Super Bowl Preview: Chiefs Defense Thrives Under Steve Spagnuolo

Super Bowl Preview: Chiefs Defense Thrives Under Steve Spagnuolo article feature image

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Steve Spagnuolo (left) and Trent McDuffie (right).

Super Bowl Preview: Chiefs Defense Thrives Under Steve Spagnuolo

The Kansas City Chiefs are back in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years, and Patrick Mahomes is one win away from his third championship.

The GOAT conversations are in full swing, but Kansas City’s offense isn’t the reason why the Chiefs are here.

Instead, their elite defense has become the lynchpin.

Before this season, Mahomes had never played in a road playoff game. Beating two All-Pro caliber quarterbacks on the road took a superhuman defensive effort, and I’m here to discuss how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo made that happen.

Spagnuolo’s Background and Scheme

Spagnuolo has been coaching for more than 40 years, and he worked previously with Andy Reid on the Eagles as a defensive assistant and positional coach from 1999-2006. Spagnuolo learned under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in Philadelphia — the hallmarks of Johnson’s scheme are evident in Spagnuolo’s blitz-heavy defenses that major in man coverage.

Nickel and dime defenses — five and six defensive backs, respectively — have become the standard in college football and the NFL. As defenses have increasingly prioritized eliminating big passing plays, added speed and coverage are prioritized over physicality and strength against the run game.

Spagnuolo’s defense is at its best when using nickel and dime formations to generate creative blitzes. According to TruMedia, the Chiefs produced nine sacks when blitzing with a defensive back this season, the most in the NFL. Kansas City’s dime personnel generated a league-leading 27 sacks and 92 "splash plays," according to The Athletic — "splash plays" include turnovers, sacks, tackles for loss and pass breakups.

While the Chiefs’ offense this season is the worst of the Mahomes-Reid era, the defense is at its best. Let’s break down the plays that highlight why they’ve been so successful.

AFC Championship vs. Ravens

In the AFC Championship Game against Lamar Jackson, Kansas City blitzed at a 43.5% rate, per Pro Football Focus. Jackson completed just 8-of-18 passes (44.4%) against the blitz.

In the play below, the Ravens have the ball at their 32-yard line, and it’s second-and-9. It’s a long down-and-distance situation, and you know what that means: Spagnuolo is sending a blitz:

Jackson likely knows the blitz is coming, but it’s nearly impossible to diagnose where it’s coming from pre-snap. The defensive formation presents like a basic Cover 2 in nickel, but Trent McDuffie and Nick Bolton attack from the middle of the field, forcing Jackson to make a quicker decision than he would like.

The Ravens are left with six blockers to stop six pass rushers, which means Chris Jones gets a one-on-one opportunity against guard John Simpson, who graded out below average in pass protection this season, per PFF. Jackson’s first read is to the right boundary, but there’s no easy target, and by the time he works to his second read over the middle of the field, he’s being lit up by Jones.

Later in the game, the Chiefs had a crucial sack of Jackson on a third-and-long play.

The Ravens are facing a third-and-9 at the Chiefs’ 49-yard line with 3:25 left in the third quarter. Baltimore was moving the ball effectively for the first time since its first-quarter touchdown, but the Chiefs defense responded after a second-and-5 holding call on Simpson set Baltimore's offense back.

Again, this presents like Cover 2 with man coverage across the board. Jackson sends Zay Flowers in motion across the formation, and McDuffie follows him from the left to the right side, confirming it's a man concept.

The Chiefs wind up with three down linemen, three linebackers and a cornerback bunched up near the line of scrimmage, and they end up with six rushers going against the Ravens’ six blockers.

As you can see better in the All-22 view, running back Justice Hill whiffs on his blitz pickup of safety Justin Reid, and Jackson has nowhere to go.

In the wide-angle shot, you can see Flowers get open downfield, and Odell Beckham Jr. creates space on his crossing pattern. It doesn’t matter, though, as Jackson is immediately under pressure.

Spagnuolo gambles that his pressure can get home before the receivers get open, and he’s right.

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Divisional Round vs. Bills

One of the inherent weaknesses of playing heavy man coverage is that your defenders will be attached to receivers downfield, and their backs will often be turned to the quarterback.

In the first half against the Bills in the Divisional Round, this hurt the Chiefs as Josh Allen’s early down rushing helped Buffalo stay ahead of the sticks.

The play below came on second-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 30-yard line with under a minute left in the first half.

The Chiefs only rush four players, while the Bills send five pass-catchers downfield. With no spy watching Allen in a zone underneath, the result is an 18-yard rush that ultimately puts Buffalo in a position to score a touchdown instead of a field goal before halftime.

While the foundation of Spagnuolo’s defense is man coverage and a heavy dose of the blitz, he’s still willing to adjust if needed — a hallmark of any great coordinator. He did that at halftime, pivoting to a more zone-based defense in the second half, simulating pressures to keep Allen in the pocket longer.

As a result, just 21 of Allen’s 72 rushing yards came after halftime, and he averaged just 4.2 yards per carry (YPC) after halftime compared to 6.3 YPC before the break.

On the Bills’ first drive of the third quarter, Spagnuolo’s shift in defensive scheme was immediately apparent.

From around the same spot on the field, just inside the 30-yard line, Allen tries to scramble again. However, this time, he’s swarmed by multiple defenders as soon as he crosses the line of scrimmage and is held to just a three-yard gain.

Allen’s rushing was a huge catalyst for the Bills’ offense in the first half, and Spagnuolo took that away in the second. Malleability is arguably as important, if not more important, than schematic proficiency. Spagnuolo is arguably the best defensive coordinator in the NFL in both areas.

Spagnuolo has had high praise for this group of defensive players all season, and he consistently credits how smart his roster is.

“This is the highest number of defensive players with high intelligence with football I’ve had, and they’re really passionate,” he told the Monday Morning Quarterback’s Albert Breer.

Intelligence is perhaps the most underrated and misevaluated aspect of football scouting. Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has done a tremendous job of bringing in players who fit Spagnuolo’s scheme, and their intelligence affords them malleability, with their coach utilizing a bevy of different defensive concepts.

This week, Spagnuolo’s job is to prepare for a 49ers offense that finished the regular season ranked 10th in NFL history with an average of 6.61 yards per play.

He’ll have to find ways to bother Brock Purdy, a quarterback who has thrived against the blitz all season. Kyle Shanahan’s high-flying offense has been lighting up the league, and watching him face Spagnuolo should be riveting. That battle of elite minds should go a long way toward determining the winner of the Super Bowl.

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