Last season, Steve Spagnuolo took over a defensive unit that was the primary reason the Chiefs did not reach the Super Bowl a year earlier. Through their first 10 games of 2019, not much had improved. The Chiefs were allowing 24 points per game on their way to an underwhelming 6-4 record. Over their final 6 games, however, Kansas City allowed an NFL-low 11.5 points per game. By season’s end, Spagnuolo had turned the defense into a formidable group that was instrumental in helping the Chiefs win their first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years.
Spagnuolo’s scheme is versatile, filled with disguised pressures and coverages. The below interception from last season is a great example, and one of my favorite plays of 2019.
At the snap, Mathieu stepped up underneath and Thornhill rotated to the middle of the field.
At first, this made it appear that the Chiefs would be playing Cover-3 with Mathieu moving down into the underneath middle-hook zone, where he would take away the #3 inside receiver’s route. Below you can see the initial rotation as well as the Chargers’ route combination.
However, Thornhill did not stop in the middle of the field. Instead, he kept running to the other side. Safety Rashad Fenton, who had aligned underneath at the snap, raced to cover the deep half of the field towards the top of the screen. The Chiefs would not be playing 3-deep. They were actually playing Tampa-2, instead.
Mathieu’s responsibility was therefore to be ready for any vertical seam route down the middle coming from the strong side of the formation. As a result, he would be letting the #3 receiver go and would hunt up the #2 receiver’s route.
Mathieu played with great patience here. He read Philip Rivers’ eyes and waited until the last moment to break. This made Rivers think he had a window to throw into initially.
Disguise on top of disguise – the Chiefs started in 2-deep, then rotated to give a 3-deep look, only to continue rotating to that initial 2-deep coverage when it was all said and done (Cover-2 Robber). That’s not something quarterbacks see every day. Here, Spagnuolo was able to bait and fool a 16-year veteran in Philip Rivers. The execution was flawless, but it took a while for the Chiefs Defense to get to this place last season.
Because of its complexity, adjusting to Steve Spagnuolo’s system isn’t easy. Once players get comfortable enough with it, though, it can become game-changing. Just think back to the 2007 Giants in their first year with Spagnuolo as Defensive Coordinator. They allowed 80 points in their first two games that season. 5 months later, they held Tom Brady and the 18-0 Patriots’ record-setting offense to 14 points in the Super Bowl.
In year 2, that Giants Defense improved in points, yards (passing, rushing, and total), and QB rating against. This was despite being a less talented group that was without its two best edge rushers from the previous season, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Great scheme and comfortability executing led the Giants to the #1 seed in the NFC that year.
2019 in Kansas City took on a similar patter to the Giants in 2007. With the Chiefs returning mostly the same players on defense, don’t be surprised to see a top-ranked KC D in 2020 to complement the best quarterback in football.
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