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The Chiefs’ defense faces two challenges: the Chargers — and time

Steve Spagnuolo’s unit has to be ready to play one of the season’s most important games in a very short time.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs are gearing up to play what has turned out to be one of the most important games of the regular season — the Week 15 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers — just about exactly 100 hours (and about 1,300 miles) from the final play of Sunday's 48-9 rout of the Las Vegas Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium.

The typical four-day turnaround for a Thursday Night Football game is a pain in the neck for NFL coaches. This is especially true when the game is on the road — and when the head coach is someone like Kansas City's Andy Reid, who is famous for his weekly game-preparation routine.

Still... it's been a fact of NFL life for the last 15 years. Whether they've liked it or not, coaches have had to adjust. Some resort to getting some game-planning done for the coming Thursday night contest in odd moments before the previous week's matchup.

But Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo isn't one of them.

"To be honest with you: I don't venture down that road at all because from a play-caller's standpoint — I've tried it before — it gets confusing [and] I get jersey numbers mixed up," Spagnuolo admitted to reporters on Monday. "So I didn't do anything with it [before Sunday's game]."

NFL: NOV 21 Cowboys at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But that isn't to say that no Kansas City coaches got a head start. Spagnuolo is simply exercising his prerogative as the defensive boss.

"The rest of the staff was well into it [on] Saturday morning — maybe even some of the guys [on] Friday afternoon," he revealed. "But they were just putting together things for me. And listen: Dave Merritt, Brendan Daly, Matt House — all of our assistants — they pretty much know what we're looking for and what I tend to lean towards, so they've kind of gotten me ahead."

Spagnuolo said all of their efforts were geared toward having reports ready for him the morning after the Raiders game.

"They had it on my desk this morning when I came here real early, so I started reviewing it then," he said. "We haven't done much on [Sunday's] game for obvious reasons — this comes really quick — but we just got out of a meeting now, trying to lay out what we're going to do this afternoon and really into tomorrow morning."

But even with his defensive assistants doing some advanced leg work to get a jump on the short week, it still presents problems — some of which can't really be solved.

"You can't get your eyes on as much film — obviously — because real quickly here, we have to feed something to the players," explained Spagnuolo. "But one of the things I talked with the staff about this morning — and I'll talk about to the players this afternoon — is that [Tuesday] and Wednesday (which is like a Saturday), we have to be ready to maybe tweak, change [or] add. We wouldn't normally [do that] during a normal week; we wouldn't try to add things on a normal Friday or Saturday."

In essence, Spagnuolo said, he needs to perform a sort of Jedi mind trick: to get everyone thinking that this isn't preparation between games but changes made between halves.

"We have to treat this like we're in the game — and at halftime, we made an adjustment. I think the guys just have to have that mindset when the week is really, really short."

The Chiefs do have one thing going for them: as another AFC West team, their opponent is familiar. But unfortunately, it's also the only AFC West team that's defeated Kansas City in 2021. When the two teams met in Week 3, the Chargers left Kansas City with a 30-24 victory.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Most fans will probably remember that when the score was tied 24-24 with less than two minutes remaining, Patrick Mahomes' interception gave the Chargers the ball at their own 41-yard line, allowing them to score and seal the win. But what Spagnuolo probably remembers most clearly is that quarterback Justin Herbert had completed 26 of 38 for 281 yards and four touchdowns — a passer rating of 125.0.

"Every time I turn the tape on, I am amazed at how good he is," the coordinator said of Herbert. "Accurate. He's big. He's athletic. Really smart. I mean, he's the whole package. I have a lot of respect for (Raiders quarterback) Derek Carr — who did a good job yesterday — but this guy is going to be a real challenge for us. I know our guys expect that. He makes that whole thing go. [He's] one of the elite quarterbacks, in my opinion."

But until reminded by a reporter, Spagnuolo had forgotten some significant aspects of his defense's performance in Week 3. Frank Clark, Charvarius Ward and Willie Gay Jr. were absent. Melvin Ingram was still playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chris Jones was still primarily being used as a defensive end. And Daniel Sorensen was still starting at safety while the team was figuring out whether Juan Thornhill could return to his full-time role.

"I hadn't even realized that — really, in all honesty," said a surprised Spagnuolo. "Well, I hope that tips it the other way, then — because we certainly need to play better defense than the last time we played them. But I think a lot of that had to do with how good they were — not necessarily who we had out there — but I hope we can continue to do what we're doing, function as a unit, go out there and help our organization win a game."