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The Chiefs’ move to Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator is less about scheme and more about style

Wednesday’s press conference gave a look into what Spagnuolo might do in 2019.

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Since rumors started swirling that Steve Spagnuolo was becoming the Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator, many of us have dissected the switch from Bob Sutton’s 3-4 base defense to Spagnuolo’s hybrid-front 4-3 Under defense.

I posted an insta-reaction to where the Chiefs personnel fit after the Spagnuolo hire, and I dissected Brett Veach’s conference call from a couple weeks back as to how he thinks players fit in the scheme.

However, a comment from Spagnuolo this week shed some light on what he thought about the current personnel. When asked if he thought the current Chiefs front seven were versatile enough to play in his scheme, he responded with the following:

“I do. Look. We’re not going to get hung up in scheme right now and the reason I say that is I think what we first should do is find out what we have, how they fit and then decide exactly what that scheme is. I do think today things get a little overblown. I mean, let’s all recognize that in today’s football, they put a lot of wideouts out there on offense, so we’re in a lot of sub defenses and a lot of sub defenses are not classified as 4-3 or 3-4. You just get your best pass rushers out there and you get your best coverage people, so once we get that figured out, we’ll start slotting people into where they should go.”

While the prevalence of sub packages in the defense isn’t something new—Sutton ran his nickel and dime defenses 78.72 percent of the time in 2018, per my charting—there are a couple of Spagnuolo quotes that have me excited for his hybrid scheme.

One of my biggest complaints about Sutton was the rigidity of his scheme. I felt like Sutton would too often sacrifice a player’s natural fit to fill a specific role that he needed on the defense. Instead of putting the player in his best position to succeed, he would find spots in which players were marginal fits and tried to make it work.

An example — Jordan Lucas.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Lucas was the Chiefs’ rangiest safety on the back end in 2018, but he found himself as a box safety for a number of weeks while the Chiefs’ obvious lack of deep speed was exposed. Rather than finding what his personnel did best, it appeared Sutton did what he felt fit his scheme best.

Spagnuolo wasn’t throwing any shade Sutton’s way with his comment in the above quote. He went on to praise Sutton as a coach and a man. However, while many have been focused on the switch to the 4-3, perhaps the most significant change occurring this year will be a coaching staff that’s going to tune its scheme to the strengths of the Chiefs’ personnel.

Installing a new scheme in year one is typically a tough ask. It’s hard to overhaul personnel to get players that fit the roles that you want. It’s even harder to construct a scheme around a group of existing players, unless you’re willing to be extremely flexible — which it sounds like Spagnuolo will be in 2019.

None of this is more obvious than evaluating his coaching hires for his front seven players. The New England Patriots are the kings of hybrid fronts, switching to match personnel and opponent tendencies.

The Chiefs hired the Patriots’ defensive line coach, Brendan Daly, to coach multiple fronts and be the primary coordinator of their run defense.

New Chiefs linebackers coach Matt House ran shifting, hybrid fronts as the Kentucky defensive coordinator, moving players around at will to get the best matchups and maximize his players’ potentials. He’s used to having a regular rotation of players each year and having to match his scheme to the guys on the field.

While there’s still a lot to do between now and the start of the season — and Spagnuolo definitely has his work cut out for him — I’m ecstatic at the thought of the multiple fronts the Chiefs defense could employ this year. While we’ve been piecing together the personnel to try to make his 4-3 Under front work for the last month, Spagnuolo appears to be evaluating the flexibility and fit of players in an evolving front.

For Chiefs fans that may have been frustrated with a rigid, stubborn scheme for the past few years, Spagnuolo’s comments and coaching staff could offer a welcome respite in 2019 and beyond.

At the least, we can feel comfortable knowing that the staff is looking for ways to best fit the scheme to the players this year, rather than the other way around.

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