For years, the Kansas City Chiefs employed a defensive philosophy that could be described as bend-but-don’t-break. In other words, the unit would allow yards and time of possession — while at the same time, focus on preventing long touchdowns and holding strong in the red zone.
But current Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s strategy tends to be more make-or-break. He tends to look for the big play — while accepting the higher level of risk that these play-calls present.
That’s what we see when Spagnuolo blitzes with volume and creativity — and Kansas City’s fans have seen both sides of the coin. During the team’s 34-28 win against the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon, each extreme was displayed to a degree that is rarely seen.
In the second quarter, the Chiefs jumped out to a 27-0 lead when linebacker Willie Gay Jr. returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown. It was the result of an aggressive decision to make a play on fourth-and-short.
The situation in Denver is even more dire than we realized.pic.twitter.com/kUoYsVyAyp— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) December 11, 2022
“It was really a blitz,” Gay revealed to reporters after the game. “I realized what kind of play it was: they were trying to bring me down so they could get it over my head. [So] I wasn’t going to blitz to the quarterback. I was going to try and get my hand up — and that’s what I did. Luckily, it came right to me after I knocked it down.”
As Denver quarterback Russell Wilson came out of his play-action fake, he realized Gay was in his throwing lane. He tried to throw it over and around the linebacker — but the third-year playmaker twisted in the air, softly tapping the ball back to himself.
It’s one thing to force a turnover. It’s another to turn it directly into six points. But once the ball was in his hands, Gay had no doubt he would do just that.
“I was an athlete all through high school,” Gay reminded reporters. “I knew I was going to be able to get there.”
Gay’s first career touchdown gave Kansas City what felt like an insurmountable lead — until the negative side of Spagnuolo’s high-variance defense reared its head. Following Gay’s interception, Denver scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, rapidly tightening the Chiefs’ lead to just six points.
Denver caught #Chiefs & Spags in their tendency to blitz on 2nd & long— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 12, 2022
Not only that, they call the screen to the side KC is blitzing two from -- putting Bolton in a bad spot in space
Still think there could be better effort from him and others to stop this short of EZ pic.twitter.com/zvcFxP03sl
One of those touchdowns came on a second-and-14. Denver used Spagnuolo’s tendency to blitz in such a situation against him, calling a screen pass to the side of the field that Kansas City had abandoned by blitzing two off-ball defenders. Poor open-field tackling made this play much worse than it should have been. Still, it was one of the possible results when that defensive call is made.
“It’s the details that let a team score two [or] three touchdowns in a short time span,” explained Gay. “It can be any call you [make]. If one person is out of the gap or misses an assignment, you get a screen play [that goes] 60 yards. You get a quarterback scrambling 15 or 20 yards and those things add up. The touchdown to [Broncos wide receiver Jerry] Jeudy in the back of the end zone after the scramble? Stuff like that leads to touchdowns. That’s definitely stuff we can fix at practice this week.”
The negative plays will naturally mask the positives from the Chiefs’ defensive performance — and there were good stretches. The Broncos went three-and-out six times and gave up six sacks. The defense ultimately closed out the game, holding a six-point fourth-quarter lead after an interception by quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
That was the big takeaway for Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid.
“I thought our defense played hard — tremendous — today,” said Reid in his opening postgame statement. “With the exception of a couple [of] interceptions where the defense was in a bad position with a short field, I thought overall, they really played hard and aggressive.”
While that aggression led to some of the most important plays in Kansas City’s win, it also gave Denver opportunities to make the game competitive. The Chiefs’ defense needs to see more of the positive swings that result from its aggressive nature — but for that to happen, the unit must improve how it limits what goes wrong when a play swings the other way.