By Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)
This article breaks down the Buccaneers, for a full match preview, click here.
As we approach Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, the media fanfare and score speculation is well and truly underway as we prepare ourselves for the first (and potentially not last) Super Bowl match-up between Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. By achieving a birth in the final two of the most disrupted, challenging NFL season for many years in itself is a serious achievement – but with the Bucs still waiting for their first Super Bowl in nearly 20 years, the team would almost certainly say they aren’t done yet after an 11-5 year.
For the Bucs, who look to become the first ever team to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium on Sunday, their big money experiment looks to be nearly job done following the off-season acquisition of Tom Brady. The move was a shock to many at the time, all apart from second-year head-coach, Bruce Arians who called his shot with Brady before the move was anywhere near done as he tried to replace a quarter-back in Jameis Winston that had thrown for 5000 yards and 30 touchdowns in his offensive scheme.
Arians, who spent five years as the head-coach of the Arizona Cardinals between 2013-2017 before taking a two year sabbatical from the sport, is fiery in every imaginable way – with the media, players, and the referees and who’s style of coaching can come across as not exactly player friendly. And that direct communication doesn’t change for anyone, not even the legendary Brady, who Arians called out in September for not “playing very well” before number 12 predictably went on to dominate the remainder of the regular season by throwing for over 4600 yards with a touchdown-interception ratio of 40-12.
Arians is a likeable character in the NFL, considered one of the best head-coaches who is still without a Super Bowl and there are many a neutral who would enjoy seeing an underdog victory on Sunday. The Kangal hat-wearing offensive genius coached for almost 40 years between the NFL and college before he was awarded his first head-coaching role – his own struggles to get a job put down to his up-front media style and flowing opinions, although like Eric Bienemy is finding at the moment, that often gets reported in TV speak as “not interviewing well”.
The Zoom based media for this year’s game experienced how much Arians has remembered his struggles yesterday, when he was asked about the lack of head-coaching chances given to Offensive Co-ordinator Byron Leftwich who has performed near miracles with Jameis Winston in 2019 and Brady in 2020 in quickly adapting them to Arians pass heavy, risk-likely scheme.
“I was very, very pissed that Byron didn’t at least get an interview this year,” Arians said.
“For the job that he’s done . . . I think I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady for the job that Byron has done. Hopefully next year people will see that he took Jameis Winston and broke every single record here, scoring and passing, and now Tom has broken both. He’s done a fantastic job, he’s everything supposedly what people are looking for.”
He’s not wrong either.
Like Todd Bowles on the defensive side of co-ordination; the two coaches have helped to totally revolutionise this Bucs team from a squad that played little defence last year to one of the better units in the league in 2020. While Leftwich has been the key to getting Brady to quickly pick up the scheme and put it into good practice, Bowles has combined a crew of veterans and draft picks to create an exciting unit with rising names up and down the roster.
Bowles himself is looking for another head-coaching role in the future following a three year spell as head-coach of the New York Jets between 2015-2018 and which as Adam Gase has since proven, is anything but easy with some of the supposed disfunction that’s going on behind the scenes.
So then, with an impressive pair of co-ordinators who have helped drive the team to top ten rankings on both the offense and defence, ranking 5th in takeaways and defensive yards given up per play, with 25 and 5.1 respectively, who are the players making the difference on the field? And who should you be looking out for come Sunday night?
Key Players – Offence
Wide-receiver Mike Evans should be one name that’s right at the top of your list of interest to watch, especially given that number 13 caught two touchdowns in the matchup vs the Chiefs back in November. Since Arians took over as head-coach in 2019, and with Winston as his quarter-back last year, Evans has caught 147 receptions, with 118 of those being good enough for a first down, the highest conversation rate in the league over that time at 80.2%. Aside from Evans ridiculous dependency when he is targeted, the receivers play style has made him a superb weapon for Brady who looks to Evans to physically beat any of the defensive-backs who try to stop him. Evans, who doesn’t play with the speed of Henry Ruggs or Scotty Miller, has tremendous strength in his routes, and uses his 6ft5 frame to high-point the ball as well as anyone in the red-zone.
On first glances, its hard to see anyone on the Chiefs roster who physically matches up with Evans, and certainly there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can go man-to-man with the dominant receiver who is currently on the longest stretch of 1000 yard receiving seasons to start a career in NFL history with 7.
Also to look out for on the offensive side of Tampa Bay football, aside from the obvious answer of the most successful quarterback in NFL history, is his right tackle, rookie Tristan Wirfs. Since being picked 13th overall in this year’s draft from Iowa State, Wirfs has become easily one of the best tackles in the entire league, allowing just a single sack on 769 pass-block snaps this year, which is ridiculous for anyone – especially a rookie. The performance, which earned him the highest PFF rating of any rookie at 80.2, including Justin Jefferson and Justin Herbert, will be all important on Sunday when he comes up against the ferocious pass rushing combination of Chris Jones and Frank Clark. While Wirfs is likely to see more of Clark off the left-edge, the Chiefs ability to run stunts and other pass-rush schemes is likely to see Wirfs go up against just about anybody on the line in an attempt to keep Brady upright.
Key Players – Defence
When Todd Bowles’ unit gets on the field, make sure to keep an eye out for linebacker LaVonte David. His is a name has that been overlooked this season thanks to the unbelievable presence of middle-linebacker Devin White. White may take some of the spotlight but LaVonte David himself is widely considered one of the best linebackers in the game. Hustling on every play to get to the ball, dependable in coverage and by all accounts a brilliant leader. Since being drafted back in 2012, David has been a stalwart through the ups and downs on the Bucs franchise, committing just 9 penalties in over 9200 total snaps as he gets set to face up with one of the league’s most threatening offensive weapons in Travis Kelce. Its likely that David will be matched up with Kelce for a large percentage of the snaps on Sunday, and with Kelce managing a 145.7 passer rating when he is targeted so far in the post season, things might come down to who wins that big match up.
The other big defensive player to watch for will be edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett who announced his return to 2019 form with a bang in the Conference Championship as he sacked Aaron Rodgers a total of three times. The former Bronco almost broke the season sack record in 2019 when he recorded a total of 19.5 sacks, leading to some suggestion that he might beat the record this year. Yet despite only managing 8 sacks in this year’s regular season, there is potential that with the news that both Chiefs tackles will be out for the all-important game, Barrett has a serious chance to dominate what could be a surprisingly defensive Super Bowl LV.
All in all, on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to predict exactly how this game is going to go, with so many possible outcomes between two teams that have played exceptional football for much of this year. And while this game is likely to be decided by one of the two star quarterbacks on the field, Bucs fans might just want to keep an eye out for their all important defence, which has a chance to stifle Mahomes when he least expects it.