The Kansas City Chiefs’ defense is one a team can win with, not win because of, and it’s been like that for multiple years now. Kansas City has had a below-average defense for all four years under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The unit played well for the two months leading up to Super Bowl LIV but outside of that, it has always been more promise than production. The Chiefs may very well go on to win the Super Bowl with this current group but regardless of the end result, it’s time for them to make a drastic change on that side of the ball.
Points per Drive
3rd Down Percentage
Red Zone Percentage
The table above shows the Chiefs’ defensive ranks in certain categories since Spagnuolo took over in 2019. The first year under Spags was their best as a unit, far and away. They finished in the top half in points per drive allowed, third-down percentage, red zone percentage and DVOA. DVOA is a stat that “compares a team’s performance to a league baseline based on situation in order to determine value over average,” as defined by Football Outsiders.
There has been a narrative floating around that because the defense has so many young players, it doesn’t reflect on Spagnuolo. Instead, it’s just that the defense is too young right now. This couldn’t be more wrong. Outside of Chris Jones, the best part of the defense has been those young players, specifically at cornerback.
Trent McDuffie looks like a star in the making and the other two, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson, are playing at a solid level. If the argument is that Spagnuolo doesn’t have enough vets, turn to the Chiefs’ defenses from 2019-2021. The 2019-2021 defenses mainly had the same core players filled with veterans, and their numbers declined yearly.
The truth is that Spagnuolo’s defensive style is no longer built to play in the current NFL. It has nothing to do with the age of the player and all to do with the type of player Spagnuolo prefers.
Here are the DVOA rankings of everywhere Steve Spagnuolo has worked as the defensive coordinator or head coach:
- Giants DC 2007 – 14
- Giants DC 2008 – 8
- Rams HC 2009 – 31
- Rams HC 2010 – 15
- Rams HC 2011 – 17
- Saints DC 2012 – 27
- Giants DC 2015 – 27
- Giants DC 2016 – 3
- Giants DC 2017 – 25
Spagnuolo had his most success before the 2015 season. Since then, the NFL game has become more spread out and generally quicker. Typically, Spagnuolo has preferred bigger players on defense, specifically on the defensive line. The folks at the KCSN Laboratory have researched these preferences and concluded that there are three thresholds that Spagnuolo typically targets when looking for a defensive end:
- Height – 6’3″ or taller
- Weight – 260 pounds or more
- Arm Length – 33″ or longer
The style of play of these players is typically power rushers who are strong against the run but struggle to bend the corner. The Chiefs struggle to get to the quarterback against offenses with mobile quarterbacks. The bigger, typical power rusher has difficulty catching up to the athletic quarterbacks. Those quarterbacks can evade the Chiefs’ rush, putting more pressure on the defense’s back end.
Spagnuolo hasn’t and isn’t going to change his philosophy on the type of players he likes. If the Chiefs want a defense built to stop the NFL’s modern offense, it’s time to explore finding a different defensive coordinator for 2023. A changing of defensive coordinators would also put the spotlight on general manager Brett Veach.
Veach has been improving throughout his tenure with the Chiefs, but a new coordinator would technically be the third one under his watch without any top defenses stemming from the prior two. He will have to continue to draft good players and find a way to build a strong defense so the pressure isn’t always on Patrick Mahomes and the offense to win games and championships.