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Summer of Spags: Secondary alignments and personnel

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We kick off our Summer of Spags series with a look at how Steve Spagnulo aligns his personnel in his 4-3 Under scheme

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Summer of Spags is upon us!

With the upheaval in the Kansas City Chiefs’ entire defensive coaching staff, many questions arose about usage, personnel and tendencies — and what to expect from this rejuvenated defense.

Now that free agency and the draft have died down, Matt Lane and I are kicking off our summer series detailing the ins and outs of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense: The Summer of Spags!

In this series, Matt will cover the defensive fronts, and I will take on the secondary. We will cover alignments, run fits, coverage schemes, player techniques, blitz packages and many other aspects of the defense. We will also incorporate looks from Spagnuolo’s all-star assistant coaching staff — really diving into what we can expect in 2019. The goal is to provide you with a good foundation of what to expect — and hopefully recognize some of the components on the fly.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of what Spagnuolo will put on the field in 2019. As a matter of fact, he could throw us all for a loop by entirely bucking his trends from previous coaching stints!

But the types of players he has acquired — as well as the techniques and calls from the coaching staff he has assembled — would suggest many of the previous trends we have observed will still be relevant this season.

And for those of you who prefer an audio medium, Matt and I did a bird’s-eye view of what to expect in this week’s AP Laboratory podcast.

Enough blathering! Let’s kick this thing off with some secondary alignments and personnel!


Base alignment and personnel

Against 12, 21 and 22 personnel (“12” means one running back and two tight ends, “21” means two running backs and one tight end, etc.), Spagnuolo likes to implement his base defense. That means three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties are on the field.

In this example, the offense aligns with 12 personnel in a 2x2 set with two tight ends attached to the boundary side on first-and-10. This means the SAM (strong-side) linebacker will shift over the two tight end set and align with the inside tight end. The WILL (weak-side) linebacker splits the gap between the offensive tackle and slot wide receiver.

Spagnuolo doesn’t typically have his cornerbacks travel. Instead, he relies on better athletes in zone — more on this in the upcoming weeks — to handle coverage responsibilities. That means that the boundary corner is aligned outside of the two tight end set, instead of following the second receiver to the slot.

Pre-snap split-safety looks are very common, but early downs tend to start with split safeties and shift into single-high safeties just before the snap. This example is no different. The field safety walks down into the slot and that allows the WILL linebacker to shift to the line of scrimmage — showing blitz.

The ability to kick into the slot is paramount for Spagnuolo’s safeties, and both Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill have that ability. This allows Spagnuolo to keep more players in the box and offer more blitz options — even out of the base defense.

This example again shows the importance of safeties in the slot for Spagnuolo. The offense is in 21 personnel, and the SAM linebacker is once again aligned with the attached tight end. This time — on second and short — coming out of the huddle, the WILL linebacker is aligned inside.

The field safety comes out of the huddle and aligns in the slot — this time with inside alignment and tight spacing. Pre-snap, this effectively creates an eight-man box, while still having a good coverage player lined up opposite the slot receiver.

The cornerbacks don’t have primary run-fit responsibility — the coverage call is a Cover 3 zone — so both cornerbacks bail to the deep third. The safety has the underneath zone, and he takes away the flat. This results in a sack from a four-man rush.

Versatility is the name of the game at safety, and is one of the reasons that the base defense can have the flexibility that it does — while still maintaining good numbers in the box and minimizing bad matchups in coverage.

4-2-5 nickel alignments and personnel

When offenses move to three-wide receiver sets or lighter, Spagnuolo typically counters by removing his base MIKE and SAM linebackers and replacing them with a slot cornerback and a coverage linebacker — the new nickel SAM. This leaves the defense in a 4-2-5 nickel alignment.

This example has the offense in 11 personnel with a 2x2 alignment on second-and-long. In the nickel, the linebackers align wider in the tackle box, allowing them to drop into a curl/flat zone or kick out to the flats. The WILL linebacker aligns opposite the slot cornerback. The slot cornerback does travel and follow the slot receiver while the boundary cornerbacks stay stationary.

Spagnuolo prefers to stay in split-safety looks on these longer-distance downs against 11 personnel. This gives the defense the opportunity to keep a safety over the top of the route while only having responsibility for half the field.

Those familiar with Bob Sutton’s defenses will see a stark departure on multiple fronts. Sutton preferred to utilize single-high safeties more often than Spagnuolo does, keeping the other safety in man or a robber role — even pre-snap. Spagnuolo also rarely utilizes three-safety looks — a dime defense — to counter pass-heavy teams. Instead he relies on zone schemes to rob routes while keeping bigger linebackers underneath. Sutton would regularly utilize a lighter-bodied dime defense and man coverage underneath.

That said, Spagnuolo isn’t afraid to bring pressure looks with a single-high safety in situations in which the offense is backed up. Here — another early-down scenario with nine yards to go — Spagnuolo moves to single-high press-man coverage instead of a zone scheme with split safeties.

Spagnuolo can trust his safeties in man coverage and deep, and that allows him to push into the slot against a tight end while leaving another player deep to patrol. Across the board, we see 2 yards of space from the cornerbacks and safety — with a soft press off the snap — which takes away the quick throw.

This is important because Spagnuolo can “cheat” a linebacker into the A-gap to show pressure. Bringing a safety into the slot in press against 11 personnel is also atypical for Spagnuolo, so the quarterback is reading pressure. That speeds up his timer after the snap, even though it’s only a four-man rush.

Spagnuolo blitzes often enough to make offenses have to adjust and account for shifts like these, and the personnel he uses allow him to still successfully drop into coverage with those players. Versatile safeties are key, but the “nickel SAM” coverage linebacker that Spagnuolo brings in on the sub package also gives him the ability to show and drop successfully.

3-3-5 nickel alignment and personnel

While the 4-2-5 nickel is significantly more prevalent than the 3-3-5, Spagnuolo will use the 3-3-5 situationally. Removing the MIKE linebacker and the one-tech — leaving the SAM linebacker on the field — and replacing them with a coverage linebacker and slot cornerback gives Spagnuolo his 3-3-5.

This particular brand of nickel shows up late in the half while holding on to a small lead. It protects well against the flats and abandons some of the bulk up front as the defense isn’t expecting run. Spagnuolo often blitzes out of this formation.

This does mean that cornerbacks will be matched up against tight ends when the offense goes 12 personnel — as they do in this example. Placing a boundary cornerback on Hunter Henry — a “go-to” for Philip Rivers in this scenario — allows for tighter coverage on a quick out.

Spagnuolo is showing heavy blitz, and the slot cornerback slides his alignment halfway between the slot receiver and offensive tackle. This robs the slant pre-snap, and the safety deep prevents an easy play over the top. With the blitz coming, the quarterback will be strained to hit a quick out due to the pre-snap alignments.

Another late-game 3-3-5 shows the blitz capability of the formation. The SAM linebacker offers good rush off the edge with the three defensive linemen, but the blitzing ability of both off-ball linebackers and the deep safety forces the tempo even more.

With the offense wanting to get the ball out quickly, the slot cornerback passes off the vertical stem to the field safety and takes the crosser, eliminating a quick-hitting pass. As the offense is in a 3x1 alignment and wants to get the ball out quickly with the blitz coming, the boundary safety has the ability to bring the blitz. The back-side post will take longer to develop — and will have the field safety topping the route — allowing the blitzing safety freedom to bring pressure.

Late in the game, Spagnuolo isn’t afraid to press the issue and force offenses out of their comfort zone. Clinging to a late lead, the 3-3-5 nickel with lots of blitzing components is one of his preferred methods of forcing the offense off-schedule.


The bottom line

If there’s one thing you can take from this article, it’s that Spagnolo asks a lot of his safeties. He regularly puts them in split-safety or single-high looks, in the slot as man- or zone-coverage corners — and also uses them as blitzers. The additions this offseason speak to this versatility as well.

There is also significantly more unpredictability in Spagnuolo’s scheme that the ones Sutton used. Thanks to shifting alignments, versatile defenders and a blitz-heavy defense that will force the timing of some opposing offenses, they will find it more difficult to get their players in bad matchups with the defense.

Here we have laid the foundation to go forward in the secondary; understanding personnel and alignments will help you understand what Spagnuolo’s new defense will be like as we go through techniques, coverages and situational defenses in the weeks to come. While we’ll see more alignments as the year goes along, the ones we have outlined here seem to be the most prevalent personnel groupings Spagnuolo uses.

Next week, I’ll cover some cornerback technique tendencies. And be on the lookout for more Summer of Spags articles all summer!