MIAMI, Fla. – Perhaps no defensive coordinator in the NFL had more pressure on him than Steve Spagnuolo this season.
That might go for any assistant coach in any sport.
He was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs for one reason: fix a defense that kept them out of the Super Bowl last season. It didn't matter that such a simple task would require complicated changes, beginning with the move from a system based on three down linemen to one based on four, and that the Chiefs would need to turn over a third of their roster to fit it.
The fact that the Chiefs are playing the 49ers on Sunday is pretty good proof Spagnuolo has succeeded.
After a challenging first eight weeks marked by confusion, inconsistency and missed assignments, the Chiefs wound up fielding one of the best defenses in the NFL down the stretch.
They matched the Ravens for fewest touchdown passes allowed in the final eight weeks, were among the league leaders in interceptions and yards allowed per attempt, and their advanced metrics demonstrated that they were nearly as good as San Francisco's famously stingy bunch.
“Talented group,” said 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has spent the past 10 days trying to find their weaknesses before kickoff Sunday. “Their overall team speed, they mix it up in coverages, they don't really — they're trying not to give you anything easy. So it makes it difficult, honest.”
Honest? Sounds as if Garoppolo thinks some people need some convincing.
They're probably the ones that watched the Chiefs last season.
That's when their defense under then-coordinator Bob Sutton hemorrhaged yards like water through a sieve. It's when aging veterans beaten down by injuries couldn't get on the field. It's when a unit held together by string and tape couldn't stop Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in overtime of the AFC championship game, losing an opportunity to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1970 without giving their own dynamic offense a chance.
Even coach Andy Reid, who is famously loyal to his assistants, knew that changes needed to be made. So he quickly parted with Sutton, his longtime friend, and tracked down Spagnuolo, who had spent a year away from coaching.
Spags, as he's known to just about everyone, was burned out after his latest turn as the New York Giants' coordinator had ended with a stint as interim head coach. So rather than jump back onto the sideline, Spagnuolo jumped into his car, driving each Monday to NFL Films headquarters in New Jersey to break down game tapes from the previous weekend.
He watched. He dissected. He learned.
When Reid called him up last winter, and Spagnuolo accepted the monumental task in Kansas City, he had a clear picture of what he wanted to accomplish. Spagnuolo sought to craft a defense that swarmed to the ball, masked his variety of exotic cornerback and safety blitzes, and that shut down opposing passing games in the modern, all-aerial NFL.
“He was not someone I met before,” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said, “but it's pretty clear now he's an outstanding defensive coordinator. The job he's done to turn around our defense has been tremendous. One of the question marks going into the season was, ‘Can you make the changes we’ve been making in that short of time?' He did that.”
Eventually. But things were a bit sketchy early in the season, when the long list of newcomers — defensive end Frank Clark, safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Bashaud Breeland and others — were still acclimating themselves.
“I’d say about Week 7, about the time we played Denver and guys had like nine sacks that game, things started to come together piece by piece,” Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "The front started it and then it just trickled on to the back end. (Mathieu) is doing a great job believing in the boys in the back.”
Indeed, the Chiefs' star safety became the captain of the secondary, if not all of Spagnuolo's defense. His skill set perfectly fit the aggressive scheme the Chiefs had introduced, giving him the freedom to make plays all over the field.
“He’s a detailed coach. He’s always challenging us, especially myself," Mathieu said. "I can remember a couple of instances this year where I came off of a big game and he called me into his office and had this list of things that I could do better. That’s the kind of thing that you want from a football coach. You want them to challenge you, you want them to test you. I think he does a great job of that and I think he also knows just what to say.”
Mathieu said that Spagnuolo helped to establish a “championship swagger," something that has been missing the past few years. The Chiefs' offense under Patrick Mahomes has been among the league's best since the moment he first stepped on the field, and now they have a defense that comes close to matching it.
“I don’t even know what a swagger is, to be honest with you, but they have it,” Spagnuolo said. "To me, it is a confidence thing. You can’t play this game or be successful in this particular game unless you are confident. You have to believe in yourself. You have to be secure in yourself. I don’t know if that is his definition, but that is what I can see.”
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