Forget about Tom Brady single-handedly carrying Tampa Bay to Super Bowl glory.
If the Bucs reach the Promised Land, they will celebrate on the shoulders of their defense, which will have solved the NFL’s hardest problem Sunday: how to contain Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs have lost once in their last 26 games when Mahomes starts. He thrives against every type of coverage and blitz, even under pressure, when he fires a catchable ball on 66% of his passes. Kansas City’s offense, as much as any force in sports, has proven to be unstoppable — even for one of the more immovable figures in league history.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots have dropped their last two meetings with Mahomes, despite allowing just 42 offensive points, the lowest two-game total yielded by a Chiefs opponent in the Mahomes era. Before those defeats, the Pats shut out Kansas City in the first half of an AFC Championship classic, when Belichick’s game plan bought Brady enough time to survive an inevitable Mahomes-led onslaught in the fourth quarter. Still, Brady had to lead three touchdown drives with the game on line to finally knock him out.
Through these battles, Belichick has learned to limit Mahomes better than any coach in football, surrendering fewer points each time they’ve met. Perhaps more impressively, it was Belichick’s worst defense of the past three years — which finished 26th by Football Outsiders’ opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric DVOA — that held Kansas City to a near season-low 19 points in October. That points to coaching.
While the Chiefs only hung 27 on Tampa Bay in Week 12, Mahomes controlled play in a wire-to-wire win and casually amassed close to 500 total yards by himself. If the Bucs follow the same defensive game plan Sunday, they’ll write a similar game script with a costlier ending.
To ensure a storybook finish, they should merge their present roster strengths with the underpinnings of past Patriots game plans. Again, there is no blueprint for defending Mahomes; only certain plans worse than others.
So here is the best of them, the closest available solutions to football’s toughest problem.
Back off the blitz
Don’t do it. Just. Don’t. Do it.
Every year of his NFL career, Mahomes has thrown more accurately and posted a higher passer rating versus the blitz than a standard rush, according to Pro Football Focus charting numbers. Let’s start there.
Aware of these numbers, the Patriots blitzed Mahomes on 7% of his pass attempts in October and just 11% of his dropbacks in 2019. Tampa Bay followed suit in November, sending extra rushers at Mahomes on 17% of his dropbacks, per PFF; a significant departure from their season-long blitz rate of 44% of all snaps.
But it still wasn’t good enough. Mahomes roasted the Bucs’ attempts to heat him up, going 6-of-9 for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
In the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay must cut its blitz percentage even lower and introduce new pressure looks unseen on tape. The good news is they should be able to afford a single-digit blitz rate without sacrificing much pressure.
Both of Kansas City’s starting offensive tackles will be out Sunday, and the Bucs successfully attacked Green Bay backup left tackle Billy Turner in the NFC Championship Game, when edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for five sacks. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles understands how to generate favorable blocking matchups, yet he can nonetheless steal from Belichick here, too. In Week 4, the Pats frequently placed a nose tackle over Chiefs center Austin Reiter and rolled second-level defenders over the Chiefs guards, effectively guaranteeing 1-on-1 matchups with their offensive tackles.
And if the Chiefs keep a running back in protection, all the better. The Bucs can then effectively double their four remaining pass catchers, provided they …
Major in man coverages, clog the middle
Since 2018, the Patriots have ranked among the league leaders in man coverage. Charged with tracking Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Mecole Hardman, they didn’t change course.
In October, they played man coverage on 72% of Mahomes’ dropbacks and routinely forced him to hold the ball longer than he preferred. Later, the Falcons, who held Kansas City to 17 points, kept Mahomes at a 33% completion percentage when playing basic man coverages, per Sports Info. Solutions. He averaged four yards per completion, scored one touchdown and also threw a dropped pick.
While Tampa Bay isn’t as rich in man-to-man talent, Bucs starting cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamal Dean do rank among the NFL’s best cornerback tandems. Man coverage will also help combat early-down RPOs. Kansas City torched the Bucs with RPOs in November, primarily because of their early-down zone coverage that left their linebackers vulnerable against such plays.
The Pats sprinkled enough zone in their October meeting to keep Mahomes off balance, often disguising their defense by rotating defensive banks through different positions, alignments and even assignments. The Patriots preferred Cover 2, but expect Tampa to lean more on Cover 4, one of their most oft-used coverages.
#Patriots film: Belichick teaches defenders full coverage concepts instead of strictly positional assignments. Here's why.
Pats can disguise Tampa 2 as Cover 1 pre-snap in alignment + assignment, with Gilmore over the slot. Gilmore drops down the middle here, usually a LB duty. pic.twitter.com/OBXiNwrPwz
— Andrew Callahan (@_AndrewCallahan) October 6, 2020
More importantly, on passing downs, the Pats backed their man coverage with two or three additional zones. The Patriots dropped eight into coverage on 44% of all Mahomes’ dropbacks, including every third down after the opening drive. On these snaps, the Pats typically played a two-deep shell with another defender in short zone.
But occasionally, they’d invert that structure, deploying two defenders in short zone and one deep. The short defenders hunted for crossing routes, looking to knock Chiefs pass-catchers off track. These zone defenders will be vital, as they can maintain leverage against the fleet-footed Hill, Kelce and Hardman, who will inevitably gain a step on their man-to-man defenders.
Furthermore, Hill smoked Davis for three touchdowns in Week 12. But give Davis some help — as the Pats did by shading their single deep safeties in Hill’s direction throughout the AFC title game classic — and he’ll stand a chance.
Because a chance is all you get against the Chiefs. In last month’s AFC title game, the Bills rarely blitzed and sat back in two-high coverages (albeit mostly zone) all night, both wise moves. They successfully kept Mahomes from striking deep, as he attempted one pass longer than 20 yards. It fell incomplete.
The Bills got smoked for 38 points anyway, torched by Hill and having failed to …
Treat Travis Kelce as a wide receiver
Two years before the Bills beatdown, Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson shadowed Kelce for the first two-plus quarters of the 2019 AFC Championship Game. Then, Stephon Gilmore took over. Aside from the short touchdown Jackson allowed in the third quarter that prompted the change, the corner duo effectively shut Kelce out.
Jackson shadowing Kelce was the greatest surprise of that night, and a reflection of how the Pats see him: as an overgrown wideout masquerading as a tight end. The Patriots annually lighten their defensive personnel against Kansas City, playing predominantly dime and quarter personnel to combat the NFL’s most dangerous set of weapons.
During their 2019 regular-season tilt, Patriots safeties were in coverage on seven of Kelce’s eight targets. The lone exception was a 20-yard catch allowed by linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Kelce’s longest gain of the day. Last October, covering Kelce fell to cornerback Jason McCourty and rookie safety Kyle Dugger and Joejuan Williams. Kelce finished with three catches, all off the youngsters.
Against Tampa Bay, five of Kelce’s eight receptions came at the expense of linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. The Bucs ought to trading some of their snaps for more playing time at safety, particularly on passing downs, and trust their top-ranked run defense to handle the Chiefs’ mediocre rushing attack with a lighter box.
At least then, by matching his speed, majoring in man-to-man and backing off the blitz, you have a plan and a prayer.