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How Steve Spagnuolo is blitzing the Chiefs defensive backs

A look into the increase in DB blitzes leading up to the Super Bowl.

Divisional Round - Cleveland Browns v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has never shied away from blitzing his defensive backs. When he was first hired, his aggressive safety and slot blitzes were some of his hallmarks I highlighted in our Summer of Spags series. While he still regularly blitzed his defensive backs in 2019 and early this year, there has been a major increase in them to finish out the year and into the playoffs. This increase has lead to five straight games with a sack by a defensive back.

Leading into the Super Bowl matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I wanted to take a look at some of the variants Spagnuolo has utilized down the stretch, as well as some of the ways the Chiefs could implement them in next Sunday’s championship game.

Sometimes, the look is simple, but the numbers game can confuse protections and get a free rusher.

On the above play, the Buffalo Bills are in a balanced alignment with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers). L’Jarius Sneed is mid-pointing the offensive tackle and the slot receiver, showing pressure out of the slot. Dan Sorensen and Anthony Hitchens are both showing pressure as well, causing the offense to allocate resources toward picking up all the blitzers.

Only Sorensen and Sneed rush the passer, with Hitchens dropping out to help carry the inside vertical route to the field. Sorensen is picked up through a slide protection to the boundary, and each offensive lineman is able to get a hat on a player. Because Hitchens was showing pressure, the running back was responsible for picking up the interior blitzer. As Hitchens drops out, the back looks toward the slide and is late to rotate toward Sneed.

While the play doesn’t go down as a sack — or even a quarterback hit — Spagnuolo was able to get a free rusher by confusing the protection in the backfield. Tampa Bay has struggled down the stretch picking up late blitzers with their running backs, leading to Brady taking a few more hits than they’d like. The Buccaneers’ offensive line is excellent and difficult to get pressure through blitzing. The way to success may be to force the backs to sort out the potential free blitzer — and hope he makes the wrong decision.

Spagnuolo loves to send his slot defender from a condensed split out of a 3x1 alignment, just like the play shown above.

Once again, the Chiefs are showing pressure, this time with Damien Wilson off the edge and Ben Niemann mugging the A-gap. Sneed aligns inside the receiver, sliding behind the defensive end. As Niemann bails to carry the tight end vertical to the safety — and with Derrick Nnadi dropping into a weak hook zone — both Wilson and Sneed rush off of the edges. Wilson is a free rusher as the offensive line accounts for Nnadi, and the back picks him up. Meanwhile, Sneed keeps a tight radius behind the defensive end, then explodes around the edge before the quarterback sees him. The quarterback is unable to break the pocket, and Sneed gets himself a sack.

The rookie cornerback has shown a real knack for blitzing — something he didn’t do often in college — and a true understanding of how to be most effective while rushing. It’s no wonder he’s come up with four sacks in his last four games, and he should have had more. Spagnuolo’s almost certainly going to get a look he wants against Tampa Bay with Rob Gronkowski condensed in a 3x1 on Sunday. In a game that may be light on impact defensive plays, weaponizing Sneed in the slot may help turn the tide.

Most defensive coordinators will send Cover 0 blitzes (all-out blitz with no safety help, everyone in man coverage) in the red zone or against young quarterbacks on third down. Spagnuolo will do it on second down at midfield against one of the better offenses in the league.

In a Cover 0 call, the defense always has an additional rusher than the offense can block. The free rusher on this play just so happens to be Tyrann Mathieu. Initially showing split safety coverage, Buffalo motions their running back out and back to get a man coverage read on the defense. As it’s late in the play clock, Mathieu immediately presses the line as the back returns, and he is able to fire off the snap and into the backfield before the quarterback can hit the post route coming open. A well-worked tackle-end stunt between Alex Okafor and Frank Clark prevents Josh Allen from bailing out of the backside, and Allen throws the ball away for an intentional grounding penalty.

Spagnuolo has always preached his love of smart defensive backs, and this is a prime example of that. Mathieu recognizes the situation — play clock winding down, man ID for Allen — and realizes he doesn’t need to disguise the blitz any longer. He changes his alignment and fires off the snap, ultimately preventing Allen from hitting a potentially massive play. The confidence placed in his players allows Spagnuolo to call uncharacteristic blitzes in situation, knowing they can “make him right,” which allows him to keep quarterbacks that have seen everything — such as Tom Brady — on their toes.

It’s been established that Spagnuolo is an aggressive blitzer, and he has done so well with his defensive backs as of late. So what’s the way to play off of that tendency?

Drop and try to trap the quarterback into making an ill-advised throw.

The defensive alignment of this play is similar to that of the first clip in this article. Split-safeties, a linebacker showing pressure, and Sneed mid-pointing the slot receiver and offensive tackle. However, everyone drops out into coverage — including Sorensen to the deep half — and Mathieu steps up to rob the middle of the field. This causes the running back to release late in the middle of the field, as he was anticipating pressure. Sneed robs the curl, and Matt Ryan — sped up because of the potential of a blitz, hurries to his well-covered check down on third-and-long.

Spagnuolo realizes his tendencies better than anyone, and he’s used that to his advantage in the past. Last year when the Chiefs played Brady and the New England Patriots, Spagnuolo mixed in some “skate” coverage from his cornerbacks and baited Brady into the Bashaud Breeland interception. By mixing in these blitzes and coverage rotations, even someone like Brady — who has seen everything in the book — will make mistakes and throw crucial interceptions in the biggest moments.

I expect Spagnuolo to play off of his heavy defensive back blitz tendencies of the last month and put his guys in the right spots to do it again.

The bottom line

Steve Spagnuolo has been inventive with his blitz packages his entire career. While they may not always be successful, he routinely puts his players in positions to make plays, and offensive line coaches have nightmares when thinking about where the pressure is originating.

But Spagnuolo has always had a fondness for bringing his defensive backs into the mix. Several safeties and cornerbacks have had career years under him and received recognition from the league due to their production in the secondary and behind the line of scrimmage. Chiefs defenders give credit to their defensive coordinator often — stating that Spagnuolo knows how to maximize their contribution and put them in the right places.

Over the last month, that’s formulated in ample pressure from the Chiefs' defensive backs. With Tom Brady in the pocket — and Tampa Bay’s excellent offensive line — I’d expect that pressure to continue on Super Bowl Sunday.