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Steve Spagnuolo: “We want to make those plays” on run defense

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The Chiefs defensive coordinator addressed the media’s questions on Monday

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was on the hot seat on Monday when he took his turn with the media following the Chiefs’ 31-24 loss to the Houston Texans.

Since the team had given up 192 rushing yards to the Texans, it wasn’t surprising that the subject of the run defense came up — at one point expressed in a question about missed tackles on the perimeter being a concern.

”I’m with you. There’s a concern there,” replied Spagnuolo. “Look, we talk about it all the time. You get to this point of the year, it’s really hard in a practice setting; we don’t tackle live. So you do as much as you can. I think the guys feel just as badly about them as anybody. We want to make those plays. And if you don’t make them on the edges — there’s one I can think of that would have put us in a third-and-6 (or 7), and it ended up being a first down. That’s tough. We’re having a hard time getting to third down.

“That’s what’s frustrating,” he continued. “We take a lot of pride as a group in a third-down package that we put together every week, because you need to get stops. But you’ve got to get them into those third downs — and you want to get them into unmanageable third downs from their perspective. We haven’t done that quite as well as we want to. But we keep working at it.”

In response to another question, Spagnuolo acknowledged that he didn’t anticipate having problems like this one six weeks into the season.

”There’s just one area we don’t feel great about: it’s in stopping the run,” he said. “We’ll continue to work on that. I will say this — and this is no way an excuse: I do feel like the last two teams we played are pretty good offensive football teams. What makes it a little bit extra-tough with those teams is the quarterback can also beat you with his feet. Both those guys could — and this guy was really good this past week, too. So it brings an added element in there. The one thing we needed to get better at yesterday early in the game was our eyes, [because] sometimes when you have a quarterback that can do those things your eyes tend to wander. And that happened a little bit. It took us a little while to get used to that — and then we didn’t do a great job with it.”

Houston Texans vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

But the defensive coordinator said that even at halftime — with the Texans leading 23-17 — the defense still believed they had a chance.

”When I talked to the defense, it was like, ‘Is there anybody here who doesn’t think we can come back from [six] points?’ Everybody was confident they were going to come back,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like it was perfect when we went back out there, but when it was all said and done, we gave up one touchdown.

“Now there was a long drive there that we got stopped at the end,” he added. “Sometimes you have to do that. I mean, teams are going to drive in this league. You’ve got to play good red zone defense — and we got a little of that in the second half. But we don’t really want to be looking at the numbers of run plays and the yardage they’re putting up in runs. Somehow — some way — we’ve got to figure that out. I think our guys will do that; that’ll be a focus.”

But Spagnuolo rejected the notion that he needs different players to make it work.

”I love working with these guys,” he said. “If you were in my shoes and saw the way they work every week — it’s been a couple of weeks now that we’ve been focusing on [stopping the run]. You can’t live-tackle in practice; we’re not in pads — the whole thing. But from what it is we can do, they’re doing it — and more. They care about it.

“I can work with guys like that. They care; they’re passionate. They hurt as much as anybody. They want to get it fixed. Sometimes, it takes a little while to get some guys back that were dinged up. That would help. But aside from that, everybody gets hurt in this league. So you’ve got to go out there and play. And that’s what we’ll do: we’ll line up again Thursday night.”

Spagnuolo also said that despite the yardage given up, he saw encouraging signs in how often the Chiefs were in position to make turnovers — even if they didn’t always happen.

“There were a number of times we got the ball on the ground,” he said. “I think one time they called him down. Then we ripped it out another time. It wouldn’t have been called a fumble, but it’s good to see that the ball was coming out. Hopefully, somewhere along the way, they’ll become turnovers for us.”

Houston Texans vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

One turnover that did happen — Juan Thornhill’s end-zone interception with 39 seconds remaining in the first half — has drawn scrutiny because of the situation. The Texans had the ball with a fourth-and-1 at the Kansas City 40. If Thornhill had simply batted down the ball, the Chiefs would have taken possession 20 yards further downfield.

Spagnuolo granted the point.

”I’ll be perfectly honest with you: when he caught it, I was fired up for him to catch it, too,” Spagnuolo said of the play. “Then quickly, when I realized where we were, we now had the ball [and it had been] fourth down. My guess is that it would have taken a real savvy veteran that’s been back there for a long time [so] that it all registers to knock it down. I think it was a really good job covering. They caught us in man. They took a shot. I don’t think that’s what they really wanted to do, but they saw an opportunity — and Juan took it away. So I was happy for him on that.”

Spagnuolo also addressed another issue that has is being actively discussed: whether having an effective run defense really matters in the modern, pass-oriented NFL.

”Those words are hard to come out of my mouth — because it does begin there,” he said. “Now, you can’t just concentrate on that, because you will get ripped on the back end. But yeah, it is frustrating. We do take a lot of pride. Look, a run play against a defense is mano a mano. That’s what it is. It’s line up, knock you off the ball if somebody’s coming at you. So as a defensive guy, you’ve got a lot of pride in not wanting to lose in that particular part of the game. We need to get better at it.”