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In my opinion, the biggest thing that buries NFL coaches is an unwillingness or inability to learn from mistakes and deviate from things that aren’t working.

“We do what we do” is a stubborn saying that often winds up being a coach-killer.

On the flip side, one of the strongest indicators that a coach has staying power in the NFL is their ability to adapt when things aren’t working or when teams have figured out how to attack them.

Heading into their bye week, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles were at this crossroads. With a 7-5 record, they could remain who they’ve always been, which for Arians has been a lengthy career in the NFL, or implement different concepts and at times even different personnel usage to the Bucs offense and defense heading into a critical stretch of the season.

As most great coaches and teams do, all three men chose to adapt.

Bucs OC Byron Leftwich and HC Bruce Arians

Bucs OC Byron Leftwich and HC Bruce Arians – Photo by: USA Today

For Arians, that process began with some much-needed changes to his offensive approach and design. As I’ve written about at length before, the Bucs transformed their approach to first down, largely because Arians wanted to be “more aggressive.” They went from around a 50-50 run-pass split on first down in neutral situations to around 65-35 pass-run over the final four weeks of the regular season, skyrocketing to one of the best first down teams (third in EPA/play) in the league after spending the first 13 weeks of the season as one of the league’s worst (23rd in EPA/Play).

“I’ve been very, very pleased with [the team’s first down success since the bye],” Arians said after Week 16. “It was a focus [and] one of the things, when you look at the breakdowns and some of the deficiencies in what we were trying to address after the bye week – that being one of them. Third downs only occur if you don’t make first downs on first and second down. We can fix that third down thing real quick – stay out of them and get the ball pushed up the field a little bit more and being efficient – more efficiency in the running game. So there has been an effort.”

First down runs returned in earnest against the Saints and Packers in the playoffs, but the Bucs made enough of them count and got some brilliant third down performances by Tom Brady, which saved them. In Super Bowl LV, the Bucs posted a ridiculous EPA (Expected Points Added) and success rate on first down, a huge reason why they were able to build a 28-9 lead through the third quarter and coast the rest of the game.

The Bucs had not been a very good first down team under Arians dating back to last season, so their ability to turn around that aspect of their offense and become far more unpredictable and explosive is a testament to their head coach making sure it was a focus coming out of the bye week.

As for Leftwich, he deserves perhaps the largest amount of credit for the Bucs’ offensive turnaround, as he and Tom Brady’s relationship evolved following the bye week, implementing several new staple concepts into the Bucs offense. We saw mesh concepts, backfield and pre-snap motion, a wide array of screens and more schematic answers to pressure than we’d seen in years under an Arians’ offense. I’m guessing Leftwich had a lot to do with those changes, based upon the praise Arians has heaped on him, but even all of those improvements paled in comparison to the biggest move Tampa Bay’s offense made in 2020.

Through the first 13 weeks of the season, the Bucs called play-action passes on 18 percent of Tom Brady’s drop-backs, ranking 37th out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks. After the bye week, Leftwich called play-action on almost 27 percent of Tampa Bay’s passing plays, with their two biggest play-action games of the season coming against Washington in the wild card round and in the Super Bowl against Kansas City.

The Bucs’ biggest gain of the game came on a dagger concept to Mike Evans off play-action, with Chris Godwin clearing out the safety with the vertical and the play-action/blitz taking care of the linebackers. Easy read and throwing window for Brady to hit Evans on the dig route for 31 yards down to the Chiefs’ 6-yard line.

One of the biggest reasons why I wrote about play-action and early-down passing being critical to the Bucs’ offensive success against the Chiefs was because it slows up the opposing pass rush as they read run first. That was critical in the Bucs second offensive touchdown of the game, which came on first-and-10 off play-action.

The motion by tight end Cam Brate shows Brady it’s man coverage pre-snap, and with the safety shading over Godwin’s vertical route, Tampa Bay’s star quarterback knows he has Evans one-on-one from a reduced split on an out-breaking route. But Evans is held badly out of his break, so Brady stays calm, works backside and finds Rob Gronkowski, who does a great job of staying alive late in the progression.

But look at how tentative the Chiefs’ pass rush is off the ball, as they read out the play-action fake. By the time they identify pass, they’ve lost the burst off the ball needed to work a quick pass rush move, and Brady has time to move through his full progression unscathed and find Gronkowski for a touchdown.

On Sunday night against Kansas City, almost half of Brady’s drop-backs were play-action and the Bucs cooked off of the concept, with Brady going 10-of-13 for 135 yards and three touchdowns (one of these touchdowns was actually a RPO). Leftwich’s increase in play-action allowed the Bucs to find a way to attack the intermediate/deep middle of the field, an area they had failed to exploit consistently until the bye week. That’s an absolutely critical adjustment that was the number one reason – on the offensive side of the ball – that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl.

As for the biggest overall reason that the Bucs are world champions today, enter Bowles’ defense. A much-maligned unit after struggling through the second half of the regular season and the wild card round of the playoffs against Taylor Heinicke and the Washington Football Team, Bowles pulled out a few tricks that nobody saw coming for the Bucs’ last three games of the season.

Here’s how Bowles’ coverage schemes looked up until the Super Bowl:

And here were the Bucs coverage schemes in the Super Bowl. Basically a complete deviation from what they typically do. They didn’t show Kansas City anything that the Chiefs were expecting to see.

Bowles, who has often been criticized for failing to adjust as a defensive coordinator, took a long history as a predominantly single-high safety defensive mind and threw it out the window in the biggest game of the year. After prioritizing stopping the run all season, Bowles dared the Chiefs to hand it off, giving them light boxes and trusting his front to handle the run well enough to limit the damage as long as they stopped the pass at a high level. And stop the pass at a high level they did, as Mahomes passed for only 270 yards and the Chiefs offense did not produce a single touchdown.

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Tampa Bay broke up nine passes and intercepted two others on nine Patrick Mahomes’ throws, staying plastered in coverage even as Mahomes took an average time of over 3.3 seconds to throw the ball, per Pro Football Focus. As good as the Bucs pass rush was, I think their coverage was even more important, as there were several times where Mahomes either had a clean pocket or got out of structure and created time and space to throw, but the Tampa Bay secondary gave him nothing.

The switch to two-high safety shells was a continuation of strategy deployed against Green Bay, predominantly in the second half, which greatly limited the impact Aaron Rodgers could have down the field on the Bucs defense. That approach was more of a 2-man strategy, with two deep safeties and man coverage underneath, which the Bucs hardly played at all in the regular season. Opting for a two-man approach against Green Bay really foiled Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, holding Green Bay to 26 points, which was below their season average.

That was the story in every game this postseason, as the Bucs opted for a completely different coverage approach than the spot-dropping zone that saw them get torched for so much of the regular season. Bowles’ ability to flip the script and ask a predominantly off-coverage defense to press the heck out of the Saints was a huge reason that Tampa Bay won that game in the divisional round despite their offense sputtering.

The two highest press man rates in the Bowles’ era in the two biggest games of the Bucs season! It’s shocking, not only that Bowles implemented something he so rarely does on such a big stage, but that players were also able to execute it at an elite level. Truly an elite job of not only self-scouting and recognizing the changes that it would take to be successful, but also to teach and communicate those changes to players.

Against the Chiefs, the Bucs did press at times, but Bowles wisely deviated from the press-man heavy strategy and reverted back to more of a zone defense, but with more match-up principles. Instead of spot-dropping, defenders actively rooted out receivers in their zone and plastered to them, not trying to bait throws nearly as much as they tried to discourage them from happening in the first place. That’s a key strategy against Mahomes, as his arm strength and delivery are too elite to expect to make a play on the ball if you’re giving a receiver space in zone coverage.

On the play above, look how aggressive the Bucs safeties are on this play. Watch Jordan Whitehead at the bottom of the screen, push Tyreek Hill to the middle-of-the-field safety, then get back over No. 1 to the field, then rally to the flat in case of a check-down. Just outstanding execution. Same with Winfield, who isn’t content to hang back, but closes the space on Hill and plasters him all the way through the rep. Mike Edwards as the boundary safety too, smothering Travis Kelce even as the tight end turns upfield. This is how you have to defend the Chiefs, and the Bucs did it all game long.

Notice something else on the play above? That’s right, the Bucs are playing with three safeties on the field in a dime defense. Dime defense! Three safeties!

Bowles listens to the Pewter Report Podcast confirmed! Pretty cool stuff, though. After we talked about the importance of playing coverage first and getting more defensive backs on the field all week leading up to the Super Bowl, Bowles delivered in a big way.

Another 3-safety look in the play above, but a totally different scheme. This time both linebackers blitz instead of two corners, and Winfield and Whitehead rally to their assignments. Edwards rotates to the single-high safety in the middle of the field, picking up Hill and deflecting the under-duress throw from Mahomes. Winfield makes the sliding interception, and the game is essentially sealed. All because Bowles ran a defensive look he never runs and a dime defense he rarely deployed all season in the biggest game of the year.

Collectively, Arians, Leftwich and Bowles went into the bye week after losing three of four, did some serious self-scouting, changed critical things about their offense and defensive structure, then adjusted again going into the playoffs. After a regular season in which the trio was out-coached in many of their high-profile match-ups, the Bucs’ triumvirate of coaches flipped the script and caught some of the most elite offensive and defensive minds in the league by surprise on a four-game playoff run to become Super Bowl champions.

You won’t find many more impressive coaching jobs that I can recall, especially on the defensive side, where Bowles did a complete 180 from his typical strategies and still got his guys to execute at an elite level. It earned a world championship for Tampa Bay in 2020, and if the same type of self-evaluation, creativity and evolution can continue into next season, the Bucs’ chances of winning another ring will go way up.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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bucballer
7 months ago

A great pass rush will make the defensive backfield that much better. It was a key to the game! Because Mahomes was under duress the entire game it turned into a sandlot game. “Just go deep bruh and I’ll get it to ya!” U can throw the gameplan and scripted plays out the window. I can’t remember such a high powered Offense being shut down like that in a SuperBowl!

bucballer
Reply to  bucballer
7 months ago

Having said that, even with all the pressure, Mahomes somehow was able to get rid of the ball with some ridiculous arm angle throws that actually hit the receiver right in the face! What if they were able to make those catches?! I guess we will never know. We stole their desire! U could see it in their eyes! The game was not going as THEY had desired it to go! Total lock down on the Buc’s part. Just a clinic on how to disrupt that KC Offense!

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  bucballer
7 months ago

I actually give the secondary a bunch of credit for staying with these receivers. So many times on broken plays receivers shake loose, but the Bucs didn’t let them. They stayed with them the entire game and the pass rush only made Mahomes job more difficult.

Vinsane38
7 months ago

This is the way.

We talk a lot in the investment world about adapting to conditions, as there are a lot of investors (pro or not) sticking to strategies from the 1970s…and not thriving as a result.

Seems Arians and Leftwich and Bowles are “blessed to know that they don’t know” and that made all the difference

lambeau
7 months ago

You are very diplomatic, Jon, but I doubt Byron or Bruce came to Jesus ontheir own. Short passing game, playaction, pre-snap motion–that’s the Patriot offense.Tom is diplomatic also, so I imagine he took his time bringing Bruce around. (But he couldn’t stop them calling that crazy long bomb to Gronk on 3rd and 1 from the 46 in the 4th Quarter.)
I don’t know where Bowles’ inspiration came from–but you’ve noticed that the Patriots also use three safeties effectively with Chung, McCourty, and Harmon.

tpeluso
Reply to  lambeau
7 months ago

That deep out to Gronk wasn’t so crazy when you consider that we were up 3 touchdowns with 8 minutes left and the Chiefs were likely expecting we’d run in that situation. Little to lose, and if you connect on that it’s the final dagger to their psyche, so worth the shot IMO.

Spitfire
7 months ago

I feel like this is what’s most exciting about next year is that now our team has an entire season of ups and downs to look at what worked and what didn’t and the Super Bowl was basically the culmination of that learning process. Now next year we will most definitely be running more play action and screens, we will make sure to have a solid pass catching RB and Bowles now knows his Defense can run Man when needed and Zone when necessary. Next year we are gonna hit the ground runnin and do all the things that work… Read more »

bucballer
Reply to  Spitfire
7 months ago

We’ve learned HOW to win and the dedication it takes to do so. For the first time ever, there will not be one opponent on next year’s schedule that will look at their schedule and have that Buccaneer game penciled in as a win! That’s a first indeed!

Horse
7 months ago

Via was monster pushing his man so far backwards it opened up holes for other to follow in and disrupt the QB. When we got Via back, I knew we would win the Superbowl.
Suh has a year in him, time to draft a Edge Rusher, Center, DT for the future; maybe a project QB then too.
Need to sign Brown, Fournette, Suh, Barrett, Sucoop, David.

eaustinyoung
Reply to  Horse
7 months ago

EDGE, OL, DT, and 1 more good safety would be my priorities. Need OL and S depth.

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  eaustinyoung
7 months ago

I like that list, but I would change safety to HB. Fournette had a great game catching the football, but its not his forte. Too many pressures given up suggests we need a back that can catch and block.

Last edited 7 months ago by NaplesFan2.0
eaustinyoung
Reply to  Horse
7 months ago

Lost Shipley, Haeg and Watford aren’t game changers. Stinnie looks pretty dang good for a backup.

FLBoy84
Reply to  eaustinyoung
7 months ago

Thought Stinnie rep’d himself well for the limited amount of snaps he’s seen this year. Believe he’s an ERFA, so would assume he’s resigned to an inexpensive deal and offers solid depth next year.

SaskBucs
7 months ago

What an incredible job indeed! I was really down on a lot of the scheming and play calling this year, as a bunch of us were and the staff played it perfectly. Whether that was by design or just evolving as they went, kudos to them for figuring it out and in the process making it very hard on the opposition. Too happy about Bucs being champions to nit pick much but since another poster here brought it up… that 3rd and 1 deep pass was ridiculous! Chiefs stopped the run 1 time all game cause Rojo didn’t jump and… Read more »

TBChucky
7 months ago

Great read Jon. I think this coaching staff showed their mettle during this championship run. It was honestly very impressive to see, as well as very effective. I honestly think they learned a valuable lesson that’ll be beneficial to this team moving forward. It gives me hope for the future in Tampa Bay. Next season and beyond!

Naplesfan
7 months ago

When you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Jon Ledyard is a scheme guy … that’s what he does, and how he thinks. Scheme is part of it, but I really think it is the human factors that mattered more than scheme. The human factors being that the Bucs were restructured and reorganized on the offensive side of the ball, with the GOAT at quarterback, four extremely key new guys – Gronk, Fournette, Bryant, and Wirfs – who had to be worked into the offense and gain comfort with it and with their teammates. The offense also had… Read more »

Naplesfan
Reply to  Naplesfan
7 months ago

Of particular note, with respect to my reasoning above, is the following startling fact from the Super Bowl game just played:
Every single player who directly scored points for the Bucs in that game was brand new to the team this season.
I mean, like, WTF? When has that ever happened before in the history of the Super Bowl?

Jcorp87
7 months ago

Awesome content as always, Jon.

BDOG
7 months ago

Jon, outstanding 20/21 intelligent commentary, “Bucs beat WOY”, phenomenal reading! What a year for Tampa Bay, RAYS, BOLTS and BUCS! Dont know if coordinators plans conceived by result of failures or use of insight, and guess suspect probably both but got nothing but kudos to Bucs players and staff! Who predicts KC with no TeDdy’s and BUCS CHAMPS, WOW! D played so outstanding, when necessary, in playoffs, when had concerns and BL might have used a little analytic FB knowledge to call game plan, ie play action and pass on 1st! Jon hope u like TB weather and reporting for… Read more »

AlbJack65
Reply to  BDOG
7 months ago

This guy, folks, is either Jon Ledyard signing on under a different name or one of his frat buddies. Such sycophantic fawning over a sportswriter is not something I have ever seen in real life. PR staff needs to nip this nonsense in the bud in order to ensure the integrity of the website.

Kimba
7 months ago

Please stop with these tiny gifs tiny squares of plays–I can’t even make out who the players are I can’t expand it bigger wtf are you doing this for make it so we can open the gifs up bigger yeah waiting for you to say we can’t do that figure it out as this is a waste of time to even look at

Kimba
Reply to  Kimba
7 months ago

where the hell is my magnifying glass! Lol!

AlbJack65
7 months ago

Golly gee, Jon. If only you had been the head coach of the Bucs they would have gone undefeated this year! Your years of NFL coaching experience are unmatched! Eyeroll. Good God, Ledyard, please go away! You really believe the Bucs coaching staff listens to you? Lots of new commenters on this site RAVING about your articles. Old school cats all know it’s your frat buddies trying to help you build a following. Maybe you can “crowdsource” your way into a job with the Jets coaching staff. Now cue the usual suspects coming out in your defense to hammer me… Read more »

Kimba
Reply to  AlbJack65
7 months ago

I agree and for gods sake use bigger pictures

Dave
Reply to  AlbJack65
7 months ago

A little over dramatic? Jesus dude. What exactly is “the truth”? What did Jon say in this article, that is so bad, you needed to write multiple posts on how much he sucks? Did he say something inaccurate? Because last time I checked, the playcalling on both sides of the ball at the halfway point of the season, left a lot to be desired. The stats on first down run percentage, 1st down success rate, play action percentage, play action passer rating, etc…are all factual stats, not opinion. What about Jon’s stats before the bye, in the final month of… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by Dave
Bucco-Bruce
7 months ago

What if, Bowles needed the secondary to get more comfortable playing zone since their strengths is man to man? Win or lose he needed them to be more well rounded and since they didn’t have OTA’s or anything they had to do this during the season, this way they can flip the script and throw the other teams off balance? Just a thought. Great article!!

plopes808
7 months ago

It took a while, but the offense started to really click after the bye week. That is a great credit to Leftwhich and his ability and willingness to commit to a change that seemed to suit Brady and the rest of the team very well.
Defensively, at least in the case of KC there was clearly a change after qtr 1 and we locked them up for the next 7 quarters. There were a lot of ups and downs, but throughout the playoffs this defense adjusted and played lights out.

scubog
7 months ago

Being a “Baby Boomer” myself, I found it refreshing to see two others of my generation still at the top of their profession. Pretty “groovy” huh?

inspecto
Reply to  scubog
7 months ago

far out man

Mb Nfl Lock Of The Szn Pewter 728x90 Jpg