How Steve Spagnuolo turned the Chiefs defense into one of the NFL’s scariest units

In the week of preparation leading up to the AFC Championship game, most of the attention was on Kansas City’s offensive side of the ball. How would QB Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense fare against the best defense they’ve seen in the Baltimore Ravens?

The Chiefs’ defense saw all that attention and matched it with one phrase, one that was worn on the shirts of many Chiefs’ defensive players after the game: In Spags We Trust.

In Kansas City’s 17-10 AFC Championship victory over Baltimore, the Chiefs’ defense were the stars of the show. They held the Ravens to a -0.20 EPA per play and a 28% first down rate, and frustrated the Ravens’ offense so much that every time the camera panned to Baltimore’s sideline, someone was throwing a helmet. The Chiefs got the Ravens to play their style of game, and then constricted Baltimore into making mistakes left and right. How they did it was mighty impressive, and it starts with their play on the back end.

Lamar Jackson had a rough game on Sunday, and a lot of it was due to the sticky coverage of the Chiefs’ secondary. His 3.34 Average Time To Throw was the highest of any player in the conference title games, and would’ve been the highest of any QB this season. So many plays were attacking downfield, but there was nothing open to try and hit on. Charles Omenihu’s strip sack of Jackson in the first half is a perfect example of the Chiefs shutting off all the water downfield, and then the pressure making big plays at big times.

Kansas City bumps with the motion of Zay Flowers, and with this burst motion the Ravens run Dagger out of it off play action. The Chiefs also know this, and what they do is keep a buzzing defender right in the window where the Dagger route comes open. What this does is forces Jackson to hold onto the ball longer and have to work to the backside, but by then Omenihu is there and forces the turnover.

This play really felt like a microcosm of what the Ravens dealt with on Sunday. Spags and the Chiefs defense continued to change the questions as soon as the Ravens thought they had an answer (shoutout to Roddy Piper). Chiefs’ CB L’Jarius Sneed is in press alignment, and with three safeties on the field playing rather low, this looks like man coverage. Baltimore has a slant-flat option to the backside against man if Lamar likes it. However, the Chiefs’ kaleidoscope changes, and Sneed drops into the flat, being the half defender in Quarter, Quarter, Half. Even if this throw gets caught, Hill is getting popped by Sneed for no gain. The Chiefs had every answer and forced the Ravens into their game.

Once the Chiefs begun constricting the Ravens’ offense, you could tell that Baltimore started forcing the issue. Jackson was trying to will things open downfield and it just wasn’t happening without the threat of a run game or quick game. The offense became one-dimensional, and that benefits the Chiefs.

What stands out the most about the Chiefs is how physical they played Baltimore on Sunday. The Ravens bullied every team they faced this year, and were able to grind teams down offensively. The Chiefs forced the issue, and routinely beat the Ravens up front with blitzes, forcing Jackson off his spot. On this pressure, the Chiefs bring Nick Bolton and Trent McDuffie, and play man coverage behind it. This is picked up well by the Ravens in theory, but they just get walked back by a good McDuffie rush and Chris Jones being abnormally strong. With nowhere to go with the ball, Jackson has to dirt it.

This was my favorite play from the Chiefs’ defense, however. This is great team defense against the run. With Kansas City wanting to remain in a two-high shell against Baltimore’s pin-pull, it’s important for the front to spill these pullers, meaning hit them with your outside shoulder and force the ballcarrier to take it to the edge, where the numbers benefit you. With the motion pulling all the backers into a stack alignment, this should be a big play for Baltimore. However, LB Drue Tranquill spills his block, the nose tackle is able to keep Bolton free, and S Justin Reid comes flying off the roof with an emphatic run fit. This is elite team defense.

As the Chiefs get ready for another Super Bowl against another dynamic team in San Francisco, all eyes will be on Spagnuolo and this Chiefs defense, who in the span of two to three years has become the backbone of this team.

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