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Steve Spagnuolo addresses defensive breakdowns in Bengals game

On Wednesday, Kansas City’s defensive coordinator faced the press for the first time since Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

After his team’s 34-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, everyone’s been talking about Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

In his film review published in these pages on Tuesday, our Ron Kopp detailed multiple instances in Sunday’s game where the defense failed to adjust to how Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase were carving up the Kansas City secondary — and in particular, the third-and-27 play late in the fourth quarter, where Spagnuolo called an all-out blitz, leaving Chase one-on-one with Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward down the right sideline.

The play gained 30 yards to the Kansas City 11-yard line, setting up an unbelievable series of plays in which the Chiefs kept the Bengals out of the end zone on six consecutive snaps inside their own 2-yard line — and because of a penalty on the last of those plays, Cincinnati ended up with a first-and-goal inside the one, allowing them to kneel away the clock and win the game with a last-second field goal.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

“Hindsight’s 20/20, right? That’s always the case,” Spagnuolo told reporters on Wednesday. “The thinking was that we were addressing that play as a third-and-6 because it was at the 41-yard line — and any additional yardage was going to make it a field goal for them. It’s a tie ballgame — don’t want to give up a field goal to them — so the idea is to get an incomplete pass. And again: hindsight’s 20/20, but I think all the guys are comfortable with trying to get them to punt the football on fourth-and-27.”

And why not? Since Spagnuolo took it over in 2019, the Kansas City defense has faced 38 such situations: third-down plays with six or more yards to go between their 40 and 50-yard lines. 20 of them resulted in incomplete passes to bring up fourth down — and the Chiefs sacked the quarterback in four more. Opponents converted just 26.3% of those plays.

But Sunday’s situation was — by far — the longest down-and-distance one of Spagnuolo’s Chiefs defenses had faced in those situations. As Ron Kopp noted, such a play is a lot harder to defend when the offense has to gain so much ground to convert — and having already had so much success against the Kansas City defense, Burrow understandably felt confident he could do it again; that was the point Spagnuolo apparently failed to consider.

Our Pete Sweeney then reminded the coordinator that he has often spoken about limiting explosive plays — and wondered if such a poor defensive performance coming right before the playoffs could help remind Kansas City players (and coaches) that they cannot afford similar breakdowns in the coming weeks.

“Really good point,” chuckled Spagnuolo. ”We don’t want it to happen — but the context you just put it in is probably a good one. If that means that we’re not going to [have explosive plays against us] from here until we’re done playing, then I’m OK with it. But it was hard to see — and take. That had not bitten us for a long time; our guys have done a nice job.”

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Spagnuolo was right. In all, the Bengals completed five passes of 30 or more yards on Sunday. By themselves, they totaled 245 yards — and two of them each went for more than 60 yards and resulted in touchdowns. Spagnuolo’s Kansas City secondaries have never had so many such plays in a single game — and the most recent time it even came close was in early October, when Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen had four passes of 30 yards or more during his team’s 38-20 victory, totaling 180 yards and resulting in two scores. In the 10 games since then, the Chiefs had allowed a total of only nine passes of at least 30 yards.

“I’ll give credit to Cincinnati,” added Spagnuolo. “They got some explosive passes there — and it helped them win the football game.”

But at this point, there’s little else the team can do but do its best to move forward. Spagnuolo said he’s taking his cues from his boss: head coach Andy Reid.

“Coach Reid said in the locker room at the end of the game: ‘It didn’t go well. We didn’t play well. Let’s learn from it.’ And that’s what we all try to do in this game — in this league. If you don’t do that, you’ll end up going backwards. Listen, our guys just put their heads down [and] go on to the next game — [whether it’s] win, lose or draw in the past one. That’s kind of what this league is all about.”

And Spagnuolo remains confident in the players he has in the secondary.

“Lookit, I think the guys we’ve got back there — obviously led by Tyrann [Mathieu] — take a lot of pride in what happens back there,” he said. “It’s tough duty being an NFL defensive back. It has to function as one unit; it didn’t operate quite as good this past game. Listen... I trust these guys. I can see it in the last two practices that we’ve had. They take a lot of pride in that. They’re determined to fix it. Hopefully in this next game — which is on its way quick — we’re able to do that.”