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Dixon’s AP mailbag: all about Steve Spagnuolo’s defense

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The defense is the main subject of this week’s questions

Kansas City Chiefs v St. Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Welcome to Dixon’s Arrowhead Pride Mailbag, where I’ll do my best to answer your questions about the Kansas City Chiefs — and anything else that’s on your mind. If you have a question, you can hit my profile page to e-mail me, or ask me on Twitter.

While you’re at it, please follow me on Twitter, too. Thanks to Robert Foreman, who became my 1,000th follower at 3:28 am Thursday.

How many defensive starters from 2018 start in 2019?

— Robbie

I’ve been holding on to this question for a long time, Robbie. Thanks for asking — and thanks also for waiting.

When Robbie asked this question, Steve Spagnuolo had been defensive coordinator for just over a month. He’d talked to the media exactly once. The draft was two months away. No one had any real idea what might happen in free agency; it seemed like a distinct possibility Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Eric Berry — or some combination of them — would return in 2019.

Things have certainly changed since then. We can now start to see some semblance of what might happen with the Chiefs defense in the coming season. Here’s how I see it right now.

Chiefs Defensive Starters

2018 2019
Allen Bailey (DE) Alex Okafor (DE)
Chris Jones (DE) Chris Jones (DT)
Derrick Nnadi (NT) Derrick Nnadi (DT)
Dee Ford (OLB) Frank Clark (DE)
Anthony Hitchens (ILB) Anthony Hitchens (WLB)
Reggie Ragland (ILB) Reggie Ragland (MLB)
Justin Houston (OLB) Damien Wilson (SLB)
Steven Nelson (CB) Bashaud Breeland (CB)
Kendall Fuller (CB) Kendall Fuller (CB)
Eric Murray (S) Tyrann Mathieu (S)
Ron Parker (S) Juan Thornhill (S)

Much of this is still subject to change, of course. But right now, my answer is five: Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland and Kendall Fuller. Any way you want to slice it, having six new starters on your defense is a dramatic overhaul of the unit.

What should we expect with the defense in preseason games with so much turnover and a different scheme? More playing time for the starters?

— Justin

Thanks for asking, Justin.

I doubt we’ll see the defensive starters playing any more than they usually have during head coach Andy Reid’s tenure. Despite all the changes on defense, Reid is the head coach, and that kind of decision is still going to be up to him.

Nor do I think we’re going to see a lot of the creative elements of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme in preseason games; we’re likely to see a pretty vanilla version of what we’ll see later on. The players will be expected to call shifts — just as they will in regular season games — but I wouldn’t expect to see anything exotic until the games start to count.

Preseason games will serve the same purpose they always have: to give the starters a chance to shake off the rust by playing at (close to) full speed — and to give players on the roster bubble an opportunity to show that they belong on the team.

I’m sure you’re aware that shutouts are a bit harder in today’s NFL. The Chiefs did have a recent shutout – the wildcard playoff victory over the Texans. So here’s some fun speculation. Do you think this revamped defense can post a shutout this season?

— Lee

Thanks for the question, Lee.

It’s true that on average, shutouts are less likely in the NFL than they used to be. But the data is a little weird.

In three of the last six seasons, there were just three shutouts in the NFL — including postseason games. But there were 11 in 2017, and eight in 2018. Does that mean that shutouts are trending up? Probably not. In 2006, there were 15, but just five in the following season. There were 14 in 1993, but only two the following year.

What this tells us is that shutouts are pretty random; they tend to happen when the stars align. A shutout probably means a good defense and/or bad offense are involved — the 1985 Chicago Bears defense had four on the season, including two in the playoffs — but it could also mean that the defensive coordinator just outfoxes the opposing offensive coordinator for an entire game. Even that doesn’t mean that one of the coordinators is better than the other; a good coordinator can have a bad day — and vice-versa.

Or it might be completely random: a shutout happens just because a wide receiver drops a pass in the end zone on his team’s only scoring opportunity; there are certainly plenty of games when teams only get one good chance to score.

It’s true that if you do something to even out the shutout data — for example, calculate the percentage of shutouts in a season and then figure out a rolling average including the nine years that preceded it — shutouts have trended down over the last forty years. In 1977 — a season in which 12.3% of all NFL games were shutouts — the rolling average for 1968 to 1977 was 8.0%. It has declined pretty steadily since then. In 2018, the rolling average was just 2.3%.

To put it another way... these days, even a good defense might go three or four seasons without a shutout. It just doesn’t happen very often.

So do I think that if Spagnuolo’s defense is substantially improved, shutouts might be a bit more likely in 2019 and beyond? Sure I do.

But we’re still left with the fact that in six seasons as a defensive coordinator, Spagnuolo has only one shutout to his credit: the 41-0 beatdown the New Orleans Saints had against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012 — a season in which Spagnuolo’s defense was ranked 31st in points allowed. Meanwhile, in six seasons with the Chiefs, former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton also had just one: the playoff game Lee mentioned. In that season, the Chiefs defense was ranked third in points allowed.

If you ask me, that’s pretty random.

Sutton’s defensive style of bend-but-don’t-break allowed a lot of yards for the opponent. I assume that means a lot of extra time of possession for the opponent, too. As I understand it, Spagnuolo’s defense might be slightly more inclined allow a big play, but should, on average, be able to get off the field faster than Sutton’s.

If that is true, shouldn’t that equate to more possessions for our offense? Wouldn’t that mean Mahomes, instead of regressing, could have a very real chance of improving his numbers over last year? Maybe we’re looking at this whole regression thing wrong.

— Bill

Thanks for a good question, Bill.

Let’s remind ourselves of how football is played. After your team gets the ball, the other team gets the ball — almost every single time! The only time it doesn’t happen is if a team has the good fortune to have the ball at the end of the first half and receive the kickoff in the second half.

So this whole idea of “extra possessions” is sometimes misunderstood or mischaracterized.

Still... Bill’s question is a good one. If you can force the opponent to chew up more time in the game — but you have the ability to score quickly and at will — you can make your drives more valuable than theirs. If you can get a significant lead early in the game, you can make it very difficult for the other team to catch up. More often than not, that’s going to put a win on the board.

As I’ve reflected on the Chiefs 2018 season, one of the things that’s occurred to me was how often the TV color commentators — including (but not limited to) Tony Romo — spoke of the Chiefs defense “keeping the play in front of them.” I don’t think this was something they just happened to notice while the game was going on. These kinds of statements were made often enough that I wondered if it was something they were picking up from Chiefs coaches in their pregame production meetings — that the Chiefs defense was, as a rule, deliberately trading yardage for time.

Yes... that’s the so-called prevent defense, which is normally used only late in the game when your team has the lead. And I’m well aware that a lot of fans hate it — just as fervently as a lot of Chiefs fans hated Bob Sutton’s defense.

It’s just a theory rattling around in my brain pan. But I really wonder if the 2018 Chiefs defense was always planned to be a prevent defense writ large. As I’ve noted before, we may have been unsure about Patrick Mahomes’ ability before the season began, but it’s doubtful Andy Reid was. He was in a better position than anyone to know what Mahomes could do. Isn’t it possible he could have said, “Listen... we’re going to score a lot of points fast with this kid. Defensively, let’s just always act as if we have the lead and there are eight minutes left.”

Whether or not it was intentional, it worked — at least against every team that wasn’t a playoff contender. Against the better teams — your Los Angeles Chargers and Rams, your Seattle Seahawks and (especially) your New England Patriots, it didn’t work nearly as well.

Which leads us to this season — where the the plan appears to be for the team to become more aggressive defensively, thereby generating more stops. And like Bill said, that would tend to give the Chiefs (and the opponent, too) more chances with the ball. But as long as the Chiefs are more likely to score on any given drive than the enemy, that could very well prove to be a winning formula — even against the better teams.