Nguyen: Chiefs' Steve Spagnuolo cements himself as an all-time great defensive coordinator
One of the Kansas City Chiefs’ mottos throughout the playoffs was: “In Spags we trust.”
Spags, of course, is Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ fifth-year defensive coordinator, who has earned that trust by helping them win three Super Bowls. The players had T-shirts made with the phrase and repeated it to the media after each of their playoff wins, including after yet another ace performance from their shrewd play caller in the 25-22 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII Sunday. The Chiefs’ defense needed a brilliant game plan to slow down the best offense in the league. Spagnuolo delivered and his players executed at a high level, holding the explosive 49ers offense to only 22 points in more than four quarters.
“He’s amazing. Spags is the GOAT,” defensive tackle Chris Jones exclaimed after the game. “Spags is going down as defensive coordinator hall of fame … absolutely.”
In the regular season, the 49ers’ offense ranked at or near the top of the league in every important statistic — they were first in EPA per play and DVOA and second in points per drive (2.69). In the Super Bowl, they were healthy, didn’t have to worry about rain, and head coach Kyle Shanahan had an extra week to game plan. The Chiefs’ defense came into the game elite against the pass, but they were susceptible to the run — particularly zone runs, at which the 49ers excel.
From shifting fronts designed to confuse the 49ers’ run blocking to timely blitzes and well-disguised coverages, Spagnuolo manipulated second-year quarterback Brock Purdy like a puppet master, pulling his eyes where he wanted them.
But before the Chiefs could get into their exotic third-down defenses, they had to stop the run. In my Super Bowl preview, I talked about how Kansas City would wait to shift its fronts against the Dolphins in the wild-card game after Miami’s offense shifted and motioned. The offense’s goal is to change the picture for the defense with shifts and motion and Spagnuolo would counter by quickly changing the defensive picture for the offense before the snap.
On the 49ers’ first drive, they ran the ball twice for 17 yards and took advantage of the Chiefs’ base personnel (four defensive backs) in the passing game, hitting running back Christian McCaffrey and fullback Kyle Juszczyk for gains of 11 and 18 yards to quickly get the ball into Chiefs’ territory. If the Chiefs couldn’t take control of the line of scrimmage, it was going to be a long night, so Spagnuolo fired back by changing the front and causing some hesitancy for the 49ers’ offensive line.
12:47 remaining in the first quarter, first-and-10
On first down with the ball on the Chiefs’ 29-yard line, Kansas City was in base personnel and initially came out in an even front with four defensive linemen and three linebackers behind them.
Right before the snap, linebacker Leo Chenal moved up toward the line of scrimmage, bumped over the defensive line, and essentially became a fifth defensive lineman. The Chiefs quickly went from an even front to an odd front with five on the line and two behind.
Chenal’s versatility and physicality were key to the Chiefs’ ability to shift fronts and hold up against the run. On this play, he shoved right guard Jon Feliciano into the backfield and forced McCaffrey to cut back. He then spun around and stripped McCaffrey, saving the Chiefs from giving up any points on the first drive of the game.
The Chiefs also had a lot of success shifting into 6-1 or “tilt” fronts, which is a strategy the Patriots used to shut down the Rams’ outside zone game in Super Bowl LIII. Unlike the Rams in 2019, the 49ers’ offense has too many answers for the Chiefs to telegraph when they would line up in a 6-1, so Kansas City would shift into it after the 49ers’ initial shift or motion.
0:26 remaining in the first quarter, second-and-10
Here, the 49ers came out in a bunch left formation. The Chiefs were in nickel (five defensive backs) and showed a 4-2 front initially.
After the 49ers shifted, both inside linebackers lined up on each edge, and safety Justin Reid came down from the secondary to play linebacker. The 49ers had a mid-zone concept called to their right. It appeared Feliciano was unsure who to double on the play or right tackle Colton McKivitz shouldn’t have expected help.
Felciano helped his center but McKivitz looked to be expecting inside help based on his footwork. He didn’t have leverage or positioning on defensive tackle Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who tackled McCaffrey for a 4-yard loss on first down.
Getting into long-yardage situations because of penalties or negative plays was a problem for both teams throughout the game, but it was a bigger issue for the 49ers because they had to deal with Spagnuolo’s blitz schemes. The 49ers anticipated that the Chiefs would play more zone behind their blitzes to stop negative plays but Spagnuolo had faith his defensive backs could smother the 49ers receivers in man coverage and he was right.
“I feel like they played a little more man than we thought,” Purdy said after the game. “We just didn’t know exactly how they were going to play us. We thought maybe just play zone, two shell like a lot of teams do.”
In the regular season, the 49ers were the top-ranked team in EPA per dropback versus man coverage (0.51), but that figure was cut nearly in half against the Chiefs (0.28). In passing situations, they doubled receiver Brandon Aiyuk and trusted cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie to play one-on-one.
15:00 remaining in the second quarter, third-and-14
On third-and-14, the Chiefs had a bracket on Aiyuk, McDuffie played Deebo Samuel one-on-one, and they had a corner blitz called to Jauan Jennings’ side (top of the screen).
Sneed, knowing he had a safety bracket over the top, got extremely aggressive pressing Aiyuk but he did it legally within five yards. He shoved Aiyuk off-balance as he tried to put an inside move on him. To the corner blitz side, Reid dropped out to help the safety cover Jennings.
Jones quickly beat left guard Aaron Banks but Purdy did a good job of stepping up in the pocket to buy time.
Aiyuk ended up on the ground but Purdy still found his best option: Samuel with a one-on-one streaking downfield. Only, it was McDuffie, one of the best slot corners in the league, covering Samuel. Spagnuolo left Samuel one-on-one a lot throughout the game. They wanted to test his ability to win downfield rather than give him easy completions underneath that would allow him to run after the catch. McDuffie batted the pass down and forced the 49ers to attempt a 55-yard field goal with rookie Jake Moody, which to his credit, he nailed.
Purdy has been one of the best quarterbacks at dealing with the blitz this season. He finished third in EPA per dropback against the blitz but that didn’t scare Spagnuolo from sending pressure after pressure at him.
“I mean, that’s what we do, baby,” Justin Reid said after the game. “We gonna pressure, from right, left, center, in the whirlybird fashion. From all over the place, We gonna pressure.”
According to Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs blitzed Purdy on 51.2 percent of his dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate of Spagnuolo’s tenure in Kansas City. Purdy’s final numbers looked OK against the blitz. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown and only got sacked once, but three of those incompletions and the sack occurred on third downs.
Spagnuolo continually fooled Purdy by disguising when they would or wouldn’t double McCaffrey or Aiyuk. Purdy looked unsure of what he was seeing throughout the game and couldn’t throw many anticipation passes because he couldn’t anticipate where the defense would be.
One of the 49ers’ greatest superpowers is their ability to punish base personnel out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers) through the air because of all the explosive pass catchers they have out of 21. Shanahan has truly maximized McCaffrey’s ability as a receiver by motioning into empty and matching him against linebackers.
4:48 remaining in the second quarter, first-and-10
Here, the 49ers came out in 21 personnel with the ball in the fringe red zone. The Chiefs had their base personnel on the field, which is exactly what the 49ers wanted. The 49ers lined up in a spread formation with Juszczyk lined up outside and then motioned McCaffrey into the slot. Both Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton and Willie Gay followed him outside.
Bolton and Gay positioned themselves like they were going to double McCaffrey. Purdy saw the linebackers and decided he wasn’t going to throw to McCaffrey. The defense also showed blitz on the opposite side to get the offensive line to slide the protection in that direction.
Bolton blitzed and was left unblocked. Aiyuk had an intermediate route so he wasn’t an option with a free runner coming at Purdy. Purdy had to throw to Samuel, who was smothered by Sneed in the slot. This was an example of Spagnuolo manipulating Purdy into targeting the matchup that he wanted. Sneed easily won and forced an incompletion.
According to Next Gen Stats, Spagnuolo’s pressure schemes generated a season-high nine unclocked pressures in the game. They forced Purdy to make quick decisions while throwing into tight windows.
With the score tied 16-16 and two minutes remaining, the Chiefs needed a stop on third-and-4 with the ball on the 35-yard line or the 49ers would have been able to run the clock out to kick a potential game-winning field goal.
2:00 remaining in the fourth quarter, third-and-4
On third-and-4, the Chiefs came out in a 2-2-7 look (two defensive linemen, two linebackers, seven defensive backs). The 49ers had tight end George Kittle and McCaffrey in the backfield before motioning McCaffrey into the slot, Reid followed him out which might have swayed Purdy from looking to him as an option. The Chiefs showed a double on Aiyuk with McDuffie inside of him with safety Deon Bush over the top. Aiyuk had a glance route, while Jennings had a slant outside of him.
McDuffie was actually on a slot blitz. When McCaffrey motioned outside, Reid and safety Mike Edwards bumped out like they were potentially going to double McCaffrey. Edwards appeared to be on a green dog blitz, meaning Kittle was his assignment, but if Kittle stayed in to block, he could add on to the blitz. The offensive line looked like they were in a man-protection and had Edwards accounted for.
However, Kittle, who doesn’t have a lot of experience scanning in protection as a running back, looked to block Edwards, who was already blocked, leaving no one to block McDuffie on the backside.
Purdy might have been able to hit Aiyuk right away but the QB seemed to think the receiver would be doubled because he looked to Jennings right away. Jennings had a one-on-one but it was against Sneed, who locked him up, but it wouldn’t matter because McDuffie batted down the pass at the line of scrimmage. The disguise confused both the protection and Purdy into a critical incompletion. The 49ers kicked a FG to go up three points with 1:53 remaining.
Patrick Mahomes then led a Chiefs drive that ended on the 11-yard line. After a couple of cracks at the end zone, Harrison Butker kicked the game-tying field goal to force overtime. The 49ers won the toss and made a controversial decision to receive the ball with the new overtime rules in play.
15:00 remaining in overtime, first-and-10
On the first play of overtime, the fake doubles on McCaffrey paid off when the Chiefs actually doubled him. Before the snap, Bolton mugged the B-gap like he was blitzing but would drop to double McCaffrey. Samuel motioned far behind the line of scrimmage, presumably to avoid getting pressed by McDuffie.
Purdy looked to McCaffrey but had to move on to his next progression when he saw him being doubled.
Purdy looked to Samuel but McDuffie had tight coverage. The pass was tipped up and almost intercepted.
A defensive holding call ignited the 49ers’ drive and Purdy drove them down to the Chiefs’ 11-yard line. On third-and-4, the Chiefs needed a stop for a chance to end the game on the next possession so Spagnuolo reached into his bag again and brought a six-man pressure.
“Coach Spags did a great job of mixing some of our stuff in the red zone … run some stuff that we haven’t really run down there all year,” Bolton said after the game.
Out of all the great calls that Spagnuolo made in the game, the final one succeeded more because of the offense’s failure.
7:58 remaining in overtime, third-and-4
On third-and-4, the 49ers lined up in empty with a play-action concept and a fake to McCaffrey running across the formation called. Purdy’s No. 1 option might have been Aiyuk, who got wide open, but he liked his matchup with Jennings against cornerback Jaylen Watson.
The protection called for center Jake Brendel to pull outside to add to the illusion of a run. This meant that Banks had to block down on Bolton. The confusion was caused by Reid blitzing through the A-gap as well. Backup right guard Spencer Burford, who was filling in for Feliciano, needed to block either Jones or Reid. Burford tweeted that he should have “fanned out” to Jones and left only Reid unblocked. Theoretically, Reid would have taken more time to get to Purdy because he was coming from depth.
However, both Burford and Banks blocked Bolton and McKivitz blocked the end, leaving Jones unblocked with a straight line to Purdy.
Jennings easily beat Watson and was wide open but Purdy didn’t have enough time to make the pass and the ball sailed out of bounds. The 49ers were forced to kick the field goal and Mahomes predictably led the Chiefs downfield for the game-winning touchdown.
The play fake and complicated protection scheme was unnecessary because Jennings just had to beat Watson, who had his eyes locked on Jennings in man coverage anyway. TV analyst Tony Romo hinted a more seasoned quarterback would have changed the protection at the line of scrimmage.
Mahomes, head coach Andy Reid, and the offense deserve a ton of credit for eventually figuring out the 49ers’ defense and winning the game, but in the Super Bowl and throughout the season, it was the Chiefs’ defense that got stop after stop and gave the offense time to find its rhythm.
Spagnuolo and the defense had trekked one of the most difficult paths to the Super Bowl that we’ve ever seen. They beat the No. 2- (Dolphins), No. 3- (Bills), and No. 4- (Ravens) ranked offenses in DVOA on the road and beat the No. 1 team (49ers) in the Super Bowl. Spagnuolo has now won four Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator. This win was supposed to be about building Mahomes’ case for the greatest quarterback of all time but with the game that Spagnuolo called, he has undoubtedly cemented himself as one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time.
(Top photo: Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)