Why flyover defense is the only hope for old Tom Brady in Super Bowl LV

Ian Boyd

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Super Bowl LV (this next one) includes two extremely challenging problems, one for each team involved. The first problem is an age-old dilemma NFL coaches have been working on for almost as long as I’ve been alive. How do you beat Tom Brady? The other is a new age problem which theoretically may prove simpler in time but currently seems at least as difficult as the former, how do you stop the Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs?

Stopping Tom Brady is a very different problem than stopping Patrick Mahomes. Traditionally you stop a great passing quarterback, and Brady in particular, by applying quick inside pressure and forcing inefficient throws to the perimeter. Well with age and expertise, Brady eventually became so efficient at the inefficient game of checkdowns you couldn’t actually reliably stop him with that strategy.

With the Bucs they’re a little more vertically inclined and they can flood the deep field with multiple dangerous targets, then Brady will just keep taking shots until the odds work out in Tampa Bay’s favor. Brady’s decision-making and understanding of the game allow him to beat teams on the margins, year after year.

Stopping Patrick Mahomes is a different problem entirely. The main issue is the way his combination of athleticism and arm talent change the geometry of the game. It’s like facing LeBron James, who’s more athletic than anyone else his size or larger and then more powerful (and perhaps still more athletic) than anyone smaller. Rushing Mahomes is difficult because he can evade pressure and make absurd plays on the move, defending Mahomes in the passing game is difficult because he has terrific receivers and not only has the arm strength to hit every area of the field but can do so on the move.

Whereas Tom Brady is terrific at identifying where his team is at advantage and getting the ball there quickly, eventually playing out the percentages over time, Mahomes excels at turning over the table and simply imposing his will via physical talent.

Here’s how I think the dynamics of this game will play out.

Why the Chiefs are the favorites

Tampa Bay is the underdog in this game and while shutting down their offense is tricky, the more powerful component is the Mahomes offense. The Bucs can attack down the field and run the football with Leonard Fournette and Brady keeps teams in games with his efficiency and protecting the football. I know he threw three picks last game but check out when and how those interceptions occurred.

The Chiefs don’t have a fantastic, well-balanced defense which can hold up against highly efficient offenses pairing the run and pass to create conflict and overstressing the defensive structure. However, they are really effective at defending the pass and their offense scores a lot of points, so opponents are regularly drawn into scenarios in which they have to air the ball out against them and become vulnerable.

If you play a high-paced shootout against the Chiefs you will lose, you cannot match their firepower. What’s more, the Chiefs’ firepower is an ever present threat which can steal games away from teams.

I noted in last year’s playoffs the peril every team found themselves in against them. The 49ers brought great run/pass balance on offense and a terrific pass-rush against them, they controlled the game for most of the contest only for Mahomes to finally land a few shots and buy them late. When the Tom Brady Patriots beat the Chiefs three years ago they did it by controlling the game for long stretches with great defense and ball control but then ultimately by going up-tempo spread on offense and retaking the lead at the end with Brady after the Chiefs finally figured them out.

The extra week of preparation surely helps, but it’s hard to believe the Bucs are going to reach a point in year on with Brady in which they can reliably dominate the game with ball control strategies on offense and count on classic Tom efficiency to win. They may also not even get the chance but need instead to win a shootout if they can’t stop the Chiefs.

On the surface the path to victory for the Buccaneers is to play great defense with their pass-rush, like the 49ers did last year, and then rely on Brady > Jimmy G to complete the formula for victory. This isn’t going to work though unless the Bucs have a defensive gameplan that accepts the evolving reality of winning modern football.

Two doors confront Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles

Behind door no. 1 is to follow a conventional strategy for beating a team like the Chiefs. Match up as best you can, mix your looks, and rush the passer with an exotic and carefully crafted blitz package. This is essentially what Brent Venables did to Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in 2019, he played a 3-1-7 package which matched safeties and cornerbacks on all of the LSU wideouts and allowed them to bring multiple pressures without hanging some big slow linebacker out to dry against a receiver like Justin Jefferson.

It was brilliant and worked like a charm...until it didn’t. Eventually Burrow and LSU figured out what they were doing, saw they were still getting 1-on-1 matchups for J’Marr Chase, and exploited them. The final score wasn’t even really close.

Bowles happens to have a really fast and capable linebacker crew including pass-rusher Shaq Barrett and inside backers Lavonte David and Devin White. With Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh up front this appears, on the surface, to be the sort of team who can use a multiple pass-rush to beat a top quarterback. It’d be the easiest thing in the world for Bowles to say, “I have elite, athletic linebackers and pass-rushers, we’re going to match up with these guys and whip them up front.”

If the Bucs do that, they will lose this game and perhaps by a wide margin.

Door no. 2 involves drawing up a gameplan in accordance with the reality on the field in this game rather than traditional football tactics.

I’ve found the most helpful way to think of top offenses is in the following manner. The good ones have two major tactics they throw at you, the most danger is “infiltration” which is my fancy way of conceptualizing “chucking it deep.” A true deep threat in the passing game forces a defense to either devote a deep safety over the top of the relevant receiver/route or else risk giving up six points on any given play.

In my “space force” theory, the deep threat is the most important wide receiver, space force position. The Kansas City Chiefs have probably the most lethal deep threat passing game in NFL history because they combine 4.29 40 Tyreek Hill, who had 1276 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, with Patrick Mahomes. This is one of the fastest receivers we’ve ever watched play the game and the quarterback can hit him just about anywhere on the field whether he has a pocket to step into or not.

Stopping that is the most important component for a Bucs victory. Last season Hill was targeted 16 times and produced nine catches for 105 yards. Not terrible, but not great either.

After the offense has successfully “infiltrated” your defensive structure by pressuring them on the back end with a deep threat, the next question is how they “clean up” whatever is left of your defense underneath. Traditionally the deep threat passing game is paired with a power run game, they attack extreme ends on the field, they both require athletic offensive lines, and they can easily create a virtuous cycle via play-action.

That’s not how the Chiefs offense works though. Their “run game” is actually more deadly, it’s Travis Kelce. The 6-5, 260 pound tight end just had his sixth straight year of getting over 100 targets in the passing game and translating it into over 1k receiving yards.

My favorite blueprint for stopping a top offense is as follows. First, you double team the vertical threat and remove the danger of getting beat there. Secondly, you also send a “plus one” to whatever the secondary threat is from the offense. Finally, you play mano a mano on everything else.

Here’s how you do that against a team like the Chiefs, who’s no. 1, no. 2, and probably no. 3 options all involve throwing the ball to particular people and on various routes. It’s with a system that was introduced to me by then Cedar Park head coach (now at Tyler Legacy) Joe Willis as the “8-3” defense, was developed by Iowa State and initially identified by yours truly as the “inverted Tampa 2,” and which I now like to describe as “the flyover defense.”

Here’s how the flyover defense looks before the snap against something like Kansas City’s Y-iso formation which deploys Travis Kelce on his lonesome opposite trips receivers.

Tampa Bay flyover vs Chiefs.jpg

With regards to personnel, I think the trap for the Bucs is going to be a desire to play all of their talented linemen and pass-rushers. I might play Pierre-Paul and Barrett as the defensive ends, that’s how I drew it here, or I might play just one of them and then a bigger defensive end. The value in having so many good D-linemen and outside linebackers in a game like this though is in substitutions, not having them all on the field together. If Tampa Bay doesn’t play this game in dime, God help them.

The most important feature is having the three safeties pre-snap to do two things. First to disguise some looks against Mahomes, you want him guessing and confused to the extent it’s possible. You need to buy your own offense some time to score before the Chiefs can get going and put pressure on you to abandon Fournette and the run game. Secondly, you need a bracket on Tyreek Hill at all times and you need to be able to ensure there’s always a deep safety over the top of him who isn’t worried about much else. By the third quarter of this game the TV crews should be picking up Hill screaming at staff on the sidelines because he isn’t getting any targets.

Beyond that, Kelce needs a bracket as well. I’d mix things up here more, show an over the top cover 2 type bracket, then play one more inside-out in nature. Keep Mahomes guessing but never give him easy windows to hit his “running back.”

If the Chiefs beat Tom Brady by throwing to receivers not named Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce or by running the football, tip your hat. The only way to ensure touchdown Tom has a chance to work his old man magic and lead key drives for the victory in his 10th Super Bowl is to make this game a contest of which quarterback can be most patient and careful. If this is a battle in who can lead a more explosive offense than Mahomes will win.

And he’ll keep winning until a defensive coach adjusts.
 

sherf1

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The first game where Hill just smoked Tampa gives me hope we'll see a real adjustment. Plan A does not work.

Bowels is a really sharp DC. He's made his name with pressure, but I would love to see him lean into coverage and confusion and play the modern game. Unlikely it happens but would be really cool
 

Ian Boyd

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The first game where Hill just smoked Tampa gives me hope we'll see a real adjustment. Plan A does not work.

Bowels is a really sharp DC. He's made his name with pressure, but I would love to see him lean into coverage and confusion and play the modern game. Unlikely it happens but would be really cool
Use your skill in generating a pass rush to do so while only bringing 3-4 so you can double Hill and Kelce.
 
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ripharley

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Super Bowl LV (this next one) includes two extremely challenging problems, one for each team involved. The first problem is an age-old dilemma NFL coaches have been working on for almost as long as I’ve been alive. How do you beat Tom Brady? The other is a new age problem which theoretically may prove simpler in time but currently seems at least as difficult as the former, how do you stop the Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs?

Stopping Tom Brady is a very different problem than stopping Patrick Mahomes. Traditionally you stop a great passing quarterback, and Brady in particular, by applying quick inside pressure and forcing inefficient throws to the perimeter. Well with age and expertise, Brady eventually became so efficient at the inefficient game of checkdowns you couldn’t actually reliably stop him with that strategy.

With the Bucs they’re a little more vertically inclined and they can flood the deep field with multiple dangerous targets, then Brady will just keep taking shots until the odds work out in Tampa Bay’s favor. Brady’s decision-making and understanding of the game allow him to beat teams on the margins, year after year.

Stopping Patrick Mahomes is a different problem entirely. The main issue is the way his combination of athleticism and arm talent change the geometry of the game. It’s like facing LeBron James, who’s more athletic than anyone else his size or larger and then more powerful (and perhaps still more athletic) than anyone smaller. Rushing Mahomes is difficult because he can evade pressure and make absurd plays on the move, defending Mahomes in the passing game is difficult because he has terrific receivers and not only has the arm strength to hit every area of the field but can do so on the move.

Whereas Tom Brady is terrific at identifying where his team is at advantage and getting the ball there quickly, eventually playing out the percentages over time, Mahomes excels at turning over the table and simply imposing his will via physical talent.

Here’s how I think the dynamics of this game will play out.

Why the Chiefs are the favorites

Tampa Bay is the underdog in this game and while shutting down their offense is tricky, the more powerful component is the Mahomes offense. The Bucs can attack down the field and run the football with Leonard Fournette and Brady keeps teams in games with his efficiency and protecting the football. I know he threw three picks last game but check out when and how those interceptions occurred.

The Chiefs don’t have a fantastic, well-balanced defense which can hold up against highly efficient offenses pairing the run and pass to create conflict and overstressing the defensive structure. However, they are really effective at defending the pass and their offense scores a lot of points, so opponents are regularly drawn into scenarios in which they have to air the ball out against them and become vulnerable.

If you play a high-paced shootout against the Chiefs you will lose, you cannot match their firepower. What’s more, the Chiefs’ firepower is an ever present threat which can steal games away from teams.

I noted in last year’s playoffs the peril every team found themselves in against them. The 49ers brought great run/pass balance on offense and a terrific pass-rush against them, they controlled the game for most of the contest only for Mahomes to finally land a few shots and buy them late. When the Tom Brady Patriots beat the Chiefs three years ago they did it by controlling the game for long stretches with great defense and ball control but then ultimately by going up-tempo spread on offense and retaking the lead at the end with Brady after the Chiefs finally figured them out.

The extra week of preparation surely helps, but it’s hard to believe the Bucs are going to reach a point in year on with Brady in which they can reliably dominate the game with ball control strategies on offense and count on classic Tom efficiency to win. They may also not even get the chance but need instead to win a shootout if they can’t stop the Chiefs.

On the surface the path to victory for the Buccaneers is to play great defense with their pass-rush, like the 49ers did last year, and then rely on Brady > Jimmy G to complete the formula for victory. This isn’t going to work though unless the Bucs have a defensive gameplan that accepts the evolving reality of winning modern football.

Two doors confront Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles

Behind door no. 1 is to follow a conventional strategy for beating a team like the Chiefs. Match up as best you can, mix your looks, and rush the passer with an exotic and carefully crafted blitz package. This is essentially what Brent Venables did to Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in 2019, he played a 3-1-7 package which matched safeties and cornerbacks on all of the LSU wideouts and allowed them to bring multiple pressures without hanging some big slow linebacker out to dry against a receiver like Justin Jefferson.

It was brilliant and worked like a charm...until it didn’t. Eventually Burrow and LSU figured out what they were doing, saw they were still getting 1-on-1 matchups for J’Marr Chase, and exploited them. The final score wasn’t even really close.

Bowles happens to have a really fast and capable linebacker crew including pass-rusher Shaq Barrett and inside backers Lavonte David and Devin White. With Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh up front this appears, on the surface, to be the sort of team who can use a multiple pass-rush to beat a top quarterback. It’d be the easiest thing in the world for Bowles to say, “I have elite, athletic linebackers and pass-rushers, we’re going to match up with these guys and whip them up front.”

If the Bucs do that, they will lose this game and perhaps by a wide margin.

Door no. 2 involves drawing up a gameplan in accordance with the reality on the field in this game rather than traditional football tactics.

I’ve found the most helpful way to think of top offenses is in the following manner. The good ones have two major tactics they throw at you, the most danger is “infiltration” which is my fancy way of conceptualizing “chucking it deep.” A true deep threat in the passing game forces a defense to either devote a deep safety over the top of the relevant receiver/route or else risk giving up six points on any given play.

In my “space force” theory, the deep threat is the most important wide receiver, space force position. The Kansas City Chiefs have probably the most lethal deep threat passing game in NFL history because they combine 4.29 40 Tyreek Hill, who had 1276 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, with Patrick Mahomes. This is one of the fastest receivers we’ve ever watched play the game and the quarterback can hit him just about anywhere on the field whether he has a pocket to step into or not.

Stopping that is the most important component for a Bucs victory. Last season Hill was targeted 16 times and produced nine catches for 105 yards. Not terrible, but not great either.

After the offense has successfully “infiltrated” your defensive structure by pressuring them on the back end with a deep threat, the next question is how they “clean up” whatever is left of your defense underneath. Traditionally the deep threat passing game is paired with a power run game, they attack extreme ends on the field, they both require athletic offensive lines, and they can easily create a virtuous cycle via play-action.

That’s not how the Chiefs offense works though. Their “run game” is actually more deadly, it’s Travis Kelce. The 6-5, 260 pound tight end just had his sixth straight year of getting over 100 targets in the passing game and translating it into over 1k receiving yards.

My favorite blueprint for stopping a top offense is as follows. First, you double team the vertical threat and remove the danger of getting beat there. Secondly, you also send a “plus one” to whatever the secondary threat is from the offense. Finally, you play mano a mano on everything else.

Here’s how you do that against a team like the Chiefs, who’s no. 1, no. 2, and probably no. 3 options all involve throwing the ball to particular people and on various routes. It’s with a system that was introduced to me by then Cedar Park head coach (now at Tyler Legacy) Joe Willis as the “8-3” defense, was developed by Iowa State and initially identified by yours truly as the “inverted Tampa 2,” and which I now like to describe as “the flyover defense.”

Here’s how the flyover defense looks before the snap against something like Kansas City’s Y-iso formation which deploys Travis Kelce on his lonesome opposite trips receivers.


With regards to personnel, I think the trap for the Bucs is going to be a desire to play all of their talented linemen and pass-rushers. I might play Pierre-Paul and Barrett as the defensive ends, that’s how I drew it here, or I might play just one of them and then a bigger defensive end. The value in having so many good D-linemen and outside linebackers in a game like this though is in substitutions, not having them all on the field together. If Tampa Bay doesn’t play this game in dime, God help them.

The most important feature is having the three safeties pre-snap to do two things. First to disguise some looks against Mahomes, you want him guessing and confused to the extent it’s possible. You need to buy your own offense some time to score before the Chiefs can get going and put pressure on you to abandon Fournette and the run game. Secondly, you need a bracket on Tyreek Hill at all times and you need to be able to ensure there’s always a deep safety over the top of him who isn’t worried about much else. By the third quarter of this game the TV crews should be picking up Hill screaming at staff on the sidelines because he isn’t getting any targets.

Beyond that, Kelce needs a bracket as well. I’d mix things up here more, show an over the top cover 2 type bracket, then play one more inside-out in nature. Keep Mahomes guessing but never give him easy windows to hit his “running back.”

If the Chiefs beat Tom Brady by throwing to receivers not named Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce or by running the football, tip your hat. The only way to ensure touchdown Tom has a chance to work his old man magic and lead key drives for the victory in his 10th Super Bowl is to make this game a contest of which quarterback can be most patient and careful. If this is a battle in who can lead a more explosive offense than Mahomes will win.

And he’ll keep winning until a defensive coach adjusts.
Though he more closely resembles Howard Taft, I'm trying to decide if Andy Reid is George S. Patton reborn or Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur is trending.

It just occurred to me that this is the last predictive game post from Ian for awhile. Sure have enjoyed following along this season, looking forward to the next.
 

coach_bass

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@Ian Boyd Hey Ian great write up as usual. Always look forward to your breakdowns. I've wanted to ask is there anything you would recommend reading or any particular coaching schemes to look into for increasing football IQ? Or do you have any specific football guys you like to follow or read up on for their Xs and Os insight and other football takes?
 

Ian Boyd

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@Ian Boyd Hey Ian great write up as usual. Always look forward to your breakdowns. I've wanted to ask is there anything you would recommend reading or any particular coaching schemes to look into for increasing football IQ? Or do you have any specific football guys you like to follow or read up on for their Xs and Os insight and other football takes?
Oh man, twitter is rich now with X’s and O’s guys. Cameron Soran is great, Cody Alexander is great, I like Alex Kirby, Zach Dunn, coach Casey, all have books.
 
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coach_bass

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Oh man, twitter is rich now with X’s and O’s guys. Cameron Soran is great, Cody Alexander is great, I like Alex Kirby, Zach Dunn, coach Casey, all have books.
Yes, that’s exactly why I asked. I’m thankful that due to social media like Twitter and YouTube there is an abundance of information out there.... just curious if you had any favorites. I’ll definitely check those guys out, thanks!
 

stilesbbq

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Ian Boyd

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Yes, that’s exactly why I asked. I’m thankful that due to social media like Twitter and YouTube there is an abundance of information out there.... just curious if you had any favorites. I’ll definitely check those guys out, thanks!
Coach Mac of play fast football on YouTube is another one.
 
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sherf1

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Wasn't able to watch closely enough to really see the details of the approach, but obviously the Tampa base pass rush was very effective, and saw lots of deep safties over Hill.

LBs taking away the easy stuff to Kelce was also huge.
 

biodogtexas

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On the surface the path to victory for the Buccaneers is to play great defense with their pass-rush, like the 49ers did last year, and then rely on Brady > Jimmy G to complete the formula for victory. This isn’t going to work though unless the Bucs have a defensive gameplan that accepts the evolving reality of winning modern football.
Bowles happens to have a really fast and capable linebacker crew including pass-rusher Shaq Barrett and inside backers Lavonte David and Devin White. With Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh up front this appears, on the surface, to be the sort of team who can use a multiple pass-rush to beat a top quarterback. It’d be the easiest thing in the world for Bowles to say, “I have elite, athletic linebackers and pass-rushers, we’re going to match up with these guys and whip them up front.”

If the Bucs do that, they will lose this game and perhaps by a wide margin.
It doesn't seem like this article aged very well
 

panther52

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Look again, they kept two safeties backed up to Temple all night long and never rushed more than four.

They didn't use the flyover defense but they came as close as you can get.
And, maintained disciplined rush lanes that didn't allow Mahomes to escape U-shape pocket, unless backwards. (Early, Mahomes got around the left side three times for damaging runs. Never again.) The Bucs maintained and collapsed the U-shape pocket, instead of leaving lateral or upfield escape lanes.
 
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