When the Kansas City Chiefs have a game like Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the same old scapegoats tend to be called on the carpet.
In Chiefs Kingdom, one of the familiar ones is defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Knowing that this franchise has head coach Andy Reid, general manager Brett Veach and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, it’s obvious that during this era of Chiefs football, the team’s signature will always be offense.
But is it fair to say that Spagnuolo’s defense is underperforming? Is he really a part of the problem in Kansas City? Or is this a narrative that is simply driven by fans?
Let’s take a closer look at the defense since Spagnuolo took over in 2019.
By the numbers
Spagnuolo became the team’s defensive coordinator in 2019. Since then, his defenses have ranked seventh, 11th and eighth in points allowed. In 2022, the unit ranks 15th.
In yards allowed, the rankings are a little less impressive — 17th, 16th and 27th from 2019 through 2021. In this statistic, the defense currently ranks 15th.
In Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric, Spagnuolo’s defenses have been ranked 14th, 22nd and 24th. The unit currently ranks 25th.
None of these rankings suggest dominance. Instead, they describe a unit that is consistently ranked average to slightly below average.
We also see that under Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ defensive units have definitely performed better in points allowed than most other defensive metrics. This is a huge key in defensive success: bending but not breaking.
With the offense that Kansas City now possesses, fans always feel good when opponents have to settle for a field goal or are forced to punt. While Spagnuolo’s defenses could certainly stand to give up fewer yards, they have typically done a great job of tightening up when it was necessary — allowing the offense to do its thing.
It is important to remember, however, what Spagnuolo was initially asked to do. In 2018, the Chiefs had fielded a historically bad defense. At the same time, Mahomes had arrived — immediately demonstrating that the team was just a solid defense away from a Super Bowl. So Kansas City fans weren’t expecting a dominant defense. Instead, they thought the Chiefs would become an average defense that would be adequate for an offense-first team.
Return on investment
Veach has certainly invested in defensive free agents — including safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Frank Clark, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, safety Justin Reid and defensive tackle Jarran Reed. Aside from Mathieu — who had two All-Pro seasons in Kansas City — most of these free agents did not provide enough return for the investment made in them. The Chiefs definitely need to make better choices in the defensive free-agent market.
In the draft, the Chiefs will always have a hurdle to clear: as long as they keep winning, their first pick will be in the high 20s or low 30s. While Kansas City has used a large number of draft picks for defenders, few were in a range where elite talent could be found.
Still, the Chiefs have been well-supplied at linebacker with three Day 2 picks: Leo Chenal, Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr.
To get better returns from the draft, Kansas City will need to continue turning over its roster for earlier draft picks — like they did to acquire first-round picks Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis in 2022. It’s no coincidence that McDuffie is having a great impact as a rookie; he represents the highest pick the Chiefs have used on a defender since Spagnuolo came to Kansas City.
Defensive players drafted for Steve Spagnuolo:— Price Carter (@priceacarter) December 7, 2022
Product on the field
When you consider the hand Spagnuolo has been dealt, it is easier to respect his unit’s production. His scheme has brought aggression and uniqueness to the defense — something many fans desperately wanted in 2018. While he has had some blue-chip players — like Mathieu, defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — there has been a real lack of talent on that side of the ball.
For the defense, it can be a bit of a “chicken and egg” dilemma. Is its performance disappointing because the talent isn’t used well — or is the talent just not there? Some of that falls at Veach’s feet. Given their draft investment, Kansas City’s defense is probably close to where it should be. The clear shortcoming has been in free agency. While there have been small successes like Mike Pennel, Carlos Dunlap and Bashaud Breeland, Veach has mostly missed with his larger deals.
But when you compare the production to the investment, it’s hard to conclude that Spagnuolo has done anything that warrants his removal. If anything, I’d evaluate his performance as satisfactory. He’s been able to get high-level production with little investment in cornerbacks. He’s been aggressive — and pushing quarterbacks to make plays under pressure.
While there’s lots of room to improve the Chiefs’ defense, there’s little that says Steve Spagnuolo isn’t the man for the job.