It’s the one play no defense can solve. When preparing to face the Philadelphia Eagles — as the Kansas City Chiefs will on this week’s edition of Monday Night Football — the controversial “tush push” quarterback sneak looms large.
The Eagles have been so successful using a rugby-like push from behind when quarterback Jalen Hurts keeps the ball in short-yardage situations that their offense effectively begins each series at first-and-8 — because the final yards are almost a given.
Speaking before Friday’s practice, Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Joe Cullen argued that the best way to stop the push is to eliminate the opportunities for it.
Spagnuolo leaned into the Chiefs’ recent experience as the Eagles put up 35 points against them in Super Bowl LVII.
“They had the ball for a long time,” he recalled. “We began this week with first and second down are huge. To end up in those shorter third downs is really tough against this team. They will run it on a third-and-7 and then go for it on fourth down. They keep you on your toes. We just feel like first and second downs are key downs for us in this game.”
Scouting film from the 8-1 Eagles’ opponents has not provided the coach with great answers — other than the chilling reality that defenses often are tasked with stopping the Eagles’ signature short-yardage play for two downs in a row.
“I think Washington had one play where they actually did a pretty good job,” Spagnuolo observed, “and I think there might have been a stop — and then they went for it on fourth. That’s the thing, if you stop them on third-and-1 for half a yard, they come right back on fourth down, and you have to do it again.
“We’ll try to be as stout as we can. I don’t have any secrets on that — I wish I did. The best thing we can do is try not to be in those situations. That’s why I’m going back to first and second down.”
The play is also frustrating because it cannot be replicated in practice.
“There’s a little bit of trust involved,” Spagnuolo admitted. “We can’t simulate that in practice. You’d have to be full padded, and nobody really practices that way right now. It’s more of an assignment thing. We’re talking to guys about, ‘Maybe we can do this.’ We try to steal things that are on tape that we thought were pretty good. But it’s a mano y mano deal. They’re pushing us, [and] we try to push them back.”
Cullen said that he and Spagnuolo have been discussing short-yardage situations since defeating Philadelphia in the Super Bowl, but he agreed with his coordinator that the best defense against it is prevention.
“If anyone has any new ideas, let me know,” Cullen joked. “That’s something we really talked about after that game [with] Coach Spags after the offseason and just being able to get a little lower [and] do a few things that maybe will help it... It’s about stopping it with leverage and people being able to get the quarterback because that extra push and the second push is really what gets you.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep them out of those situations. Let’s get them to third-and-long.”
Some pundits have called for the play to be banned, seeing it as a loophole in football rules rather than an actual legitimate play. Citing his current focus on preparing for the Eagles, Cullen declined to weigh in on the merits of banning it.
“It’s a legal play, so we’re going to coach against it,” he reiterated. “We have to get ready for anything. If it’s legal, we’re getting ready for it.”