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Film review: Steve Spagnuolo dialed up right play at right time to halt Browns

There will be better days for the Chiefs’ defensive players, but Spags’ play-calling helped them seal the deal.

NFL: SEP 12 Browns at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was bad, there was good — and there was a game-winning play calling by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 1 win over the Cleveland Browns. I broke down plays from the game that fit all three categories.

Usually, we would start with the good, but most of the bad from the game came much earlier than the good — so it’s natural we start there:

The bad

The Browns methodically marched down the field on the first possession, scoring a touchdown and a two-point conversion to conclude a drive that took over seven minutes. A few of their first-down conversions came by way of coverage mishaps.

On the first play of the second drive, the Browns take a shot off a play-action fake — and it works for a gain of 44 yards.

Safety Juan Thornhill is responsible for the deep half of the field towards his side on this play. Seeing a heavy formation, Thornhill creeps up to the box to help against a potential run — but doesn’t bail back to his zone fast enough once he recognizes pass. This allows speedy, rookie wide receiver Anthony Schwartz to get behind him and give Mayfield a huge window towards the sideline to throw into. He bobbles the completion; if he catches it cleanly, he likely scores.

Schwartz was relatively unknown going into the game, so it’s possible Thornhill underestimated his speed on this play. Even then, he should have put himself in a better position to recover and prevent a receiver from getting behind him.

The absence of second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was felt throughout the game. His superior athleticism to the other linebackers on the field would have helped the unit defend play-action passes better.

I believe he also would have boosted the run defense. Here, linebacker Ben Niemann is the second linebacker alongside Anthony Hitchens in their nickel personnel. On an outside run, Niemann flows well and gets himself to the appropriate lane to attack the ball carrier. Yet, his lack of burst or short-area speed prevents him from making a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

Gay excels at exploding through lanes and closing on ball carriers in these types of situations. On a third-and-5, a quicker tackle could have prevented Cleveland from going for it on fourth down the next play — which resulted in a touchdown.

This play is the ugliest of them all. The Browns run a counter to the left, and running back Nick Chubb isn’t touched as he runs 18 yards for the score.

Rookie defensive end Joshua Kaindoh makes a rookie mistake here: as the left tackle blocks down, Kaindoh should stay square to the line of scrimmage and prepare for a kick-out block. Instead, he turns his shoulders and blindly follows the tackle inside. It makes the block for the pulling guard incredibly easy; he basically down blocked himself.

As for cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, he appears to disregard the possibility of a run and focuses on attacking the wide receiver’s release. This takes away the defense’s outside contain.

Finally, Niemann seems to read the running back’s initial step towards the right, because he also steps in that direction. He should have his eyes on the guards to see if either pulls, which the right guard does. That false step gives the climbing left guard an easy angle to seal him from the point of attack.

This touchdown gave the Browns 22 points in the first half; they totaled 318 yards in the period.


The good

What felt like the first positive defensive play of the game happened to be the last legitimate play before halftime.

Defensive end Chris Jones notches his first sack of the season thanks to an advantageous pass-rush alignment. With Mike Danna inside of him attacking the guard and Jarran Reed over the center, there’s no help for the backup left tackle taking on Jones. The All-Pro pass-rusher takes advantage of the one-on-one mismatch and prevents Cleveland from scoring again before halftime.

In the second half of this clip, Jones flies out of his stance and is barely touched by right tackle Jack Conklin for his second sack. This fourth-quarter play was equally crucial; it put the Browns in a second down with 17 yards to convert, and they couldn’t recover.

On third down, with the Chiefs trying to keep their lead late, this incredible play on the ball was made by Thornhill. He tightly defended the receiver on a jump pass, cleanly goes up with him and has great technique in placing his hand between the pass-catcher and rips the ball away from the body as they fell to the grass.

However, this play is a mix of good and bad. The speedy Schwartz initially gets on top of Thornhill — who is responsible for that deep half of the field again — and has a step on him, angling towards the sideline. Mayfield just isn’t able to lead him there, and that allowed Thornhill to recover.


The game-winning play call

Spagnuolo dialed up a unique zone blitz on the last play of the game, leading to Mayfield throwing the ultimate interception.

In their dime personnel, the Chiefs show a heavy blitz coming; it appears that three additional defenders besides the four down linemen are coming in the backfield. Those three do blitz — but defensive end Alex Okafor and defensive tackle Jarran Reed drop back into short-area zone coverage immediately after the snap.

The secondary also reveals they’re in zone coverage rather than man, which makes Mayfield hesitate to throw. The confusion forces him to focus his eyes on the pressure, which he maneuvers well initially — but a shoestring grab by the blitzing Dan Sorensen forces an errant throw by Mayfield.

The best part? Spagnuolo tested out this type of play earlier in the game.

On this second down from the first drive, two blitzing linebackers penetrate the pocket while the two defensive ends drop into coverage. It worked against Mayfield the first time, and Spagnuolo waited for the perfect time to use it again.

The bottom line

Defensively, the Chiefs need to play better in future games — and they will. The three absent starters will return soon enough, and they won’t always play an offense as multiple and as unpredictable as Cleveland’s.

As long as they have Spags running the show, defenders will be positioned to make game-changing plays like they were in Week 1.