When the Kansas City Chiefs fired former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton just days after their 37-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship, many Chiefs fans breathed a sigh of relief.
And why not? There was little doubt that the defense was the Chiefs’ Achilles heel in 2018 — if for no other reason than you couldn’t have expected the offense to produce more than it did during Patrick Mahomes’ MVP season.
But it was more than that.
For Sutton’s complex 3-4 defensive scheme to work, it needed to have players who could execute it the way Sutton envisioned it. For much of his six-year tenure with the Chiefs, Sutton had such players — or at least enough of them. As I noted before the start of the 2018 season, over the previous five years, Sutton’s defenses were among the best in the league, with a sustained record of success that equaled any period in franchise history.
But it 2018, the wheels came off. The defense appeared hesitant and confused. Against the lesser teams on their schedule — and coupled with a sizzling-hot offense under Mahomes — it was good enough. But against better teams — both in the regular season and the playoffs — it wasn’t quite good enough.
Back in February, our Craig Stout drove the nail into the board with one blow:
“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.”
In Craig’s view — and mine — Sutton was violating one of the cardinal rules of NFL coaching: trying to fit the players available to you into a preferred system, rather than letting the abilities of your players determine the system most effective for them.
It was definitely time for a change.
Once Steve Spagnuolo was named the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator — and completely overhauled the defensive coaching staff — we spent a good deal of time in these pages explaining the differences we expected in to see between Sutton’s 3-4 and Spagnuolo’s 4-3 schemes. The AP Nerd Squad watched countless hours of film and wrote many thousands of words in its outstanding Summer of Spags series to do precisely that.
To be sure, Spagnuolo’s scheme is different. But just weeks after his hiring, Spagnuolo downplayed the schematic differences — but not the difference in coaching style.
“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,” Spagnuolo told the press in February. “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.”
Even five months later, Spagnuolo wasn’t exactly sure how his defensive secondary would be arranged; he wanted to see what his players could do.
“I’ll be honest with you: I’m still trying to find out what we have at corner insofar as what they can do,” Spagnuolo told the press during the first week of training camp. “It’ll probably dictate what we play coverage-wise. We’re throwing a lot at them — a plethora of different coverages. Once we get a feel for what they can and can’t do, we’ll cut it down and settle in. I’m just evaluating that as we go. We’re giving them everything.”
Even through the first preseason game, that evaluation has continued. Nearly half of the presumed defensive starters either didn’t play or were limited to just two snaps in the Chiefs’ 38-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last Saturday. After that, it was reserve players who got the playing time.
But even as he has been evaluating his players, Spagnuolo has been fully involved in coaching them. Ever since his arrival, he’s been a hands-on coach who concentrates on fundamentals.
“We’re really hell-bent on just fundamentals, techniques, the little things,” he said. “They’re probably tired of me saying, ‘the little things,’ all of the time, but that’s OK. They need that in their ears when they fall asleep at night so it helps them get better.”
“He really does a lot of detail stuff with the guys,” defensive backs coach Sam Madison said on Tuesday. “He harps on that, getting to the ball and scooping the ball. You see guys out there in those first couple of series, really out there just busting their hump.”
Just after training camp started, veteran safety Tyrann Mathieu — signed from the Houston Texans in the offseason as much for his on-field leadership ability as his talent as a player — was asked what he thought was the most encouraging thing about the Chiefs defense.
“I think it’s just our coaching staff,” he said. “Really the most important aspect of it is those guys who really are taking their time whether we are practicing in a different period, before practice, after practice working on little bitty fundamentals. I think those little bitty things are going to take us a long way.”
But let’s be clear: even as he continues to figure out exactly how it will look in the regular season, Spagnuolo’s scheme is making a difference, too.
In his simpler one-gap system that depends more on one-on-one matchups created by pre-snap shifts than it does on defenders reacting to what the offense does after the snap, players are able to rely more on their instincts — rather than on what they’ve learned in the classroom. Even in the first preseason game, you could see it: the confusion and hesitation have disappeared; defenders are able to fly to the ball.
The scheme has given new life to veteran players like Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland, Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon — all of whom were players many fans and analysts were ready to classify as busts in Bob Sutton’s system.
“It’s fun. It’s real fun,” Kpassagnon said after Saturday’s game. “You get to really play in the game. You get in a rhythm, you get to mess with the tackle and set him up, set him up with moves. All these different things to where I was not able to do that last year.”
Speaks expressed similar thoughts.
“Last year, [it was] such a big defense and a lot of plays — having to worry about different things. It was just fun to finally get out there and just rush — versus worrying about if I have to drop or worrying about a set or something. It was just fun to be able to get out there and just rush the passer.”
Kpassagnon said he was more than ready for the change.
“Seeing the new scheme, I was hungry for it. I knew it would work really well with me being back on the ground, having my hand in the dirt. I came in with the attitude to get better and get back to my basics.”
More than a week before Saturday’s game, head coach Andy Reid had noticed a difference in Kpassagnon’s play.
“Tanoh is exploding off the football, which is a nice thing,” he told the press July 29. “He can do either/or for you. You saw him on the one screen, it’s hard to get it over him – and around him because he has that wingspan. He’s a smart kid. Plays hard. Every snap that you’re going to get from Tanoh is going to be 100 miles per hour; that’s just how he rolls. He’s working his fundamental techniques, all of those things.”
And I haven’t even yet mentioned other significant changes to the defense since January: the addition of defensive ends Frank Clark, Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah, linebackers Damien Wilson and Darron Lee, and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Morris Claiborne.
But for Chiefs fans, the big question still remains: can all these changes result in a defense significantly better than they fielded in 2018? And if so, how much better?
“Listen, I’m not that guy. I won’t do the comparing,” Spagnuolo said at the end of July. “I won’t say they’re better than this or better than that. All I do is focus on them getting better each day. Now that’s a cliché, but it’s real. If we don’t do that or buy into that and embrace it, then all we’ll do is go backwards.”
Asked last week if he thought his defense had yet found its identity, Spagnuolo refused to say.
“I don’t know that I’d slap an identity on it,” he said. “This is what I always preach to them: that we are going to chase perfection — but rely on relentlessness. That’s been a motto and a theme for us. I’m hoping we’re adopting that as players. We’ll see.”