How Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo has engineered another Super Bowl-caliber defense that could be his best yet



What the Kansas City Chiefs are doing isn’t normal. 

The reigning Super Bowl champions are playing in their fourth Super Bowl in the last five years, making them only the third team in NFL history to accomplish such a feat, joining the 1990s Buffalo Bills (1990-1993) and the 2010s New England Patriots (2014-2018). Should they defeat the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers for a third title in this span, with a second win against the 49ers in this run, it’s safe to say they are a dynasty. 

Of course, Kansas City’s offense has two-time NFL and Super Bowl MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes and future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce plus head coach Andy Reid front and center for this historic five-year run. However, the Chiefs appearing in Super Bowls with this trio didn’t begin until the 2019 season, when Reid hired Super Bowl champion defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fill the same position in Kansas City.

Spagnuolo, affectionately known as “Spags,” earned his first Super Bowl ring as the DC for the 2007 New York Giants, the only team that handed the New England Patriots squad from the same season a loss. Spagnuolo’s defense held a Patriots squad that entered Super Bowl XLII averaging 36.8 points per game to just 14 points, playing a massive role in dropping New England’s 18-0 record to 18-1 as he and New York walked away with a Vince Lombardi trophy. 

Here is a look at his three previous Super Bowl-winning units and why his 2023 Chiefs group could be his best championship-winning defense yet should they come out on top against San Francisco. 

2007 season (20.8 PPG allowed including playoffs, 14th in NFL)

Playoff matchups vs. top-five scoring offenses

  • NFC divisional round: 21-17 win at No. 1 Dallas Cowboys (averaged 28.4 PPG, second most in NFL)
  • NFC conference championship: 23-20 OT win at No. 2 Green Bay Packers (averaged 27.2 PPG, fourth most in NFL)
  • Super Bowl XLII in Arizona: 17-14 win vs. 18-0 New England Patriots (averaged 36.8 PPG, most in NFL and third most in a single-season in NFL history)

The entire world was ready to crown the 18-0 AFC champion New England Patriots as the greatest football team of all time. Problem was, they couldn’t block Spagnuolo’s defensive linemen as Brady was sacked a 2007 season high, and forever tied for his playoff career high, five times. Justin Tuck led the way with two while Michael Strahan, Jay Alford and Kawika Mitchell each added another. The 2007 NFL MVP had a completion percentage of 60.4% (29 of 48), nearly nine points lower than his season average. Pressure was the key to victory for Spagnuolo’s defense. 

2019 season (20.2 PPG allowed including playoffs, 10th in NFL)

Playoff matchups vs. top-five scoring offenses

  • Super Bowl LIV in Miami: 31-20 win vs. No. 1 San Francisco 49ers (averaged 29.9 PPG, second most in NFL)

In the Super Bowl, Spagnuolo went back to his roots, blitzing on 48.5% of Jimmy Garoppolo’s passes and forcing him into throwing a season-high two interceptions on 20 of 31 passing for 219 yards and one touchdown as well. His 69.2 passer rating that night was his third lowest of the season. Trailing 20-10 entering the fourth quarter, Spagnuolo’s defense kept San Francisco off the scoreboard, allowing Mahomes to work his magic, which culminated in a Super Bowl victory. 

2022 season (22.2 PPG allowed including playoffs, 18th in NFL)

Playoff matchups vs. top-five scoring offenses

  • Super Bowl LVII in Arizona: 31-20 win vs. No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles (averaged 28.1 PPG, third most in NFL)

Last season, Spagnuolo’s defense thrived on getting after opposing quarterbacks, racking up 55 sacks, the second most in the NFL behind their Super Bowl opponents, the Philadelphia Eagles, and generating a quarterback pressure rate of 35.7%, the eighth best in the league. However, the back end of his defense struggled most of the year mostly thanks to inexperience. Five rookies were playing key roles: cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson plus safety Bryan Cook and edge rusher George Karlaftis. 

The 2022 Chiefs defense became only the second team since the 2008 season to allow the most passing touchdowns (33) in the regular season and make the postseason, joining the 2008 Arizona Cardinals. 

They weren’t incredibly effective at slowing down 2022 NFL MVP runner-up quarterback Jalen Hurts (304 passing yards and a touchdown on 27 of 38 passing and 70 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on 15 carries), but they forced him into a critical turnover. Trailing 14-7 and Philly looking to go up two possessions in the second quarter, the Chiefs walled off the A-gap on a Hurts scramble, causing him to hesitate and fumble the football. Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 36 yards for the then-tying score via a fumble return touchdown. 

That touchdown was critical as the Chiefs offense didn’t score the entire second quarter, so that play squarely kept Kansas City within striking distance, down 24-14 at the half. Kansas City roared back offensively behind Mahomes that night (182 yards and three touchdown passes on 21 of 27 passing while adding 44 rushing yards on six carries). His effort would have been in vain had Spags’ defense not limited Philly to just two more in the final 30 minutes, including just one touchdown. 

Why 2023 Chiefs could be Spags’ best Super Bowl defense yet

Not only is Spagnuolo’s 2023 defense the best of his Kansas City tenure, but it’s the best Chiefs defense of the 21st century. Including the postseason, they rank second in the league in scoring defense (16.8 PPG allowed), fourth in total defense (294.7 total YPG allowed) and first in sack rate (8.6%). 

Chiefs defense this season including playoffs

PPG Allowed

16.8*

1997

Total YPG Allowed

294.7*

1995

Sack Rate

8.6%*

1992

* All top four in NFL this season

“Damn, that’s the boss bro,” Chiefs 2023 First-Team All-Pro cornerback Trent McDuffie told CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr after the team’s 17-10 win over the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game. “That’s the mastermind behind everything you see. I feel like everybody on this defense … shoot, everyone in the building … really respects that man. He’s a generally good dude. I got a lot of love for him and he got a lot of love for us. He allows us to go out there and play. It [the level the defense played at against Lamar Jackson’s Ravens] ain’t surprising to us. We’ve been doing this all year.”

The Chiefs defense is playing this year is at an all-time great level, in the company of some of the best defenses in recent memory. They have allowed under 28 points in all 20 of their games, the most such games in a season in NFL history including the postseason. Each of the four teams to do so in all of their games in the Super Bowl era, since 1966, — the 2000 Ravens (all 19 games), the 2002 Buccaneers (all 19 games), the 2005 Steelers (all 19 games) and the 2010 Packers (all 19 games) — each won the Super Bowl. 

In their last six games, which includes their entire playoff run and their last three regular-season games, Kansas City’s defense has been impenetrable in the second half and especially the fourth quarter. They have allowed one touchdown and only 19 points in their last six second halves, including no (none, zilch, zero) touchdowns and just six points in their last six fourth quarters.  

How are they doing all this? Spagnuolo’s group is equipped with All-Pros at defensive tackle (Chris Jones) and cornerback (McDuffie) and plenty of youth that is growing into their own (George Karlaftis, tied for a team-high 10.5 sacks with Jones, defensive end Mike Danna, linebacker Willie Gay, linebacker Nick Bolton). 

Spagnuolo himself has also shown the type of schematic flexibility that is necessary to adapt and survive throughout the playoffs. He is known as an aggressive blitzer, and the 2023 regular season supporting that notion: The Chiefs blitzed on 37% of opponent dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Spags has become more selective with manufacturing pressure, blitzing on only 30.4% of opponent dropbacks, the eighth-highest rate out of 14 playoff teams. 

He has been varied round-to-round with his signature pressure looks. The Chiefs blitzed 21 times total against the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills in the first two rounds of the postseason, but then they cranked it up against 2023 First-Team All-Pro quarterback Lamar Jackson with 20 blitzes against the Ravens. All 20 were unique blitzes, meaning each was different based on who blitzed, from where and with what coverage behind it, according to CBS Sports Research. Spagnuolo dialed up a Chiefs’ season-high 12 defensive back blitzes against Jackson to great results: 21 passing yards allowed and a sack taken on 3 of 10 passing. 

Spagnuolo mixes it up

Chiefs blitzes this postseason

  • vs. Dolphins/Bills: 21 blitzes (four with six+ pass rushers)
  • vs. Ravens: 20 blitzes (seven with six+ pass rushers)

The Chiefs utilize the defensive back blitz more than anyone with 108 plays with it, and the fewest passing yards per pass attempt allowed (4.9) with the concept in 2023. When McDuffie is involved in pass-rushing, opposing quarterbacks struggle: 46% completion percentage, 4.2 yards per pass attempt and an 0-2 TD-INT ratio when McDuffie is in the pass rush this season.

The exotic blitz schemes and the week-to-week variance may not be the easiest system to grasp initially, but his defenders are fully bought in.

“We believe in Coach [Spagnuolo],” Chiefs defensive end Mike Danna told CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr. “We believe in everybody in the system and being a unit on defense. It took all 11 of us, and he made that clear earlier this week. It was gonna take all 11 of us to get to where we wanna get to. We do what we got to do.”  

They are allowing 13.7 points per game this postseason against opponents that combined to average 28.0 points per game in the regular season, tossing elite offenses 6 feet under round after round. 

Chiefs defense this postseason

  • Held Dolphins to season-worsts in points (7), yards per play (4.5) and third downs (1 of 12)

Miami had the longest active NFL streak of averaging 5+ yards per play snapped (17 games)

  • Held Bills to their fewest yards-per-pass attempt (4.8) since 2021 and fewest yards per completion (7.2) since 2018

Buffalo had the second-longest active NFL streak of averaging 5+ yards per pass attempt (39 games) snapped

  • Held Ravens to season-low 81 rush yards and fewest time of possession (22:30) of Lamar Jackson’s career

Baltimore snapped its longest active (also tied for fifth-longest streak in NFL history) with 100+ rush yards (35 games)

The final challenge is a 49ers squad with the most star-studded offensive cast Kansas City has faced all season: one of the league’s best play-callers in San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan, Pro Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy, 2023 First Team All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, Pro Bowl wide receiver Deebo Samuel, 2023 First Team All-Pro tight end George Kittle, 2023 Second-Team All-Pro receiver Brandon Aiyuk and 2023 First Team All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams.

“It’s scary to watch all the weapons they have,” Spagnuolo said on Feb. 2 when asked about the 49ers offense. “He’s [Christian McCaffrey] one piece, a big piece, of it. … He’s explosive. A real smart football player. He’s not the only one. They’re all over the place.”

The same could be said for Spagnuolo’s defense. 

“It’s special,” Mahomes told CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr. “That’s a great team and a great quarterback. And Spags, it seems when the games get bigger, and when the challenges get higher, he performs even better. Even if we’re not having the success that I want to have, when the defense is rolling and getting the stops, let’s take the safe choice. Don’t turn the ball over and let’s go win a football game.”  

One more chance at the big chair?

Given his defense’s historic production in 2023 and multiple Super Bowl rings, one would think Spagnuolo would have a shot at being an NFL head coach. However, the league appears too leery to grant him a second chance at the big chair after he went 10-38 as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2009-2011. Spagnuolo returned to being a defensive coordinator after failing to launch his rebuild of the Rams, working for the New Orleans Saints for a year (2012). 

After struggling on Sean Payton’s staff, he honed his craft as a senior defensive assistant (2013) and a secondary coach (2014) on John Harbaugh’s staff in Baltimore before returning home to the G-Men as their DC from 2015-2017. Following head coach Ben McAdoo’s firing, Spags took a year off before becoming the Chiefs defensive play-caller in 2019, helping to kick off the first of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl runs. 

Both Bill Belichick (36-44 in five seasons with the Cleveland Browns) and Pete Carroll (33-31 in four seasons with the New York Jets and New Patriots combined) failed in their first attempts at being an NFL head coach like Spagnuolo. Carroll received his NFL second chance with the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 at the age of 59, and he made the most of it.  He went 137-89-1 in his 14 seasons from 2010-2023, leading Seattle to consecutive Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014 and capturing the franchise’s only title to conclude the 2013 season. 

At age 64, teams may not look at Spagnuolo as being at the right stage of his career for a second chance, but he certainly has the buy-in from his players like a beloved head coach. Following their AFC Championship win in Baltimore, Chiefs safety Justin Reid passed out shirts to the defense that said “In Spags We Trust” with the DC’s face plastered all over. 

“Humbling,” Spagnuolo said when asked about his players wearing T-shirts with him on it after winning the AFC championship game in Baltimore. 

“I’m going to shoot him [Chiefs safety Justin Reid] for doing that. I’m trying to burn every T-shirt that I can find. I don’t think I’m getting them all though,” Spagnuolo said chuckling.

The NFL may not have gotten Spagnuolo’s best as a head coach on his first shot, but next hiring cycle, if there’s a team that needs to make a defensive turnaround, Spags should be near the top of every owner’s short list.  





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