Unfortunately, the Buccaneers beat the Chiefs soundly in the Super Bowl, and a team that last made the playoffs in 2007 now has its second Lombardi Trophy. There will be a lot of chatter about how the Buccaneers won this and a once-quiet fanbase will have something to crow about, but I’m much more interested in what the Falcons can emulate from this Tampa Bay team.
The Chiefs, of course, rode this far on a hyper-talented offense and the most talented quarterback in football, with a well-regarded coach and just enough defensive talent. That recipe will likely push them close to a Super Bowl again in 2021 without many tweaks, but the Falcons don’t have Patrick Mahomes and aren’t going to get his clone anytime soon. That makes the Tampa Bay model on worth learning lessons from, even if not all those lessons are easy to emulate.
Building the trenches
Full stop, there is no way the Buccaneers win the game last night without the work they put into building their offensive and defensive lines. The former kept Tom Brady clean and allowed him the time to murder an overmatched Kansas City defense, while the latter cranked up the pressure on Patrick Mahomes all night long. Todd Bowles correctly figured that a makeshift offensive line for Kansas City was no match for his front seven and took full advantage, never letting Mahomes get comfortable and find success with the deep shots that destroy defenses.
The league is moving wholesale toward mobile quarterbacks who can extend plays with their legs and/or be a dangerous double threat as runners, but Tampa Bay made the persuasive case that you can win with an old, lead-footed quarterback if you give him weapons (check, in Atlanta’s case) and a stellar offensive line (not quite a check, in Atlanta’s case). Matt Ryan is actually more mobile than Brady by orders of magnitude, but it’s obvious that as he continues to age that dominant line becomes more important than ever.
Defensively, of course, Atlanta’s light years away from being able to equal what the Buccaneers have up front. Tampa Bay can bring Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, and William Gholston to bear on offenses, not to mention creative blitzing from everywhere, while Atlanta essentially has Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler Jr. if the latter can bounce back after a lackluster 2020 campaign. The difference consistent pressure makes was evident when the Falcons impressively brought it against the Chiefs in the regular season, though, and the Bucs showed it’s one of the only ways you can triumph over offenses as good as New Orleans, Green Bay, and Kansas City. Putting together a dominant front seven is perhaps the most critical task ahead for the new Falcons brain trust.
Get a fearless defensive coordinator
Bowles interviewed for a couple of head coaching jobs this offseason, including in Atlanta, but didn’t get a second shot at running his own team. After this game and the postseason in general, chances are good he’ll get a longer look next offseason.
It’s worth remembering that this Buccaneers defense has some elite talent—Antoine Winfield Jr. looks special, Vita Vea is a beast, Devin White is growing into one of the best linebackers in football and Shaq Barrett is killing it—but this is not an elite defense in terms of personnel across the board. There are weaknesses in the secondary, the linebacker position beyond White is good but not stellar, and the defensive line depth is fine but not spectular, either. The Bucs knitted together a unit capable dominating some of the league’s best offenses by
One of the most exciting things about the addition of Dean Pees is his love of blitzing and bringing pressure from everywhere. The Falcons need to add talent for that to work, but a team that prizes pressure in a way Atlanta simply did not under both Mike Smith and Dan Quinn will be welcome. focusing on aggressive, physical coverage paired with
The Falcons famously gambled that they were one piece away a couple of times, the most memorable being the big swing at Julio Jones that helped put Atlanta in the NFC Conference Championship the next year. The truth is that you’re rarely just a couple of pieces away from a Super Bowl win, but the Bucs understood that they were lacking a difference maker in the secondary, a dominant tackle, and most critically a quarterback they could rely on to carry them to the Super Bowl. They gauged that for all their hilarious missteps—we all remember trading up in the second round for a kicker, right?—that they had done the hard work of drafting and signing most of the pieces they needed in order to become a contender.
The Falcons are not in a position to do the same thing, but they can be canny about how they position themselves for 2021 and even 2022, when Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst, Russell Gage, and Foye Oluokun are free agents but no one else critical to the team’s success figures to be. If Atlanta wants to be a legitimate contender in the near-term, they’ll have to put some muscle and some dollars behind fixing their most glaring holes now.
You need a little luck
Where would the Bucs be if Brady hadn’t shaken loose this offseason? What happens if Tristan Wirfs is taken in front of them, leaving Austin Jackson, Isaiah Wilson, or Ezra Cleveland as the next best tackle on the board? What if a smart team scooped up Antoine Winfield Jr.? Heck, what if Green Bay manages to capitalize even once on Brady’s three interceptions in the NFC Conference Championship, or the defense in Green Bay gets another stop? They were a little lucky even in the Super Bowl, where Mahomes made a couple of absurd touchdown-caliber throws as he’s wont to do and they were dropped, which combined with unfortunate offensive line injuries for the Chiefs to make this one a laugher. Not all of those have to do with roster-building, but it’s worth considering the role fortune plays in a team’s success.
It’s anathema to everyone who likes to believe that the NFL champions get there on merit alone, but luck is a part of the recipe. Look at Brady’s win against the Falcons featuring that borderline impossible Julian Edelman catch, or the way Brady lost another one thanks in part to an impossible David Tyree catch. The Bucs chose their time correctly and built at least a one season juggernaut, but as we all know too well, you need a couple breaks along the way to push you over the top.
At the end of the day, of course, building something similar to Tampa Bay is easier said than done, given that overhauling the defensive line in particular is a multi-year project for Atlanta. The Falcons would still be wise to lean into protecting Matt Ryan and (eventually) his someday successor to bolster the offense and prioritize making their defensive front seven as fearsome as possible, because that recipe plus a little fortune remains one of the surest ways to push to a championship. Hey, it just worked for Tampa Bay.