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Film review: Steve Spagnuolo is turning up the dial on pass-rushing creativity

Kansas City’s defensive coordinator continues to boost the pass rush with scheme and strategy.

NFL: OCT 23 Chiefs at 49ers Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Kansas City Chiefs enter their bye week, the headlines will be dominated by how the offense looked against the San Francisco 49ers — but the defense also played a key role in securing Sunday’s 44-23 win.

The Chiefs earned five sacks against the 49ers, which tied their Week 3 performance against the Indianapolis Colts. With 19 this season, they are tied for the NFL’s seventh-most sacks.

While the raw pass-rushing talent on Kansas City’s defensive front may not always get the job done, the play-calling of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has maximized what it can accomplish.

Let’s see how he did it during Sunday’s game in San Francisco.

Situational packages

Over the past three weeks, the Chiefs’ third-down defense has often featured a different front than the traditional four-man rush they’ve typically used on passing downs under Spagnuolo.

This lineup still has edge rushers on each end, but between them — lined up directly over the center — will be rookie defensive end George Karlaftis. A fourth defender could be a defensive end rushing over a guard — or even a linebacker who can rush, drop into a zone or become a quarterback spy.

The key part of the package is that defensive tackle Chris Jones is aligned as an edge rusher over the right tackle. It was in this look that he earned the sack against the Las Vegas Raiders that was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty. Against the Buffalo Bills, he earned the Chiefs’ only sack rushing from that edge.

In San Francisco, Jones earned two sacks in this package — the second one forcing a fumble and turnover.

Both times, Kansas City schemes to make sure the right guard is occupied so that he is unable to help the tackle — who eventually gets overwhelmed by Jones’ strength.

The alignment gives Jones more room to gain momentum and power as he engages with the offensive tackle.

Even when Jones didn’t earn a sack in these packages, he and the line made an impact. In some of them, defensive end Frank Clark was used on the interior as a stand-up rusher, which allowed him to create penetration with stunts.

In the first play shown here, this gives defensive end Carlos Dunlap enough room to bat down a pass. In the second, Clark occupies the right guard, allowing Jones to get quick pressure and force an incompletion.

Simulated pressure

In the running game, the 49ers gashed Kansas City’s defense, taking chunks on the ground as they wanted. So Spagnuolo frequently had to put eight in the box, calling run blitzes with both linebackers and safeties. Those were different than the blitzes he called to catch San Francisco passing on first and second down.

On this second down in the first half, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. creeps down to the line of scrimmage on the edge of the defense, setting up to blitz on the front side of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s vision. At the same time, slot cornerback L’Jarius Sneed shows blitz late from the opposite edge.

Garoppolo recognizes it and goes to beat it — but the two Kansas City defensive linemen inside of Gay immediately drop into coverage, clouding the throwing area that Garoppolo was banking on using to beat the blitz. This also leaves the right tackle with no one to block; Gay is past him by the time he recognizes his defensive end is dropping into coverage.

The simulated pressure was used a few times — but in this one from late in the first half, Gay and Sneed split a sack that eventually led to a punt.

Red zone blitz

That punt happened to be muffed, but we don’t need to talk about that — because the defense erased it by blitzing once again.

We see here that once the defense has forced a third down, they line up in a man-coverage look with safety Justin Reid helping over the middle. He then rotates over to cover tight end George Kittle, who first appears to have be covered by safety Juan Thornhill. This allows Thornhill to blitz. He and Karlaftis come free to force Garoppolo’s bad off-balance throw — which is intercepted by rookie cornerback Joshua Williams.

San Francisco left tackle Trent Williams failed to stop Thornhill’s penetration because he initially helped inside — but if he had realized Thornhill was coming, he probably would have stayed outside. So in a very important moment, the disguised look got the best of a veteran pass protector.

The bottom line

Despite some performances that leave us wanting more from individual defensive linemen, the Chiefs are seventh in sacks and pressure rate.

It’s because of what Spagnuolo is doing. He is adding more and more to his pass-rushing repertoire. Kansas City now ranks seventh in blitz percentage — but that only accounts for plays where the defense is sending more than four rushers. The simulated pressures show us that Spagnuolo is willing to blitz — and still rush only four.

When the scheme is topped with individual performances — like Frank Clark contributing to two sacks and a safety on back-to-back plays — the Chiefs’ pass rush can make enough plays to be effective. The win against San Francisco was the best example we’ve seen this season.

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