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Evidence suggests this is Steve Spagnuolo’s best Chiefs defense

On Monday’s Out of Structure podcast, we compared the current defense to the unit that won a championship in 2019.

Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On the latest episode of the Arrowhead Pride Out of Structure podcast, we covered many topics on the defense of the Kansas City Chiefs — who had its best performance of the season in a 19-9 stalemate of the explosive Dallas Cowboys.

Listen to the podcast above or by clicking here (it’s also on Spotify).

The defensive unit’s recent surge begs this question: could this be the peak of their performance so far in the era of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo? Currently, the mantle belongs to the group that finished the 2019 season as Super Bowl champions — but this year’s defense appears to be an overall better group.

There’s evidence at each level of the defense:

Defensive line

2019: In the nine-game winning stretch to finish 2019, defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon led the line in snaps — earning a pressure on 6.9% of his pass-rush snaps. The Chiefs added veteran Terrell Suggs; he averaged pressure at a 9.9% clip in that span. Defensive end Frank Clark played the best he ever has in a Chiefs uniform during that span, totaling nine sacks and earning pressure on 13.5% of his snaps. His best stretch until...

2021: Physically, Clark looks as good as he has since his days with the Seattle Seahawks; he’s constantly flying off the ball, forcing quarterbacks to move in the pocket — or stripping the ball from their hands. He’s earned two sacks in the four-game winning streak, getting pressure on 12.3% of his opportunities and totaling a team-high five quarterback hits; he’s also forced two fumbles in significant situations. Defensive tackle Chris Jones may have had the best game of his career against the Cowboys; this game could point to him still being in his true prime. The addition of Melvin Ingram is the icing on top; this pass-rush unit looks as effective as it has since the 2018 season with Justin Houston and Dee Ford.

Linebackers

2019: After Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann were seeing the second and third-most snaps of the linebackers corps during the stretch run of 2019. None of the group forced a turnover, fumble, or an incompletion in the nine games — and they were the level of the unit being picked on the most — specifically in Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers.

2021: The athleticism of Willie Gay Jr. really raises the ceiling of the group’s play in any given game. He showed it when he jumped a route and intercepted a pass against the New York Giants — and almost did it again versus Dallas. He also made a huge third-down tackle in the flat that Chiefs linebackers of the past wouldn’t get to quick enough. On top of that, Nick Bolton is a better run defender than the team’s had at this position under Spagnuolo.

Defensive backfield

2019: The primary outside cornerbacks for the 2019 squad were Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland; in the slot, it was mainly safety Tyrann Mathieu. The safety group ended the season as Mathieu, Dan Sorensen, and Kendall Fuller; rookie Juan Thornhill didn’t finish the year. As a group, they nabbed 11 interceptions and 16 other passes defended in nine games; the highest passer rating one of them allowed was 96.3.

2021: Ward still patrols one side of the defense in the current version of the unit, while both L’Jarius Sneed and Rashad Fenton share the other perimeter position; when he’s not outside, Sneed is the primary slot defender. Thornhill and Mathieu have primarily patrolled the back end. The position has corralled four interceptions in four games, adding 10 other passes broken up; outside of Sorensen, no defensive back is allowing a passer rating above 91.5 in this stretch. The highest passer rating allowed between Ward, Sneed, and Fenton is 64.6.

The bottom line

In my opinion, it’s clear that both the pass rush and the linebacker corps are playing at and are capable of a higher level than what the 2019 defense had. As good as the defensive backs are playing currently, it’s hard to say they’re outperforming the 2019 group that created tons of turnovers.

The current defense has the makeup to be the best unit of the last four seasons.


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