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Ever since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ last loss of the season – back in Week 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs, who they will face in Super Bowl LV – the entire football world has tried to piece together how Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich fixed their offensive woes. After being left dead and buried at 7-5, Tampa Bay has won seven-straight games and is on the cusp of being the first team to take the field for a Super Bowl on their home turf.
Was it the play-action passing game? Pre-snap movement? Incorporating horizontal passing concepts like Mesh? Sure, those helped. But in reviewing their offense since the bye week something else stands out: Their success in the vertical passing game, often on single-receiver concepts.
Here’s why Tom Brady and the slot vertical could be critical for the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.
At the outset, it should be pointed out that this kind of route is something that Brady has exceled at throwing over the course of his career. It does not take long to find examples of him dropping in this pass while still in New England. Take this throw, from a regular season win over the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2018:
Tight end Rob Gronkowski releases downfield from his alignment as the middle receiver in a trips formation. He gets a step on the man coverage and Brady freezes the safety in the middle of the field, before dropping in a dime to set up the game-winning field goal.
These two connected on a very similar route in Tampa Bay’s late-season win over the Detroit Lions:
This play also illustrates the ability of Brady to make this throw. Once more he combines the ability to freeze the middle-field safety – and this is the kind of manipulation that matters – with the touch to get this over the trailing defender and into the arms of his targets.
Another component of running these vertical routes from the slot, or a condensed alignment, is that it gives both Brady and his target space to work with. Brady can throw the receiver to space towards the boundary and/or the receiver himself can work away from an inside-leveraged defender to create separation artificially, and the QB has the touch to drop in the perfect throw.
This concept showed up early in the NFC Championship game. First there was this connection between Brady and Mike Evans on a fade route out of the slot:
And then the Buccaneers opened the scoring with a similar design, with Evans working towards the back corner of the end zone out of a slot alignment:
Both plays illustrate the elements already discussed. The receiver works out of the inside alignment and takes advantage of both the leverage of the defender and the extra real estate towards the boundary, while Brady freezes the safety in the middle of the field and drops in a throw over the positioning of the nearest defender.
Of course, there are ways to make this throw even easier. Take this touchdown from Brady to Chris Godwin back in Week 17 against the Atlanta Falcons:
Pre-snap motion from Godwin – another of the post-bye adjustments by the Buccaneers – lets Brady know that the Falcons are in man coverage, and that Godwin is being covered by a linebacker. Tampa Bay uses play-action on this snap, and a two-receiver combination where Evans runs a deep curl route and Godwin’s wheel route takes him behind Evans.
Brady’s read here is pretty easy, but he will also pay attention to how the man coverage defender handles the rub that gets creates by Evans’ curl route. If the linebacker tries to go over the top of this, then Brady will throw this to the back shoulder of Godwin. But if the linebacker tries to come underneath the rub from Evans, then Brady will lead Godwin by throwing this over the top. The linebacker comes under, and Brady throws this downfield.
Oh and by the way, the name for this combination, at least in the New England Patriots’ playbook? Wasp. Meaning that the Kansas City Chiefs are not the only team that might have that term in the playbook for Super Bowl LV.
Speaking of the Chiefs, you might be wondering how any of this might be applicable to Sunday night. Well, there were some vertical routes from inside alignments that the Buccaneers hit on in the regular season meeting between these two teams, including one to Godwin and another to Gronkowski. But this play stands out:
This is a 4th-and-three from late in the game, with the Buccaneers trailing by 17. Kansas City has their 3-1-7 defense in the game – Doug Farrar and I will have more on sub packages this week in advance of Super Bowl LV – and Evans runs a wheel route from a condensed alignment along the right sideline. Again, the elements previously discussed are in play. Evans takes advantage of leverage and extra space while Brady freezes the safeties with his eyes before flashing his field of vision to Evans late in the down, and he drops in a perfect throw.
As Super Bowl LV unfolds see if the Buccaneers continue this trend by attacking downfield in the passing game out of tighter alignments. And who knows? Maybe we will have a big “Wasp” moment for the second-straight year in the big game.