The Chiefs defensive team has been one of the best players in the league this season. No qualifying players, no soft schedule, no “They’re doing enough to support the offense in the playoffs.” They are eighth in success rate and third in expected points added per drive. They are tied for second in sacks and tied for third in sacks. This is the kind of defense you have to prepare for, plan for, worry about—as if you haven’t been doing enough of that for Patrick Mahomes and the other side of the ball.
In years past under Steve Spagnuolo, who has been Kansas City’s defensive coordinator since 2019, the Chiefs have run a mediocre defense: the kind that was good enough to hang around in the postseason but rarely had a long-game impact. This season, it took a really big step. The Chiefs defense isn’t the only one to do that, but other defensive plays in the league are easier to explain. The Crows are in the second year of Mike Macdonald’s show; The Browns are in their first year with Jim Schwartz.
The Chiefs are in their fifth season under Spags. Their stars are Chris Jones, who has been with Chiefs his entire career, and … he shot. Who is the second player for Chiefs? The Ravens have Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton; the Browns have Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward; the Jets have Sauce Gardner and Quinnen Williams; the Steelers have TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward.
Because the Chiefs have never played high in the first round or played with tons of money freely, many names on defense are unknown or underappreciated. But the story of defending the Chiefs starts with their players—not just how well, but how. new Corner.
Here is every defensive player for the Chiefs who played at least 10 games against the Dolphins on Sunday. I have highlighted every player acquired in the last two seasons.
That’s really self-defense, man. Every other starter in the second division except L’Jarius Sneed joined the team in 2022. First-rounder Trent McDuffie is one of the best young talent in the NFL, while second-rounder Bryan Cook, who hasn’t been heralded yet, enjoys the honor. a big leap for the sophomore after an up-and-coming rookie season.
Snap-adjusted age so far for 2023
Five oldest teams: Saints, Eagles, Broncos, 49ers, Raiders
Five youngest teams: Packers, Giants, Bears, Colts, Cardinals pic.twitter.com/T8CrN9gNNP
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 4, 2023
Justin Reid, who signed last season for just over $10 million per season, is playing the same level of football that Budda Baker, Quandre Diggs, and Eddie Jackson are playing with much bigger price tags. Mike Edwards, a veteran on a one-year deal that was available to anyone until 2023 in free agency, has made impact plays all season.
The second is the place where the Chiefs will start, because this is the team that they have restructured on purpose, and they have not missed a single move. They let Tyrann Mathieu go when his legs started moving; and so did Daniel Sorensen, who had a target on his back in coverage during his final years in Kansas City. Juan Thornhill and Charvarius Ward were solid players on this defence, but still, the Chiefs let them go, believing they could fill their gaps.
They were right.
The result of this change is that the Chiefs have the youngest defensive players in the league—yes, the youngest.
The impact of youth on another day, another year – two seasons from now, with the same players, when the Chiefs are still doing this and we are all getting sick because it is still escaping. Important for all young people today it is this: They were all chosen for this defense. They were all chosen to play alone and Spagnuolo. And watching it work is a beautiful thing.
To be a defensive Spagnuolo, you need to do two things very well: the tackle, and everything else. Spagnuolo is asking an incredible amount of his defensive backs. You play media coverage at one of the highest levels; move them up to the line of scrimmage to make them look like blitzers and then send them back to deep spots.
Here’s a good rep on third down against the Jets. Spags shows seven players on the line of scrimmage as potential running backs, and an eighth peeks from the sideline up the screen. With the ball snapped, Mike Edwards moves off the line into the deep middle of the field, looking for anything vertical on the side of the three receivers; Justin Reid is under him, eliminating any fast seams or curl routes.
The goal of this type of coverage is to trap Zach Wilson from looking to throw quickly to the three-receiver side, then take up all that space with Reid and defensive end George Karlaftis. But because of all the numbers committed to making the bluff work, cornerback Sneed has to line up in a solo spot, media coverage (with full help from Edwards or any safety) against Garrett Wilson. Sneed makes a big play, the pressure comes home, and the pass is broken up.
Here’s another great example from Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. Just watch the cover rotation and blitz unfurl live.
This is the cat blitz there is, and probably the worst thing you can do as a defensive coordinator. He sends the cornerback outside, a blitzer who will never be in the defensive count of the offensive line. And to do that, you have to rotate the deep safety (Reid) over man coverage, rotate the strong safety (Cook) to the weak side, throw the nickel corner (McDuffie) into deep coverage, and bring in the defensive end. (Karlaftis) without broadcasting. Here’s how it all looks in the freeze frame.
Another really twisted one, a third and long against the Broncos. Denver has a dialed screen here, so we don’t really see the spread in play. I just want you to see the bad things this defense does.
This is the type of system that many defensive coordinators dream of using. When new defensive coordinators are hired this offseason and they jump on the microphone in their press conferences to introduce themselves and say, “We’re going to be more defensive backs. We’re going to be flexible, and we’re going to be aggressive,” he said.
But to do this, you need versatile players like Reid, McDuffie, and Cook: three players the Chiefs acquired in 2022. You also need long, pressing outside corners like Sneed, Jaylen Watson, and Joshua Williams; the last two were 2022 draft picks. The Chiefs did not achieve this defense by speaking harsh words in press conferences. They went out to build.
But remember, the first thing Spagnuolo asks of his defensive backs isn’t flexibility; it faces each other. That’s where the magic really is. You can do all the clever scheme shenanigans and rotations you like; if you play with this many defensive backs at the line of scrimmage, they will be able to cope better. It is something that the Chiefs do very well.
Now, I want to take the entire story of the Chiefs secondary, replace the word “secondary” with “defensive line,” and repeat the whole thing. Tackling matters a bit here, as defensive linemen play in space very few times. But the Chiefs got a great game this season from Karlaftis, another 2022 first-rounder, and 2023 free agent signing Charles Omenihu. Omenihu is a 280-pound edge rusher with the ability to jump inside; Karlaftis, at 263 pounds, has 18 sacks this year—the fifth-most among defensive linemen. That’s not so much about him as it is about Spagnuolo’s willingness to use his defensive linemen in strange and unpredictable ways.
Another example: Karlaftis also lines up with the defense at times so Chris Jones can line up on the defensive end. Look at this case, the Chiefs got some easy pressure on Jones.
That’s Karlaftis and Mike Danna on defense. Danna is listed at only 257 pounds! The heaviest player on this line—Jones—plays defense! Spagnuolo should be investigated for high jinks and tomfoolery.
The fact that Jones is such a big name could draw attention to the other defensive linemen on this unit. Omenihu is a well-known, high-quality player, and his contract reflects that—but Karlaftis and Danna are having the best seasons of their young careers.
The Chiefs have never had a strong pass rush around Jones, which has a multiplying effect on all the stupidity Spagnuolo gets on the board. As an offense, you have to worry about more bodies coming in a rush; and, whether they come or not, you’d like to have more of Jones’ body as well, who can run from inside or outside. If you can somehow solve both of those problems, well, shoot—the Chiefs have a group of guys that can beat each other now. Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who made his debut in 2023, has yet to contribute to the team, and if he continues to play like this, he won’t need to.
The depth and versatility of this defensive line is another check in the win column for general manager Brett Veach and the Chiefs’ scouting department, and credit to Spagnuolo for his understanding and improvement. The Chiefs have landed more reliable players on defense in selections outside the Top 20 and without bigger contracts than any other team in the last few seasons. And now, they are reaping the rewards. (If only they had the same luck at wide receiver!)
Because many players are young and unheard of, it feels like the Chiefs defense is punching above its weight and may regress. I think some of that is inevitable. He’s been very fortunate with injuries this season, only losing linebacker Nick Bolton—and, again, having good, young replacements in Willie Gay Jr., 2022 pick Leo Chenal (who looks pretty good), and and 2023 free agent signing Drew Tranquill. . If the damage error comes, the unit will be bad in nature. By playing the wrong way to defend, the Chiefs always have the penalty of facing several problems and not defending well in the offense they should beat.
But I think, for the most part, this Chiefs defense is going to stay, now and for a while. Chris Jones’ contract situation is dire; he’ll be a free agent in 2024, and given how negotiations for 2023 went, I’m not sure there’s much reason to believe he’ll be back next year. Sneezing, Danna, and the stuffy nose Derrick Nnadi all need and deserve new deals. But the Chiefs have a lot of young people who have an impact, who are not very expensive in defense, so that we have to rearrange these early games from surprises to new ones; from the external to the expected.
What if a team with Patrick Mahomes also posted a legitimate top ten defense every year? What else was the NFL doing at the time?