Now leading a unit with many new faces, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a lot to learn when the regular season kicks off against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The preseason can only show so much — and the regular season is starting off with a very tough challenge.
The Arizona offense will be centered around quarterback Kyler Murray. He may be missing star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for this matchup, but Spagnuolo understands Murray is still a great playmaker. He emphasized that when speaking to reporters before Thursday’s practice.
“There’s plenty of skill out there, but the No. 1 guy obviously is the quarterback,” Spagnuolo pointed out. “He’s the guy. He can wreck a game. He can wreck a game throwing it, and he can wreck a game running it.”
Sunday will be the first time Spagnuolo has had to face Murray — but it’s not the first time his defense has faced a dual-threat quarterback like him. The coordinator has had plenty of matchups with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, whom he compared directly to Murray.
“He’s electric like Lamar,” he noted. “Josh Allen’s different, but this guy gives you the same headaches [of] all those guys that are a threat to run — not just on designed runs, but when he decides to do it on a pass play. He has a unique feel — especially against man [coverage] — for finding room. When he takes off and gets north and south, it can be a problem.”
Murray will be a huge test for both the young players and the new veterans in Spagnuolo’s secondary. His passing skills can present a lot of challenges for the Chiefs’ defensive backs — especially if Kansas City’s pass rush doesn’t do its job.
It’ll be a different pass-rushing plan than a normal game — or game against a quarterback who isn’t as mobile. Spagnuolo said he is telling his pass rushers to play contain as they try to get after the Cardinals’ signal-caller.
“There’s a little bit more of a ‘corral’ philosophy,” he explained. “It’s not about the explosive hit on [Murray], it’s about keeping him corralled and somehow getting him down. That’s going to take more than one person — he makes any one person in space miss — so it’s still going to come back to playing relentless football and getting a lot of guys around the ball, especially when he decides to tuck it and run.”
While the Chiefs haven’t faced Murray, veteran safety Justin Reid played against him in 2021 while he was for the Houston Texans. The Cardinals won the game 31-5 — and Reid said that Murray presented many challenges.
“What I remember the most is the unscripted plays,” he reflected. “What I mean by that is him extending plays, extending drives by just scrambling around. It wasn’t only the difficulty of tackling him, but also some of the problems we ran into [were] — since he is a little bit shorter — our defensive linemen were tackling high, and getting flags all over the place for it. It’s not just getting him down, but getting him down in a way that’s legal to the game, so he doesn’t get an automatic first down.”
If that sounds like the Chiefs are primarily focused on Murray’s skill as a ball carrier and his ability to evade pressure, they likely are — but it’s not because they see him as a run-first quarterback. Reid noted that Murray is a very good passer who can pick secondaries apart. He just believes he’s less likely to do that if he’s corralled and contained between his offensive tackles.
“Inside the pocket, they’ll still occasionally take their shots.” Reid explained. “A lot of times, though, it can be a 50/50 ball [where] we have opportunities for turnovers. When he gets out of the pocket and has clear lines of vision downfield and really starts throwing more of a line-drive ball to hit his target — being a former baseball player, he can really sling it down the field — and that’s really where he’s at his most dangerous. That’s where it comes back to corralling him. Keeping him inside the pocket and making him throw it from there will make our job on the back end a little more effective.”
So on Sunday, it will be a team effort to defend against the Cardinals quarterback. The pass rush will need to play well in order for the secondary to have a chance at stopping Murray’s passes. Both Spagnuolo and Reid are clearly aware of that. They are making it a point of emphasis — perhaps the biggest one — for the Kansas City defense.