On the Attack: Can Spagnuolo’s Defense Do It Again on the Biggest Stage?
PHOENIX – Steve Spagnuolo is the definition of a football lifer.
He’s been in coaching since 1981 when he took a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Massachusetts and he’s developed a reputation as an aggressive coach who’s not afraid to send the house in order to get results since being appointed as a defensive assistant on Andy Reid’s original Philadelphia Eagles staff in 1999.
The now 24-year-old coach is back on Reid’s staff, serving as the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs since 2019. That description perhaps does not paint a completely accurate picture of a coach who is more versatile in his approach than he is given credit for.
Spagnuolo will indeed go on the attack. In the 2022 regular season, only four teams blitzed with six or more pass rushers more frequently than the Chiefs, who did so 6.6% of the time.
But the fact his defense is set to go against the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII is in part a tribute to Spagnuolo’s malleability.
The Chiefs were in the top half of the NFL with a 31.4% blitz rate in the regular season and finished ninth in the league in pressure rate. They sent four pass rushers 70.8% of the time when defending aerial attacks, but they still led the NFL in pressures with 299.
In other words, Spagnuolo’s defense can win with the blitz, but it can also succeed frequently in getting pressure with just four down linemen, which is critical for every defense in an era where two-high safety coverages that protect against explosive plays have never been more prevalent.
Kansas City’s defense finished the regular season eighth in yards per play allowed and ninth in EVE (our Efficiency Versus Expected model).
It is in the postseason, though, when Spagnuolo’s defenses continually come alive. That was the case in 2007 when his New York Giants held the finest offense in New England Patriots history, one that propelled them to a 16-0 regular-season record and the highest adjusted team rating of the previous 30 years, to just 14 points in Super Bowl XLII.
His first season with the Chiefs ended in Super Bowl glory as they swarmed Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers late in the fourth quarter in an underrated aspect of Kansas City’s 31-20 comeback win in Super Bowl LIV. In the 2020 postseason, only a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that ruined the Chiefs’ hopes of a repeat at the final hurdle had more pressures than Kansas City’s 55.
And this postseason, the Chiefs have again risen to the challenge. They’ve racked up seven sacks in the playoffs (second only to the Eagles) and tallied 23 pressures against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game. The most crucial one was a sack by Chris Jones that gave the ball back to Patrick Mahomes for a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
Spagnuolo, though, does not appear interested in taking credit for the continual joy his defenses find in the playoffs, pointing more to the impact of players like Jones than any schematic wizardry.
“I always say this… what you’ve done in the past or prior games doesn’t mean anything going into these games. It’s all about our guys stepping up and doing it again,” Spagnuolo said this week. “Chris Jones, if he’s having the game he had (in the AFC championship game) that certainly helps us. We need our best players to play their best football and I think it comes back to those guys. I think that’s why in the big moments we’ve been able to do that.
“None of that matters now. It’s a whole different game and different game plan. Hopefully, we can find 60 more minutes of good football.”
Rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie has enjoyed an excellent rookie season, allowing a combined open percentage across man and zone coverage of 21.5 that is tied for the fourth among all corners.
“I just love how the mentality of our defense is aggressive,” McDuffie told Stats Perform. “We are going to attack the offense.”
The numbers reflect McDuffie’s words. The Chiefs have predominantly dealt in the kind of two-deep safety coverages that have proliferated across the NFL because of the threat posed by Mahomes. Cover 4, Cover 6 and Cover 2 are the coverages in which they have primarily lived, however. They have also played Cover 2 man (every coverage defender except for the two deep safeties plays man coverage) on 8.9% of pass defense snaps – well above the league average of 2.7%.
Kansas City’s defense does often get extremely aggressive when blitzing. The unit plays Cover 1 man (every coverage defender plays man except for a deep safety) on 25.2% of blitzes, and Cover 0 (there are no deep defenders) on 18.6% of blitzes. But there are still a significant amount of zone blitzes mixed in. The Chiefs run quarters (Cover 4) when blitzing 19.5% of the time and Cover 2 on 9.5% of blitzes.
Spagnuolo does look to ‘attack the offense,’ but he takes a multi-faceted approach to doing so, one which consistently pays off in high-leverage situations. The Chiefs have 27 sacks in the postseason since 2019, 16 of which have come in the second half or overtime and five in the final two minutes.
Perhaps it is therefore Spagnuolo’s timing that is the foundation for the success of his playoff defenses. Against the Eagles, picking his spots will be crucial.
Aggression will almost certainly need to be tempered given Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts’ aptitude for capitalizing on attack-mode defenses through his prowess running the zone-read, the read-option and the run-pass option.
It sets up a fascinating battle between arguably the NFL’s most diverse and devastating offense, which consistently makes life easy on its quarterback, and a defense that is significantly more dynamic than many believe and excels at putting quarterbacks in difficult positions in the most important moments.
For Spagnuolo, the challenge is to craft a game plan that maintains the attacking tendencies of his defense while protecting against the array of dangers Hurts presents.
“If we can be good on first and second down to get them in the long third downs, then maybe we can do (attack),” Spagnuolo said. “Short of that you’re always facing the possibility of a run or an RPO on any down and distance. And if you’re doing something, you know it could be a big play for you, but it might be a really big play for them.”
It’s quite the dilemma for Spagnuolo to solve. Fortunately for the Chiefs, history is on his side.