On Monday morning, Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning NFL podcast, Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling broke down the biggest coordinator hires of the NFL offseason. The hiring of Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs was at the top of the list.
Benoit said that Spagnuolo will bring an aggressive approach to the Chiefs.
I once asked an offensive coach, “Do you like playing against Steve Spagnuolo?” He said, “No, I do not.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do.” He brings a lot at you.
Oliver Connolly said that “Spagnuolo’s game plan was to come for Dak Prescott early and often, uncorking everything in the playbook at the rookie,” noting that in an earlier game between the two teams, Spagnuolo had attempted to bait Prescott into poor decisions running bluff coverages — and Prescott hadn’t been fooled.
Things would be different the next time around.
Instead of attempting to confuse Prescott post-snap, Spagnuolo attempted to do so pre-snap by using late movements. Even on basic blitz concepts the Giants’ linebackers and secondary were moving constantly prior to the snap and not revealing their hand until just before the snap.
Spagnuolo is often presumed to be a clone of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, under whom he served before becoming Giants defensive coordinator in 2007. Both coaches are known to favor blitzes, but Spagnuolo has put his own stamp on the approach.
“It’s like the West Coast offense,” then-Eagles head coach Andy Reid told the New Jersey Star-Ledger before facing Spagnuolo’s Giants defense in the 2008 playoffs. ”Mine is a little bit different than Mike Holmgren’s was, and Mike’s was a little bit different than Bill Walsh’s was. You kind of put your own little flair to it.”
The Star-Ledger pointed out that while Johnson would bring blitzes from anywhere on the field, Spagnuolo preferred to blitz from behind zone coverage.
Spagnuolo’s pressures also are often zone blitzes, meaning he’s bringing only five or six rushers with zone coverage behind them. He’ll often bring a linebacker up the middle, a cornerback from the slot and drop the defensive end on the opposite side into coverage.
But Spagnuolo isn’t afraid to step out of his own tendencies to match up against a particular opponent.
“That  Super Bowl was basically a Jim Johnson-type of game being called where he brought people from all angles,” former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese told the Star-Ledger. “[The Patriots] didn’t know who was coming from where. It was never the same blitz. They might give you the same look, but it was a different guy coming.”
Unfortunately, defensive coordinators don’t always have all the players they want available to them. In 2015, the Giants defense was ravaged by injuries. They had been unable to field the same 11 players for consecutive games since the beginning of the season — and going into a game against the New England Patriots, Spagnuolo was asked why the Giants hadn’t blitzed as much during the 2015 season.
“There’s a lot of reasons, I don’t want to go into all of them,” he said. “But one of the things that does get tough is when the parts are changing. There’s certain positions that change a lot.
“The group of guys that we have — who I love — play better when you just let them play,” he continued. “Less thinking, just play. I just think we function better that way. So some of the things you’re talking about [with blitzing] take a little bit more [thinking]. So we’ve been trying to stick to things that we do and know and try to play fast, that’s kind of been the motto.
“Last week our motto was, ‘simplify to magnify.’ Simplify what we were doing to magnify how fast we were playing. So I thought we played pretty well except for those two [big] plays last week [in a 32-18 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers]. So we’ll try to do the same thing and throw a wrinkle in there when we can.”
Spagnuolo’s record as a defensive coordinator has been inconsistent — sometimes very good and sometimes very bad. But fans who have been frustrated during Bob Sutton’s tenure as Chiefs defensive coordinator can find lots of cause for optimism with Spagnuolo now at the helm.
For many fans, his aggressive, bold approach — and an ability to not only adjust that approach to a particular opponent, but also to the players available — is just what the doctor ordered.
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