heavy in the first meeting with a lot of success (and clear failure when running the ball) the Falcons went far more run-centric in this Week 17 game.

Instead of going 75% pass on early downs in the first three quarters, the Falcons went only 58% pass.  

They ran the ball 19 times instead of only 10 in the first meeting.

The runs in the first meeting were terrible… and the runs in their second meeting were equally terrible:  2.2 YPC, 42% success and -0.39 EPA.  

Meanwhile, passes were actually more successful than the first meeting, but still substantially better than runs:  6.3 YPA, 62% success and +0.21 EPA.  

And this was despite being down on the scoreboard for much of the first half, trailing 7-0, 10-3, 17-3 and 20-3.

Digging deeper, it was one of the most ill-advised game plans you will ever see for a pass-first team like the Falcons were most of the season.  I couldn’t believe their strategy.

In the first quarter, on early downs, they went 60% RUN, despite these runs averaging 1.7 YPC, 33% success and -0.27 EPA while passes were averaging 13 YPA, 100% success and +0.76 EPA.

In the first half, the Falcons were only 52% pass on early downs, with passes averaging 69% success and +0.30 EPA with runs averaging only 42% success and -0.52 EPA.

And they were trailing on the scoreboard.  A pass heavy team doesn’t call plays like this, especially given the splits in efficiency.  A team that just wants to end the season and get out of town calls plays like this.

And despite being a 7-point underdog, with completely backwards play calling, the Falcons trailed by only 3 points entering the fourth quarter, 23-20.

Atlanta’s defense gave up three TDs in the fourth quarter and lost 44-27, but the point is this:

The passing was working from the typically pass-heavy Falcons, but they turned to the run in the first half and buried themselves.

The final game the Bucs played vs a team ranking top-12 in adjusted pass rate was the Washington Football Team in the Wild Card round.

However, this was a game that was truly unique due to injuries.  Washington had to start QB Taylor Heinicke due to injuries.  

Heinicke is a far cry from Alex Smith.  And when coaching Heinicke, you’re looking to make life easy on him, not entrust your entire offense to him.

As such, unlike a pass-centric offense for Smith, Washington build a run-centric offense.

They passed the ball on only 45% of early downs in the first half.  As they fell behind, they had to pass more, but it still was a fairly low rate:

In the first half, Washington was only 50% pass on early downs.  Their runs were predictably terrible (3.8 YPC, 38% success, -0.14 EPA).

Washington finished the day just 55% pass on early downs in the first three quarters with their backup QB.

So, the bottom line when it comes to anticipating how the Bucs defense will fair against a pass-first offense is that they’ve played very few.

And of the three games they did play against top-12 offenses other than the Chiefs, only one actually went pass heavy.  

The other two (Falcons in week 17, Washington in the Wild Card) had other reasons which led them to build run-centric attacks early in these games, which did not work whatsoever.

When all of the pass-centric teams came out and passed the ball in the first half, they saw immense success.

Not just from an efficiency perspective on these passes, but also on the scoreboard.  In the first meeting, the Chiefs put up 20 in the first half and the Falcons put up 17.  At halftime, the Chiefs led 20-7 and the Falcons led 17-0.

And tough infrequent, when these teams ran the football, it was terrible production.

Since the sample size of pass heavy teams faced by the Bucs is so low, let’s look at run-based teams that chose to go pass heavy against the Bucs and how they performed.

Excluding the pass-heavy Chiefs and Falcons, the only teams in the regular season that exceeded a 65% early down pass rate in the first three quarters vs the Chiefs were:

Bears in week 5 (73% pass)
Rams in week 11 (77% pass)

On the season, the Bears were just 54% pass in these situations while the Rams were 53% pass.  Both made massive shifts towards the pass when game planning against Tampa’s defense.

And both teams beat the Bucs.  Both did so largely because they chose to go pass heavy.

Examine the play calling splits:

Bears passes:    7.2 YPA, 65% success, +0.00 EPA
Bears rushes:    2.7 YPC, 33% success, -0.15 EPA

Rams passes:    7.0 YPA, 64% success, +0.15 EPA
Rams rushes:    1.8 YPC, 20% success, -0.37 EPA

With production like that, if either team ran the ball even a little bit more than they did, they don’t beat the Bucs.  

And aside from losses to the Saints, the only losses the Bucs suffered this season were to the Chiefs, the Bears and the Rams.

The answer to beating these Bucs is quite literally abandon the run as much as possible and focus on getting it done through the air.

All of the teams that lost to the Bucs were either run-based offenses by nature or teams that chose to run the ball at too high of a rate against Tampa’s strength, the run defense.

All of the teams that beat the Bucs were either pass-based offenses by nature or teams that chose to pass the ball at a well above average rate to avoid Tampa’s run defense.

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How often will the Bucs run on first down, and when they pass, how efficient will those passes be?

From weeks 1-14, the Bucs had a very run-heavy approach on first down in the first half.  

They ran the ball on 61% of their first downs in the first quarter (NFL average was only 55% run), even though these runs gained just 3.0 YPC, second worst in the NFL.

They ran the ball on 52% of their first downs in the first half (NFL average is only 50% run), even though these runs gained just 2.7 YPC, worst in the NFL.

But the last 3 weeks of the regular season, they completely flipped the switch.

They shifted to 67% pass on first downs in the first quarter, up from 39% pass.

These passes averaged 8.5 YPA with a 57% success rate.  (Their runs are still terrible at a 3.1 YPC, 29% success).

On first downs in the first half, they shifted to 61% pass, up from 48%.

Tampa decided to put the ball into Tom Brady’s hands early in the games and let him get to work on the defense, and it’s been the best decision they’ve made all year.  

But that didn’t last in the playoffs.

The last two weeks, the Bucs went 83% and 67% run on first downs in the first quarter.  Overall in the playoffs, they are at 65% run on first downs in the first quarter.  

And these runs delivered 3.2 YPC, -0.13 EPA/att and a 46% success rate.

They are 52% run on first downs in the first half.  Keep in mind, the NFL average is 50% run.

They are 58% run on first downs in the first three quarters.

What is strange about this is the addition of Tom Brady in the offseason.  It’s one thing to be well above average in run rate with Jameis Winston at QB.  But in the playoffs, with a Super Bowl Championship on the line, to be this run heavy is quite perplexing.  

Without getting into an entire tale of why it’s more efficient to pass on first downs with any QB, let alone Tom Brady, let’s just state one fact:

With the modern rules as they are, and offenses evolved to adapt, literally the only thing that can stop an average offense against an average defense is predictability.

And what the Bucs have become is very predictable on offense.

They run the ball at a way above average rate on first down, particularly in the first quarter.

And they have the #1 highest pass rate on second and third down.

Tampa has been the #1 most predictable team on 2nd and 3rd downs because of their first down play calling.

Tampa is 80% pass on 2nd and 3rd downs in the first 3 quarters.

That’s WAY above average.  It’s #1 in the NFL and even WAY above any other team in the NFL. 

The #2 and 3 teams (Jaguars then Steelers) are down at 74% and 72% pass

The NFL average is 67% pass

Let’s examine what happened in the NFC Championship game:

The Bucs ran the ball on 5 of 6 first downs in the first quarter.

These runs gained 2.2 YPC with a 20% success rate.

They were only able to move the ball and score thanks to unsustainable production on 3rd down.

Tampa had 6 third downs, the same number of first downs (meaning they never bypassed 3rd down once) and converted 5 of 6 into first down, including a TD.

Overall in the NFC Championship, with Tom Brady at QB, the Bucs went 65% run on 1st down for 2.9 YPC and a 29% success rate.

And then doubled back with a 75% pass rate on 2nd down.  These passes were quite predictable, given the first down run rate.  

As such, the now-fired Mike Pettine, Packers former DC, could get his guys ready for 2nd down passes quite predictably. And as a result, the Bucs high pass rate on second down resulted in terrible production:  3.3 YPA with a 27% success rate.

So, it came down to third down.  Tampa went 86% pass on third down, and Tom Brady delivered 7/11 for 14.3 YPA and a 64% first down rate.

It doesn’t take book smarts to guess that ridiculously high third down conversion rates like 64% are unsustainable.

If you factor in sacks, Brady had a first down conversion rate against the Saints the prior week of 50%.  And against Washington in the Wild Card of 46%.

On the season, Tampa was down at a 42% conversion rate on 3rd down passes, which was a touch over the NFL average of 38%.

But the problem for the Bucs in this game is they are not facing the Packers, and their NFL average defense on 3rd and long.  

They are facing the Chiefs and their #3 defense on 3rd and long (6-10 yards to go).

The Chiefs allow just a 26% conversion rate on these 3rd and longs, #3 in the NFL and well above the 36% NFL average.

Last week against the Packers, Brady faced 8 of these third and longs (needing at least 6 yards to go).  He converted 71% of his passes into first downs (was sacked once) and averaged 13.9 YPA with +1.58 EPA/att.

While anything is possible, it would be highly improbable Brady could deliver anything close to that level of third and long dominance against the Chiefs Defense.

The Bucs haven’t entered the playoffs with a mentality that their only way to win the game is to trust Tom Brady.

They’ve entered with a mentality that they can run their same old offense and if they need bailed out on 3rd down, Tom Brady can put on his cape and do it.

That mentality worries me if I’m backing the Bucs.  

But I don’t believe it changes.  I would be pleasantly surprised if the Bucs did anything other than run the ball on over 50% of first quarter first downs.

Remember, they were the only team to run on over 50% of first quarter first downs in the Conference Championship round, and they did it at an 83% clip.

This is one of the most intriguing matchups of this game:  how often does Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich choose to run on first down?  And how productive are those runs?  

Because they absolutely need to avoid the 3rd and long situations against the Chiefs Defense in this game.  If the predictable first down runs are effective and gain enough yardage to keep Tampa out of 3rd and long, they may survive the predictable play calling.

But if these runs are as inefficient as they were last week (2.9 YPC, 29% success), Tampa will be in trouble early in this game.



Finally, how often will the Chiefs target their slot receivers?

For the Bucs to optimize efficiency when they pass to WRs, they absolutely MUST target the slot more and less to the perimeter.

The bottom line is, the Chiefs perimeter corners are playing outstanding.

Tampa must avoid them as much as possible.  That includes throwing to RBs and TEs more, which will be discussed below.

And it also means throwing to slot WRs.

In the week 12 meeting, look at WR targets based on where they aligned pre-snap:

Slot:    64% success, 9.8 YPA on 9.9 aDOT, +0.38 EPA (14 att)
Wide:    29% success, 3.0 YPA on 14.4 aDOT, -0.44 EPA (7 att)

Every single Chris Godwin target but one (when he was aligned pre-snap as a RB) featured him in the slot.  

And on those slot targets, look at his average:  75% success, 12.1 YPA, +1.02 EPA

Mike Evans, on the other hand, was primarily targeted when he was out wide, but did have a few slot targets.  Look at Evans’ splits:

Slot:    67% success, 12.7 YPA, +0.25 EPA (3 att)
Wide:    17% success, 2.0 YPA, -0.65 EPA (6 att)

It appears the Bucs and/or Tom Brady were generally unprepared for what they were going to find with the Chiefs Defense in that earlier meeting.

In the first half, of their 9 targets to WRs, 4 were out wide, 3 were in the slot and 2 were to WRs aligned as RBs.

Brady was terrible on the WR-as-RB passes and the slot-WR targets were productive, but the WR targets out wide recorded 3.0 YPA, 25% success and -0.58 EPA.

In the second half, the Bucs scrapped WR-as RBs (zero targets) and of 14 total WR-targets, threw only THREE TIMES to WRs out wide and 11 targets to WRs in the slot.  Results:

Slot:    64% success, 11.4 YPA, +0.42 EPA
Wide:    33% success, 3.0 YPA, -0.26 EPA

Hopefully Tampa will have a better understanding of how to operate in this rematch game, and not waste so many of their passes on WRs out wide.

And although Mike Evans operates some from the slot, this looks very likely to favor Chris Godwin.

Look at the pre-snap alignment for each player:

Godwin slot:    82 of 112 targets (73%)
Godwin wide:    20 of 112 targets (18%)

Evans slot:    47 of 131 targets (36%)
Evans wide:    83 of 131 targets (63%)

It’s not that Evans is bad in the slot, either.  In fact, his success rate, EPA/att and YPA in the slot are all superior to Chris Godwin’s.  

But the fact is, Godwin eats most of the Bucs slot targets, and that’s all that matters when projecting production in this game.  Godwin has almost 2x the number of slot targets on the season and runs almost 75% of his routes from the slot, whereas Evans runs only 36% of his routes from the slot.

Because it wasn’t just in week 12 that the Chiefs were great defending WRs aligned out wide and bad vs slot WRs.  Look at the Chiefs defensive splits allowed to WRs on early downs the second half of the season:

Slot:    63% success, 8.9 YPA, +0.22 EPA (67 att)
Wide:    49% success, 7.1 YPA, -0.10 EPA (49 att)

Now look at all downs over the second half of the season:

Slot:    55% success, 8.3 YPA, +0.18 EPA (102 att)
Wide:    45% success, 7.2 YPA, -0.12 EPA (62 att)

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.