In large part, they’re going there because of a complete defensive performance against the Buffalo Bills. While the offense will get their fair share of credit, Steve Spagnuolo and his unit executed a terrific game plan that held down one of the NFL’s hottest offenses.
With that said, let’s take a look at where the Chiefs’ defense showed well — and something you may have missed from Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
Due to the Bills’ light personnel — and the game script — the Chiefs played out of the dime defense for most of the evening. That led to more pass rushing attempts and more opportunity for Spagnuolo to send extra rushers. Just over 25% of the passing reps had five or more rushers, generating the highest defensive success rate of the game.
Speaking of pressure, Chris Jones had a phenomenal day while rushing the passer. He had a pressure rate of 18% during his pass rushing reps, which led the team. It was his second-highest pressure rate this year — just behind his Week 6 performance against the Bills. Frank Clark was second with a 12% pressure rate, which was also a terrific number. Alex Okafor (9%), Tanoh Kpassagnon (7%), and Tershawn Wharton (7%) also got after the passer at good rates.
In their nickel defense, the Chiefs continued to do well against the run, allowing just 2.25 yards per carry — and posting a staggering 75% defensive success rate that limited the Bills’ ability to pound the rock. In the brief period when Kansas City wasn’t up by multiple scores, the team also stopped the run well, posting a mark of 3.83 yards per carry.
Spagnuolo was on his "A" game this week with his pressure packages, and this early Sneed sack was a tone-setter for the Chiefs defense.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 26, 2021
Jones and Clark loop under, forcing a double on each. Nnadi drops out, and both Sneed and Sorensen come off the edges. pic.twitter.com/ebgAkYUy4o
Spagnuolo’s blitz schemes have always been terrific — but at the end of the year, he’s dialed up some extremely good pressures from slot cornerbacks and safeties. This is the fifth-straight week where a Chiefs defensive back has had a sack — and in this play, they should have had another.
Throughout Spagnuolo’s career as a defensive coordinator, he’s gotten good pass-rushing production from his defensive backs. He brought that out against Josh Allen, rattling him with some slot pressure early in the game.
In particular, L’Jarius Sneed has been terrific off the edge from these condensed formations — and the way it is schemed on this play gives him a free look. Both Clark and Jones loop one gap over to grab a double-team, while Daniel Sorensen’s blitz forces the running back to cross in protection. This leaves Sneed free off the edge, where he beats the right tackle’s late rotation.
The early pressure set up sim pressures later, and Allen's timer was sped up. That forced some inaccurate hurried throws despite just a four man rush on this third down because they didn't know where pressure was coming from. pic.twitter.com/gzLCjPzhSa— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 26, 2021
These early pressures allowed Spagnuolo to simulate pressure later, rattling Allen without having to bring major numbers. The Chiefs stacked the box during later, short yardage downs, showing big pressure pre-snap. Spagnuolo dropped rushers from every alignment, confusing Allen and the Bills offense line and making it difficult to consistently pick up the pressure. It also led to Allen speeding up his internal clock— and making some inaccurate throws — because he didn’t trust his line to accurately pick up the pressure.
This play is a simulated pressure where Okafor and Ben Niemann drop out, leaving just a four-man rush. The Bills line picked up the pressure without much issue, but Allen’s clock is running so fast that he throws to the flat too early — and over the head of his receiver.
Spagnuolo dialed up such varied pressures — with so much success — that even his simulated third-down pressures worked, too. Down the stretch, the Bills passing offense was confident, but the Chiefs were able to hit Allen consistently enough to disrupt the play-calls — even when they didn’t send the house.
The KC defense did well to take away the middle of the field against Diggs -- where he can do some consistent damage. Late rotations, bracketing, and physical play at the line made life difficult on one of the best receivers in the game. pic.twitter.com/90nJRLdzQB— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 26, 2021
Stefon Diggs was a focal point for most of the Chiefs’ preparation for this game — and while things were close, Spagnuolo called a great game to take him away.
Early on, the Chiefs flooded the middle of the field with robbers, cutting safeties and late rotations to take away some of Diggs’ bread-and-butter in the passing game. These allowed them to force Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and his offense away from some of their favorite passing concepts — while still maintaining pressure. That pushed Allen out of his comfort zone, leading to some adjustments into deeper passing concepts.
When the Bills attempted to go deep from the slot, the Chiefs played trail technique with their nickel cornerback and kept a safety over the top — shrinking the windows and bracketing the route. When he was aligned on the outside, the Chiefs pressed Diggs at every opportunity and played physical throughout his routes. That forced Allen into low-percentage (and ultimately unsuccessful) deep throws to the boundary.
From pressures to coverages, Spagnuolo created a masterful game plan that allowed him to ground one of the NFL’s hottest passing offenses in its biggest moment.
Something you may have missed
One of the overlooked parts of the defensive performance was Hitchens' run defense out of the dime. BUF had some light boxes they could've exploited, but Hitchens shut the door on more than one occasion to limit yardage and stay ahead of the sticks. pic.twitter.com/KAPVCPsQhG— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 26, 2021
With the Bills in light personnel for most of the day, Spagnuolo played more dime. While it is typically Ben Niemann’s job, Anthony Hitchens called the fronts. Hitchens was able to step in during early downs, cover hook zones and — perhaps unsurprisingly — play exceptional run defense out of light boxes.
With Hitchens on the field, the Chiefs’ defense allowed just 4.25 yards per rush. While that number may not seem terrific, when you consider the number of snaps where Hitchens was the lone linebacker, it really was.
Just as we see in this play, he was routinely having to cover gaps and take on pulling/climbing offensive linemen as a “last line of defense” player up front. His ability to out-leverage offensive linemen, stack them in the gap and then shed them to make the play saved multiple runs from busting into the secondary.
Through underrated plays like the one, Hitchens has been very good down the stretch. He’s been a key ingredient in the Chiefs front as the defense has stepped up, helping push the team to a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
The bottom line
The Chiefs defense had a tough job against a passing offense that most — including myself — thought would put some points on the board. Instead, they stepped up in a big way, grounding a terrific aerial attack.
Jones, Clark and the Chiefs’ pressure packages kept the Bills off-balance for the majority of the game — and early on, Josh Allen was rattled. The Chiefs’ safeties — particularly Juan Thornhill — took away the middle of the field and forced the ball outside, where Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland were able to out-muscle the Bills boundary receivers. In its biggest game of the year, it was terrific execution by the entire defense.
For the second straight year, Steve Spagnuolo has come up with terrific defensive game plans against a varied set of playoff offenses. Last year, a high-flying passing offense and a grind-it out running game with strong play-action passing had to be stopped. This year, the matchups were similar — albeit it in reverse order. Spagnuolo isn’t just being dealt teams that are playing to his strengths. He’s having to defend incredibly different offensive approaches — and he’s doing it at a ridiculously high level.
When the Chiefs hired Spagnuolo two years ago this week, there was a lot of speculation about what he would bring to this organization — and whether he was the right man for the job. But time and time again, he’s proven that his approach with his players, his broad book of coverages and pressures — and his execution of each game plan — are phenomenal. Week in and week out, what he’s done has been truly amazing. He’ll likely go down as one of the best coordinators in team history.
If he helps win another championship in Tampa, he might already be a lock for the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor.