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.
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 firstdowns 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.
The Bucs were a 20% play-action teams from Week 1 through the NFC Championship Game.
That's the 33rd highest PA rate for Tom Brady out of 38 qualifying QBs.
In the Super Bowl, the Bucs called play-action passes on over 43% of Brady's dropbacks.
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:
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.
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.
Buccaneers cornerbacks have lined up in press coverage at the two highest rates in the Todd Bowles era in consecutive weeks (44% at NO, 47% at GB).
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.
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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