Against the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, newly-acquired defensive tackle Mike Pennel appeared to be a big plus on the interior of the Kansas City Chiefs defensive line, helping the team limit the effectiveness of running backs Aaron Jones and Dalvin Cook in successive games. But against the run-heavy Tennessee Titans featuring running back Derrick Henry, the Chiefs decided to make Pennel inactive.
Other players who had appeared to be effective in stopping the run in the previous two weeks — like linebackers Reggie Ragland and Damien Wilson — were active for the Titans game but saw fewer defensive snaps.
And the Titans ended up grinding out 225 rushing yards — the most the Chiefs defense had given up in a season filled with less-than-ideal performances against the run.
So it wasn’t surprising that when defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took his weekly turn with reporters on Friday, that was the first thing they wanted to ask about.
”Reggie [was] dictated a little bit by what [the Titans] put in,” said Spagnuolo. “I’m going to mix my teams now, because [I’ve been] watching all Chargers stuff and they have a lot of three wideouts [formations]. I want to say that Tennessee did the same thing. My guess is that with the Reggie situation, that’s exactly what it was.
“There was another package that we had in that was a little bit different — it was for some coverage reasons — so we changed up there,” Spagnuolo continued. “And then they dictated what we were going to be in package-wise by what they put in. So that’s probably why that happened. There was no ‘Have different guys in.’ There was no rhyme or reason for it. It just worked out that way.”
But Pennel being inactive for the game certainly had nothing to do with what the Titans did on the field, so reporters followed up. At first, Spagnuolo appeared to be deflecting the question.
”I don’t know if it was as much the guys that were in there as when we looked it over, we felt like we could have called a few more run pressures,” he said. “That might have helped. That’s not them. That’s me.”
But then Spagnuolo finally reached the matter at hand.
“When we got down to the [inactives list] and talked about it, I think what we decided was that Joey Ivie — should we have had an injury — plays a little bit of dime rush stuff, so he gave us a little bit of an edge there. So we ended up going in that direction.”
Spagnuolo was essentially saying that if the Chiefs had suffered an injury along the defensive front, Ivie would have offered more versatility in defending against the pass. So in the minds of the coaching staff, what would happen in the event of an injury took some precedence over what the team would be able to do if no one was hurt.
Given that the team has suffered so many injuries this season — and considering that defensive end Frank Clark was returning after missing two games with an issue that’s apparently been bothering him since the beginning of the season — perhaps there was some justification in their concern.
But digging a little deeper into what Spagnuolo said, in the cases of both Ragland and Ivie, what the team did with regard to their use on Sunday seems to be based on the belief the Titans would be passing the ball a lot more than they did. Chiefs coaches apparently thought the Titans would pass more than usual right from the beginning of the game — or be forced into it when the Chiefs took a big early lead.
But neither of those things happened.
The Titans depended much more on running the ball in the first half — and the Chiefs lost their opportunity for a commanding lead midway through the second quarter when the Titans scooped up a Damien Williams fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
In The Art of War, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” Later military thinkers would dispute whether Sun Tzu was always right, but he certainly would have recognized that on Sunday, the Chiefs made some strategic mistakes before the opening kickoff.