Welcome to another edition in our Summer of Spags series.
Big thanks to Craig Stout for taking control and keeping everyone fed with some Summer of Spags material over the last month. When we first cooked up the idea, I was just here for some support and to help lighten the load for Craig — along with my own selfish desire to study a new defense. But lately, I have been even more preoccupied than I anticipated, leaving only Craig to scratch the itch. Slowly I’m finding more time to dive back into one of my biggest hobbies — writing about football — just in time for Kansas City Chiefs training camp (and the season) to begin!
Earlier this summer, I talked about the basics of Steve Spagnuolo’s base and nickel defenses. Now it’s time to look a little deeper.
This installment focuses on the defensive line group — not only what they are being asked to do, but how they will be asked to do it.
In the NFL, we always see a balance between a player’s talent and how coaches use them. There has to be a certain amount of flexibility in both a player’s skills and his coach’s system — but both will always have a preference on how they want to accomplish a particular task.
So looking at how Spagnuolo likes to utilize his players could shed more light on what his scheme will require players to do. It’s a step towards placing current Chiefs into roles in Spagnuolo’s defense — and also to understand not only why some players were let go, but also why others were brought in.
During the draft process — and even during free agency — the AP Draft team talked a lot about a “Spagnuolo type of defensive end” — a player with size, length, and power. This installment should help drive home why those traits are so important and common in a Spagnuolo defense.
The Chiefs have had a lot of t/o at DE despite having an elite pass rush/DL last season. DE usage sits a top the handful of reasons as to why. DE lined head up vs OT, playing through the B gap is a common assignment. Owning the gap/engagement is critical vs the run #SummerOfSpags pic.twitter.com/a1621GUyuy— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2019
In Spagnuolo’s defense, one of the first — and most basic — assignments for a defensive end is the ability to stop the run in an interior gap.
With the 4-3 over/under shift, one defensive end is almost always lined up over an offensive tackle and will be responsible for the B-gap between the offensive tackle and offensive guard. While superior quickness can allow a defensive end to slip under the block of the offensive tackle, pulling that off consistently — without getting run all the way down the line of scrimmage — isn’t going to happen.
Instead, that desired size, length, and power come into play; the defensive end is asked to control the offensive tackle. After reading the initial get-off steps of the tackle and guard, the defensive end is engaging the tackle’s inside shoulder — preventing him from getting inside and maintaining control of the B-gap.
The DL is playing an 1-gap system but still reads the OL. Facing OZ, the DL [full] slants into the zone but makes sure to work through their blocker/gap rather than under/over it. Eliminate "cutback" lanes and force the RB to the SL. 5Tech has a pivotal roll in backside B gap pic.twitter.com/msaaBrS9Wo— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2019
Different play, but same concept: the strong-side defensive end has to play into the B-gap through the offensive tackle rather than going around them to help squeeze down potential cutback lanes.
As the front side of the play is being contained, the running back is looking to cut to the back side. Since the defensive end is squeezing down the B-gap, the runner is forced to cut laterally to the sideline — rather than upfield — allowing the flow defenders to reach the play.
In order to play defensive end for Spagnuolo, a player has to be able to play both the front and back side of the defensive end position — which often results in playing in an interior rushing gap. That’s why traits of size, length, and power are heavily emphasized in personnel.
This play utilizes an entire defensive line slant, which is a great counter to zone running plays and allows a defense to gain back a numbers advantage. In the box, the defense has the same number of defenders to face the offense’s blockers — and a cornerback who crashes into the box to account for the running back. But thanks to the full slant, the MIKE linebacker is never blocked. The back-side defensive end and SAM linebacker crashing down squeeze all potential running lanes and force the running back to wait for something to open up. With the pressure coming from the unaccounted cornerback, he is forced to get upfield, but the MIKE is never accounted for as he works over the top of the crashing defensive line.
More depth will be provided on the MIKE’s role in a later installment. The strong-side defensive end crashing into an interior gap forced the fullback to work outside and allowed the MIKE to run free.
Big and powerful defensive tackles
There is a specific type for Spagnuolo’s interior defensive linemen, too. Often they are bigger, more powerful players that are interchangeable with one another. Depending on the offensive formation and shifts, the roles of the defensive tackles may swap on any given play, so rather than switching positions, they simply share similar skill sets.
BIG DTs have been a part of Spags defense in the recent years. Rather than utilizing a prototypical NT and 3Tech, there has been a heavier usage of two "NT" body types. Still linearly explosive, the DT's are asked to reset the LoS when working laterally to wash RBs out wide. pic.twitter.com/vlPNVqefJp— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 5, 2019
There will still be preferred 1-Technique and 3-Technique players, but both players are often north of 310 pounds. Despite their larger size, the ideal for both players is to have linear explosiveness. This allows them to engage the offensive line earlier and reset the line of scrimmage. Then their size and power come into play, as neither player is looking to slip or bend by a blocker, but rather to drive them back into the path of the running back.
On this particular play, both defensive tackles end up pushing their blockers back two yards and into the running back’s lap. If either defensive tackle opts to shoot a gap by going around contact — rather than controlling the blocker — there will be open running lanes behind them.
All DL doing their individual jobs generating no where for the RB to go. Both DTs get double teamed but give up zero ground and create clutter. Backside DE crashes through TE squeezing in backside cut. Frontside DE fights through OT into B gap. LB/S free to fill any gap pic.twitter.com/eg2XaxM6Hz— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 6, 2019
The system is still a single gap, penetrating scheme, but the defensive tackles are still often dealing with multiple blockers and asked to hold their ground.
On this play, the 1-Tech is attacking the A-gap and the 3-Tech is attacking the opposite B-gap. Both players receive double teams, but have the power to sit and hold their positions. If either player gives up ground or allows a blocker free, the linebackers are in a poor position to avoid them, as they are already committing to their assigned gap and will be swallowed up immediately.
Plays like this are perfect examples of why Spagnuolo likes to utilize two larger, stronger defensive tackles rather a traditional 3-technique players.
Brendan Daly’s influence
The other major influencing factor in the run defense one the defensive line will be coming from new defensive line coach and run game coordinator Brendan Daly.
While the system will still be mainly coming from Spagnuolo, Daly will have a lot of input and will be the coach most often teaching techniques and drilling players. Fortunately for the Chiefs, many of the coaching tactics and techniques that Daly has used in his recent stint with the New England Patriots are very similar to those the Chiefs will see from Spagnuolo.
New DL coach Brendan Daly worked with a different type of defensive front but utilized some similar assignments and techniques. Backside EDGE is crashing down while front side EDGE is squeezing the B gap and playing through the OT rather than upfield on the edge. pic.twitter.com/LzYq1xkG8v— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) July 6, 2019
Despite a different front being used, the roles being performed very much align with what the Giants were doing under Spagnuolo. The edge players are crashing down and playing through the offensive tackles rather than holding hard contain upfield, while the defensive tackles are playing single gaps — but emphasizing holding their position rather than running out of their lanes.
The bottom line
Having bigger and stronger players along the defensive line might seem rather basic, but it allows the team to play the run better. Not every team, however, goes that route. Some teams focus on their pass rush first or have transitioned to lighter, faster players to defend the spread rushing attack.
That hasn’t been the case for Spagnuolo or Daly in their most recent positions — and judging from the moves the Chiefs have made so far, it won’t be happening in Kansas City. Instead, the Chiefs will use the bigger, stronger personnel to help control the run game — allowing the linebackers to run free and play fast. The defensive ends especially will be tasked to be excellent against the run — which sheds some light on the Chiefs’ offseason moves.
The next installment of Summer of Spags will expand on this trench talk, focusing on how the defensive line is asked to rush the passer — and the techniques and skills they will implement.