clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steve Spagnuolo made the right decision to blitz Josh Allen so often

It isn’t always the right call — but in the circumstances in which Kansas City found itself, it was the right thing to do.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was dealt a tough hand against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon.

Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was on the last week of a suspension. Cornerback Trent McDuffie was still out with a hamstring injury. Both were supposed to be major cogs in Kansas City’s defense against a team like Buffalo. And that doesn’t even mention injuries to defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton (who is now on injured reserve), safety Bryan Cook and corner Rashad Fenton that also impacted defensive unit’s depth.

So if you told me that the Chiefs were going to hold the league’s second-ranked offense (by EPA) to 24 points, I would’ve been thrilled. Considering the lack of chess pieces Spagnuolo had available to him, holding Buffalo’s explosive offense to only 24 points was a minor miracle.

Yet there was still criticism of Spagnuolo’s game plan. The Chiefs were called out for their lack of pressure on Allen — and for playing too soft on the back end. The run defense faced scrutiny for allowing Devin Singletary to average 5.0 yards a carry.

But no criticisms were louder than those finding fault with Spagnuolo’s willingness to blitz Bills quarterback Josh Allen as much (or as long) as he did. The Chiefs blitzed Allen on 16 of his dropbacks — and were moderately successful.

On social media posts like this one, there was a lot of complaining about Spagnuolo sticking with the blitz for that long. But I didn’t feel the same way. As I was watching the game, I was actually impressed with how well the strategy was working.

These clips show it clearly: early in the game, the blitzes are really affecting Allen’s performance.

This season, Allen has been much better against blitzes and pressure — but early in the game, the Chiefs were still wildly successful getting after him. It could’ve been because of all the energy in the matchup — but when he saw pressure, Allen was a little rattled.

Allens’s feet and eyes are all over the place as the Chiefs send these blitzes, allowing Kansas City to get off the field multiple times — including on a fourth-and-3 that gives the Chiefs the ball with six and a half minutes before halftime.

But there were certainly downsides to blitzing. In the two-minute drive leading into halftime, the Bills were able to adjust some. Allen was calling out blitzes and hitting vacant zones — proving that Buffalo had some counters for the blitz.

The problem was that the game’s two worst defensive plays came on blitzes. When Allen read that pressure was coming, he decided to test rookie Joshua Williams on go routes. The Bills generated two touchdowns on these plays.

Were these defensive calls situationally bad? Maybe.

Blitzing in the red zone isn’t always the best idea, because teams tend to struggle in the smaller space available to them. So giving a rookie cornerback more space to defend probably wasn’t the smartest call against Buffalo.

But there were also times when red-zone blitzes worked — including stopping the Bills on third and fourth down at the goal line.

And while the blitz didn’t work near the end of the half, no one is bringing up the third-and-13 that Buffalo converted from its own 1-yard line. As we see here, the Chiefs are in a soft Cover 2 that gives Allen no pressure — and he is able to kickstart the drive.

On that same drive, Allen hits a deep hole shot to Stefon Diggs — and while the Cover 2 coverage makes it a super-tight throw, the lack of pressure from four rushers is again evident.

That was a theme for the entire day. The Chiefs generated little pressure with four, while Allen was able to hit every seam in Cover 2. We saw continuous throws down the sidelines and to the flats.

Yes, those zones are open in Cover 2 — but if the front can win quickly, they should be more restricted. And frankly, the Chiefs couldn’t get anything going up front.

All of these clips show Allen getting too much time in the pocket.

It’s true: situationally, some of the blitz calls may have been poor — but at some point, Spagnuolo had to affect Allen. With inexperienced cornerbacks, the Chiefs couldn’t run diverse coverages; it just had to be spot-drop Cover 2 all the time. And Allen was flat-out shredding that coverage all afternoon.

Yes, some of the blitzes were bad — but a lot of them worked. Allen did feel the heat of pressure. He also made some incredible plays — because, well, Allen is an alien. It’s going to happen when you play a quarterback who is that good. Allen will make ridiculous plays against any defensive structure presented to him.

No strategy was going to be perfect, but I’ll take Sunday’s blitz successes against the blitz failures. Two touchdowns were given up on blitzes, but the Chiefs also got two stops directly from blitzes. You can’t simply ignore that context because you’re mad about the touchdowns.

The bottom line

There certainly can be plenty of criticism of the Chiefs' defensive game plan. Allowing the Bills to generate so many easy yards against the base defense was a big problem. Spagnuolo did adjust by playing less base against heavier personnel, but going into the game with that plan was bad. The Bills don’t run the ball out of 12 and 21 personnel well enough to justify playing three slower linebackers. To me, that criticism is totally valid.

You can also criticize Spagnuolo for not being creative enough with his front four — or on a more macro level, challenge Spagnuolo’s preference for bigger, slower defensive ends. Maybe that’s a strategy that can no longer work when you have to rush the newest crop of very good quarterbacks — which the Chiefs have to do.

You can criticize the run defense for allowing Devin Singletary — who was averaging only 4.2 yards per atempt prior to the game — 85 yards on 17 carries. The Bills came into the game ranked 28th in running EPA, but Kansas City allowed Buffalo to get into advantageous early-down looks.

But where I draw the line is blaming Spagnuolo for blitzing. The heavy Cover 2 strategy wasn’t working because the Chiefs had trouble generating pressure with four. Allen was routinely able to hit deep hole shots against Cover 2. If the four-man pass rush is better, those shots aren’t there — and blitzing isn’t needed all the time.

But for better or worse, it’s in Spagnuolo’s DNA to send pressure. In some games, it’s bad — and on Sunday, the Chiefs did get burned a couple of times. Yet the only time Allen was pressing was against the blitz — which was the only way the Chiefs could get any pressure. Against a player as talented as Allen, it’s a gamble. But it was a gamble that paid off often enough to justify its use.

This doesn’t mean that blitzing will work the next time these teams face each other — but with regard to Sunday’s game, I’ll continue to argue that sending heat after Allen was the right idea.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Arrowhead Pride Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your Kansas City Chiefs news from Arrowhead Pride