Why NFL Defenses Wins Championships
By: Brady Akins
It’s third down and long, Super Bowl Sunday– the Kansas City Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes, and the rest of their Andy Reid led, superpowered offense face a situation they’ve seen before.
Kansas City found themselves tasked with 194 third-down attempts in the 2020 regular season. They converted on 95 of them, just a shred under a 50% success rate, and the third-highest conversion rate in the league. This probably isn’t much of a surprise to you.
After all, the Chiefs are the epitome of what a modern-day NFL team is supposed to look like. Their 2018 MVP, 2019 Super Bowl champion, and ‘media-appointed messiah’ gunslinger Patrick Mahomes continues to lead the way for the NFL’s second-ranked offense in DVOA, and the league’s top-ranked offense in yards per game. But Mahomes is just the tip of the iceberg.
Kansas City built their team with playmakers at key positions on offense. Their defense? Well, they’re okay. Both Chris Jones and Frank Clark are multiple Pro Bowl players on the defensive line, Tyrann Mathieu is a three-time All-Pro at safety, and everyone else is just about good enough to let the nuclear powered Chiefs offense fully take over games, with headline-grabbing three-time All-Pros Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill helping Mahomes and Reid, their offensive-minded veteran coach, piloting a team that’s looked built to compete for every Super Bowl over the next decade.
So facing third down and long on Super Bowl Sunday, well, it’s nothing to worry about. Not for this Chiefs team, one that’s modeled after an NFL archetype. Offensive minded coach? Check. Lucking into an elite quarterback? Check. Putting the playmakers around him? Yet another check, put that one in Sharpie, too. It’s how elite teams are supposed to be built in 2021– and Kansas City does it better than anyone.
Which is why what happened on Super Bowl Sunday is weird, to say the least. It’s weird that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the champions of Super Bowl LV were able to completely shut down those very same Kansas City Chiefs beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s weird that Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and a host of others in the Buccaneers front-seven were able to generate enough consistent pressure to hold that Kansas City offense to nine total points– the lowest of Mahomes’ career, college or pro.
It’s weird that Tyreek Hill was held to just three catches through three quarters, after exploding for over 200 receiving yards in the first quarter alone when these two teams faced in Week 12 of the regular season. It’s weird that the rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, with 64 yards on nine carries, finished as the offense’s most efficient player. It’s weird, more than anything, that the team that did everything right in roster building for modern football, constructing an offensive masterpiece on paper, was thwarted by a better team in the Buccaneers.
Every week in the NFL is a learning experience– and for recent seasons, the one thing we’ve learned is that elite offense matters above all else. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the most lopsided Super Bowl since 2014, sought to teach the world a lesson that we’ve seem to forget.
An elite defense, a truly special defense, can transcend even the greatest offenses– and matter above all else.
Tampa Bay’s Big Night
Holding an NFL offense, any NFL offense, below 10 points in a game is an incredible feat.
These are world-class athletes, the best of the best on each roster throughout the league. The New York Jets, the NFL’s lowest-ranked scoring offense, still managed 15.2 points per game. And all but eight teams averaged over three touchdowns a game in 2020.
Now, holding the Kansas City Chiefs offense below nine points– that’s something else altogether. That’s something that last year’s eighth-ranked scoring defense, the San Francisco 49ers, couldn’t manage one Super Bowl ago– giving up 31 to these very Chiefs. That’s something that’s never happened since Mahomes became a starting quarterback.
Tampa Bay did it, and barely broke a sweat in making the Chiefs’ offense look pedestrian. This wasn’t something the Buccaneers lucked into, or a case of the opposing team shooting themselves in the foot. This was pure, unfiltered obliteration— at every level of the defense.
This was the Buccaneers defensive line controlling a game from start to finish. Super Bowl LV marked just the fifth game in Mahomes’ 18 appearances in 2020 that the quarterback was sacked three times. But it was so much more than that.
This was Shaquil Barret, the Buccaneers superstar pass-rusher and the league’s leader in total quarterback pressures, hitting a season-high in that metric with eight on just 41 pass-rush reps, for a 19.5% success rate. Even crazier, Barret wasn’t alone. Five players on the Tampa Bay defense recorded a quarterback hit, and the team as a whole recorded 29 hurries on Mahomes’ 56 dropbacks. Even crazier, Tampa Bay did all of this while abandoning their blitz-happy identity, rushing more than four players on just 9.6% of their defensive snaps– leaving plenty of players in coverage, forcing Mahomes to hold the ball, and giving him no other choice but to run for his life to keep plays alive.
This was Lavonte David, the Buccaneers’ unheralded star off-ball linebacker, playing at the All-Pro level he’s played his entire career– but without the recognition, and just one nod to an All-Pro team in 2013. In just one of David’s nine seasons as a pro has he recorded under 100 tackles. In just one season has he recorded fewer than 10 tackles for loss. In the Super Bowl, tasked with keeping Travis Kelce contained, David played like the steady star he’s always been. Don’t let the 10 catches fool you– they’re empty calories. The tight end recorded just one catch in the first quarter, and did most of his damage on one up-tempo drive that ended with four catches– and just three points for the offense.
This was Devin White– a second-year player at the same position as Lavonte David, who has made an equal impact on the Tampa Bay defense. White hasn’t recorded so much as a Pro Bowl yet in his career, but he earned that ‘Super Bowl Champion’ next to his name in a season that came with 15 tackles for loss and nine sacks. White led the Buccaneers in tackles in that Super Bowl win, doubling the total of the next closest player on the team.
This was Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Jordan Whitehead and the rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. doing exactly what they needed to do against one of the toughest tasks in football– containing the Kansas City Chiefs pass-catchers. Those three catches for Tyreek Hill in three quarters weren’t a mistake, they were a product of spectacular defensive play. Nor were those 29 quarterback hurries a product of just the Buccaneers’ defensive line. Kansas City’s fastball is their deep-pass game, which thrives through the production of Hill– who was shut down with the Buccaneers’ two-high safety scheme, which they ran on 87% of their plays, holding Mahomes without a completed pass of 20 or more air yards. Credit Whitehead and Winfield for that. The Chiefs’ other pass catchers, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson, were held to a combined five catches for 31 yards. Credit Davis and Dean for that.
This was Todd Bowles, the defensive coordinator behind the scenes, pulling every perfect string at the exact right moment to make this defensive performance one for the ages. Tampa Bay ranked sixth in yards allowed per game in 2020, and eighth in points allowed per game. They played above that station in the Super Bowl, against, once again, the Kansas City Chiefs’ All-Pro riddled offense.
This was a message. Drafted by Bowles, co-signed by every player and every position coach that touched the Tampa Bay defense in 2020. They are an elite unit. Loaded with elite players at every level contributing to elite production and basking in their shared eliteness. They just beat the reigning Super Bowl Champions with ease– and they did it through the forgotten art of the smothering defense, that year upon year becomes less of a priority for NFL franchises.
Let this be a lesson for Kansas City, and teams across the league. If you want to bring home a Lombardi, you can’t forget about the defense.
Trying to Outscore the Unscorable
You can’t out-Chiefs the Chiefs, and you can’t win Super Bowls by trying.
What you can do, however counterintuitive to the modern-day NFL it might seem, is build a roster designed specifically to counter the high-flying, point-scoring priorities. You can build a roster that doesn’t so much try to one-up the Chiefs, but shut down their game entirely.
None of that is to say that Tampa Bay is the anti-Chiefs. From Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to the greatest football player in the history of the universe under center, the Buccaneers’ offense still comes close to matching what Kansas City has. Rather, this is to say that, rather than attempting to shy away from the daunting challenge of stopping the Chiefs’ explosive offense– Tampa Bay approached it head-on, and assembled a defense that should serve as a model for the rest of the NFL.
The Denver Broncos attempted to out-Chiefs the Chiefs. In the 2020 Draft, their franchise went all-in on assembling a roster equipped to outscore Kansas City– beating them at their own game. They invested in their young stars like Noah Fant and Courtland Sutton, and their hopeful potential star quarterback Drew Lock, by using their first two draft picks on two wide receivers. But in 2020, Denver failed in their effort of out-Chiefsing.
The Cincinnati Bengals attempted to out-Chiefs the Chiefs. Their franchise jumped on a bandwagon two seasons ago sparked by the hiring of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay– but one that had been around long before McVay. Hiring the young position coach or coordinator who had the closest proximity to an effective offense, and investing heavily in offense during the 2020 Draft, despite having one of the lowest-ranked defenses in the league the season before. Cincinnati too, failed in their hail mary of out-Chiefsing.
The cold reality of the league is that, try as you want, but out-offensing Kansas City is a fool’s errand. You might find a cast of stars to build an offense around, but you won’t find another Patrick Mahomes. You won’t find another Andy Reid. That has yet to stop coaches and general managers from trying, however. Kliff Kingsbury was hired as an NFL head coach, less than a year after being fired from Texas Tech, specifically because he possessed promise, not as a head coach, but as an offensive innovator.
In the midst of all of it, the simple act of building up a defense has become something of a lost art. Although, not completely forgotten. A team like the Los Angeles Rams stand as examples of that value. One year after missing the playoffs with the 11th ranked scoring offense, and the seventh-ranked group in total yards, the Rams improved their record, made it back to the postseason, and earned a win in the Wild Card round against the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks with the league’s top-ranked defense in yards and points allowed per game. Their offense, meanwhile, finished 22nd in points scored per game– 11 spots behind where they were last year.
And of course, there’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Who just won a Super Bowl by doing what many teams have given up on even attempting to pull off– stopping the Kansas City offense. It wasn’t just the Chiefs, either. Tampa Bay’s opponent in the NFC Championship, the Green Bay Packers, were held to just 26 points– just the fifth time in 18 games they were held below 30. A week earlier, the New Orleans Saints were shut down to 20 points, their lowest scoring total of the season.
The Buccaneers defense didn’t just show up on the biggest stage, they led the way throughout the playoffs. They were the driving force behind Tampa Bay’s success, and they did it while facing two talented offenses in the Saints and Packers, and put an exclamation point on their statement by not allowing the most explosive offense in the league to find the endzone once.
Defense still matters in the league. Don’t forget that as the NFL continues down a path of paying top-dollar for offensive superstars while building up the defensive side of the ball to simply the realm of “good enough.”
Elite defense, like the one that the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have assembled, still matters.