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Chiefs training camp notebook: Steve Spagnuolo knows there’s a lot to learn Saturday night

Kansas City’s first preseason game against the 49ers will be a key for ‘Spags’ in figuring out the defensive roster

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Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has had just about enough of training camp practices. And his attitude comes at a good time, considering the Chiefs are finally days away from their first preseason game on Saturday night.

The Chiefs will play the 49ers in San Francisco.

“The thing that’s always hard, obviously, is I don’t know where we are with tackling,” admitted Spagnuolo after the Chiefs’ light practice on Tuesday. “The coaches do a great job as best we can at simulating. Where I’m going is when we put the pads on, coach (Andy) Reid allows us to what we call, ‘wrap and release.’ The thing that doesn’t get used here in training camp anymore because we don’t go live is defensive arms. Then, you go out to these first games, and everybody is doing what I call ‘block-tackling,’ which I don’t like. It’s like a swear word.

“To me, I’m going to be really looking for that (in Saturday’s game), and I’m going to be looking for the operation between whistle and snap. Not snap to whistle as much — I mean, coaches will take care of that — but I’m looking for operation and how guys function. I think that’s important.”

Up until the game, Spagnuolo and the defensive staff have been forced to evaluate the roster using that simulated scrimmage and drills such as defensive back-wide receiver one-on-ones, which the coordinator said he reviews early in the morning.

“That’s my background, my main background,” he said of the secondary play. “The competition out here is tremendous, and Tyreek Hill is jabbing at whoever, and we’re jabbing back, and I think that’s great. That’s one of my favorite drills.”

Spagnuolo also watches his defensive line up against the new-look Chiefs offensive line that features five new faces from last year.

“I talk with (offensive line coach) Andy Heck a number of times — I’m always like, ‘How are you guys doing?’ He loves the way they're coming together,” noted Spagnuolo. “That will just make us better. I’ve heard our D-line make comments about these offensive linemen. It’s been all positive, so to me... iron sharpens iron. Right? Proverbs 27:17. It helps us all get better, and I’m really happy for the offense and Patrick (Mahomes) — that we got that crew. And I think it helps us, too. A lot of competition.”

As far as players he is particularly interested in watching, Spagnuolo specifically mentioned defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. But he then expanded that thought to include all young players — which involves undrafted safety Devon Key.

“I think he’s done a heck of a job from the mental part of it,” said Spagnuolo. “We’ve actually added on to him because we think he’s got that part of football, which is chin to the hairline. What we don’t know is in the heat of the battle, so we’re going to find out a little bit of that in the game. But so far, he’s functioned pretty well, and we’re happy with that.”

Second-year defensive end Mike Danna already looks to be more explosive than he was in his rookie season.

“Mike Danna is one of my favorite guys — and was from the beginning,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s a young guy who came in as a rookie, and after a month, you would have thought he was a 10-year veteran — the way he operated, the way he functioned around the building, the way he practices. When Coach Daly gives him something to work on, he takes that right into whatever game we can play in terms of thud. But he’s been terrific.”

The game also will allow Spagnuolo to get some further clarity on a key camp battle — between Mike Hughes, Deandre Baker and Rashad Fenton — for the outside cornerback spot in the nickel.

The Chiefs have moved Fenton all over the place in camp; he has worked with the first, second and third teams in the different positions.

“Rashad brings on the added responsibility of being a nickel because we got to have backups and whatnot ready to go, so — so far so good,” he said. “I’m really anxious to see him out there.”

As far as a group message, Spagnuolo just hopes his players keep hold of everything they have studied over the past three weeks.

“The biggest thing I tell them — and I’ve said this every year is that when they go into this game — don’t abort everything that you learned here. And that’s what happens with the young ones. They’ll forget all the leverage and set the edge and all the things that we’ve taught them and they’ve gotten really good at. They go out there, and all of a sudden, it’s a game, and sometimes they can go off the radar a little bit, so to me, I tell them to stick to the fundamentals they’ve been learning, and we’ll build on it. Don’t abort what you’ve done the past couple of weeks.”

Observations

  • The weather in St. Joseph Tuesday morning was unsettled, as if it could rain at any time — but it held off for the most part. The temperature stayed in the low-to-mid-70s throughout the workout.
  • Tuesday session was a shorts-and-shells day, breaking the streak of two padded practices in a row. In a 10-10-10 practice like the Chiefs had Tuesday, the team goes through a lighter workout and cycles through 10 offensive plays, 10 defensive plays and 10 minutes of special teams.
  • Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes seems to be in a very good rhythm with top targets Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as Saturday’s initial preseason game gets closer. Wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle also seem to be putting themselves in good position to draw looks from Mahomes.
  • Hill ended Tuesday’s workout with a flip in the end zone, which the fans in attendance seemed to enjoy.
  • Offensive lineman Nick Allegretti was with the second team at center Tuesday, with Austin Blythe shifting to the left guard position.
  • Running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire looks to have developed even a sharper quick-twitch than he might have had last year. There is added burst. I’m eager to see him in a few snaps on Saturday.
  • The defense had three interceptions Tuesday: cornerback BoPete Keyes and safety Devon Key picked off Anthony Gordon, and safety Daniel Sorensen intercepted Shane Buechele.
  • Keyes has had a couple of interceptions to his name this camp and projects to be the final cornerback kept on the roster.
  • During a special teams punt period, Pringle, cornerback Mike Hughes and wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Darrius Shepherd got work as returners while Hardman partook in the quarterback competition on the opposite field. Who knows?
  • If the offensive value Hardman has shown at camp translates to the regular season, perhaps he could be taken off special teams sometime in the second half of 2021.
  • Regarding the friendly quarterback competition, Chad Henne had the best day, going 2/2 in target work as Mahomes, Buechele and Gordon all missed. Henne did not participate in team work for the second straight 10-10-10 practice, allowing the potential third-stringers to get the reps.
  • Defensive lineman Khalen Saunders has been noticeably better this camp, and he is beginning to be rewarded with first-team reps here and there. A positive development for Saunders — who had somewhat of a throwaway year in 2020.
  • Spagnuolo on Saunders after practice: “It’ll be good to get him up and going again... Khalen sticks out — one, because he dealt with the injury. You want to see if those guys are back... (Defensive line coach) Brendan Daly mentioned this the other day in our staff meeting that he has stacked a bunch of days together where he’s been really good. Early on, it was the drill work that looked really good, but it wasn’t transferring to some of our team work here, but that seems to be coming — and hopefully, that will happen as we go, and it will be good to get in a game where we hit somebody for real.”
  • Kicker Harrison Butker had an opportunity to go against the wind at camp Tuesday, managing a range of around 50 yards before he missed.

Press conferences (Spotify)

If you can’t see the embed below, click here for Apple iTunes.

Injury report

  • Returned to practice: defensive end Joshua Kaindoh (hamstring), running back Darrel Williams (knee), offensive lineman Darryl Williams (COVID list)
  • Did not practice (COVID-19 list): n/a
  • Did not practice/not in pads (due to injury): Tight end Evan Baylis (ankle), wide receiver Antonio Callaway (bone bruise), right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (hand), linebacker Willie Gay (concussion protocol), defensive end Malik Herring (ACL), right guard Kyle Long (tibia), defensive end Alex Okafor (hamstring), right tackle Mike Remmers (back spasms),
  • Did not participate in team drills (injury): n/a
  • Injured at practice Tuesday: n/a

Tweet of the day

Our John Dixon compiled all of Tuesday’s tweets here. Here is the tweet of the day:

Poll

How many Big Macs did Chris Jones eat in this sitting?

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Quote of the day

Kansas City Chiefs v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on the light workout Tuesday: “That’s one of those 10-10-10 practices that are painful for a defensive coach because it’s hard to simulate. It’s painful! I’m being honest with you.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs are off on Wednesday and return to the practice field Thursday at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and several players will speak to the media after practice. Then it’s another day off on Friday before the first preseason game of 2021 on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Arrowhead Time.