While Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their second ever Super Bowl win, his former team was sitting at home and getting ready for a pivotal offseason to get back into contention. With Brady no longer in the fold and coming off a disappointing 7-9 campaign, after all, the New England Patriots are in rebuild territory.
It remains to be seen how this process will eventually play out — the Patriots have plenty of resources to work with, but also a lot of holes throughout their roster — but there are a few things they can still learn from the 2020 champs.
Offensive weapons matter
Both the Buccaneers and their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, entered the title game by putting forward impressive performances on both sides of the ball. What does stand out when compared to the Patriots’ current roster, however, is the quality of talent at the offensive skill positions.
Tom Brady has players such as Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin to work with. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, on the other hand, plays alongside an elite supporting cast headed by All-Pros Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The talent on both teams far exceeds what the Patriots currently have at their disposal, and it is obvious that this is an area that needs to be addressed moving forward.
Brady’s performances in 2019 and 2020 are a good example of that. While the Patriots’ passing offense struggled last season given the subpar talent surrounding him, he thrived with the Buccaneers. Assembling such a crew is obviously easier said than done, but New England still needs to invest its resources to create the best possible environment for whichever quarterback will lead the offense in 2021 and beyond.
A good O-line is an asset
The Super Bowl was a story of two offensive lines, and the results were drastic. While Brady had plenty of time to survey the field behind an impressive group of blockers, Mahomes ran for his life behind a makeshift collection of blockers.
While some of the rollouts he made were by design and the Chiefs did not give him Mahomes much help by keeping extra blockers in, the following graphic illustrates just how stark the difference between the two passers was in terms of having to move around to make plays happen:
All in all, Mahomes covered 468 yards with his feet when aligning in a shotgun look. Brady, for comparison, posted a relatively stress-free 37.
The gist of those numbers is obvious: a good offensive line matters, and investing to get one on the field is paramount. While the O-line alone cannot save an offense from mediocre-at-best quarterback play — something the Patriots themselves experienced during the 2020 season — it does give the entire unit a stable foundation to build around both in the passing game and on the ground.
New England has such a foundation in place, but with two starters headed for free agency will need to make some smart business decisions. At least one of left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews should be brought back to help stabilize the unit and create a steady and experienced supporting cast for the next quarterback to lead the Patriots offense.
Defensive speed is more important than ever
The Buccaneers did not just win the Super Bowl by having Brady play at an efficient game alongside the pieces surrounding him, but also due to a defensive performance that will rank among the most impressive in title game history: Tampa Bay held the high-powered Chiefs offense without a touchdown, and also registered a pair of turnovers and two stops on fourth down.
The team accomplished that due to a zone-heavy game plan by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles that challenged Kansas City’s ability to execute big plays and also put relentless pressure on Mahomes. They were able to incorporate all those elements in big part because of their defensive speed: the Buccaneers were flying to the ball, reminiscent of the Seattle Seahawks’ championship defense shutting down the Denver Broncos in February 2014.
That speed was present on all three levels, with the off-the-ball linebacker corps in particular standing out. Lavonte David and Devin White were impressive both when attacking downhill and dropping back into their coverage zones. Add the speed rush by edge defenders such as Shaqil Barrett, and you get a dangerous recipe capable of shutting down even as potent a team as the Chiefs.
From New England’s perspective, speed also has to be on the menu this offseason: the NFL is trending in that direction, meaning that hybrid linebackers and sub packages are becoming the new norm. New England already was showing a huge number of sub looks in 2020, but the personnel was not always up to par to properly execute.
The lack of speed at linebacker with Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall as the top-two options was apparent throughout the season. Getting better there and on the edge will therefore be a key for New England’s defensive success moving forward. Some intriguing building blocks such as Josh Uche and Chase Winovich are already in place, but the Patriots have to bolster the depth around them to succeed on a week-to-week basis.
The Patriots’ method of talent acquisition still works
Before arriving in Tampa Bay, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht spent seven total seasons in New England — six of which under Bill Belichick. His approach to roster construction therefore looks pretty similar to what the Patriots have done the last two decades, even though the recent results are obviously favoring his club versus his old team.
While adding Tom Brady on a two-year pact was the key to the success in 2020, the supporting cast was already put in place the last few years.
Players such as left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Ali Marpet were acquired during the 2015 draft, with tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Chris Godwin being brought aboard two years later. The defense, meanwhile, was rebuilt during the 2018 to 2020 drafts: defensive tackle Vita Vea, linebacker Devin White, cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting, safeties Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. were all acquired over those last three years.
Meanwhile, Licht was not spending top dollar on free agent talent before Brady’s arrival. Signing center Ryan Jensen to a four-year, $42 million pact in 2018 was the biggest splash, with other cornerstones such as Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul being comparative bargains on the free agent and trade markets, respectively.
Sounds familiar? The Patriots under Belichick have had a similar approach: spending smartly rather than making the big splashes, and looking to the draft to keep the young pipeline going.
That plan has proven itself over the years, but New England still had some hiccups recently. While players such as Isaiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and Kyle Dugger look like foundational building blocks, others have not worked out so far. Still, the general idea behind the acquisitions made the last few seasons made sense — the Buccaneers show that, even though it took a quarterback to get them over the top.
And that remains the pivotal question for New England moving forward.