During Monday night’s 21-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense put in a great performance against the reigning NFC champions’ high-powered offense. Quarterback Jalen Hurts finished with 150 passing yards and one interception. Top wide receiver A.J. Brown finished with just one reception for eight yards.
While there were a lot of things that factored into this defensive performance, what stood out to me was how the Chiefs’ pass-rushing pressure was affecting Hurts in the pocket. Kansas City sacked him five times — and also consistently got him off his spot and scrambling for his life.
Let’s consider four different pressures that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sent at the Eagles’ quarterback — and how they got him out of rhythm.
Stunts through the A-gap
Loved what KC did with their pressure plans. Kelce gets this one right, doesn't slide to the feigning Reid blitzing. Slides to Drue, RB duals the S and McDuffie. This is largely picked up well, but Hurts feet were/are erratic. Loved the late stunts into the A-gap for QB scrambles pic.twitter.com/HI4Be8wS6D— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2023
On this play — Philadelphia’s first third down — Kansas City is in a standard front, presenting no additional bodies at the line of scrimmage. Safety Justin Reid feigns that he’s going to blitz, but center Jason Kelce doesn’t take the bait. The Eagles are in a six-man protection, having their running back in a “dual” pass protect look: first, he is to scan the back side safety, then work across to the opposite slot.
The Chiefs end up sending four rushers, dropping defensive end Mike Danna and sending nickel corner Trent McDuffie on a simulated pressure. The running back picks this up perfectly — but when dealing with slot pressure, Hurts has a strong tendency to drift up in the pocket. Aware of this, Spagnuolo sends his defensive end on a stunt into the A-gap. This late insert by the defensive end throws Hurts’ feet and rhythm off — which leads to the sack.
In this case — even though Kelce got the protection right — the Chiefs still succeed.
Spying on Hurts
While Hurts will frequently step into pressure, his biggest tendency against pressure is to bail to his right. On one of Monday’s plays, that’s what he did to beat Kansas City on an Over route against a Cover 4 look.
This was a cool pressure design imo. PHI slides the protection fully to the left, RB fakes and duals the backside slot defender, but it still works since Hurts is a heavy bailer to the right vs. any pressure. Love using LBs (23 in this case) as spies to deal with Hurts pic.twitter.com/xdigvsNDsU— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2023
But on the play shown here, the Chiefs get their revenge. The Eagles go into a full slide protection, working all five offensive linemen to the left. The running back that motions into the backfield is responsible for any slot pressure away from the slide — and picks up the pressure well.
Hurts, however, is not willing to hang in the pocket. As he did before, he starts to bail to his right once he feels the slot blitz — but Kansas City has countered this by having linebacker Drue Tranquill spy Hurts. The linebacker chases him to the sideline, forcing him to throw the ball away.
There have been reports that Hurts has knee issues that have reduced his ability to make explosive runs. So against an athlete like Tranquill, he stood little chance.
Attacking empty formations
Philadelphia loves getting into five-man protections, getting all eligible receivers into the route concept. So the quarterback has to be aware of any blitzes or pressures so he can quickly get to his hot read. For the Eagles, this has been a frequent issue. Some of it is from playcalling, but it’s also something Hurts could do better. The Chiefs found ways to take advantage of that.
Sneed's INT attacked empty protection from the Eagles. The Eagles frequently like to get into 5-man protection, but Spags attacks well here. Sends Drue on a blitz to occupy center. McDuffie free runner. Hurts wants to replace the hot but doesn't scan checkdown backside pic.twitter.com/PdPc0Q9Zcw— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2023
On this play, the Chiefs are in a Cover 0 look. Philadelphia selects the protection well, going with a 5-0 look where Jason Kelce is blocking Tranquill. Hurts has to know he’s hot with the slot pressure, working to his back side checkdown with a rotating safety. But Hurts instead decides to throw a terrible ball to Brown on a skinny post route; the pressure causes him to short-arm the pass — which leads to L’Jarius Sneed’s interception.
Spagnuolo frequently attacked the Eagles’ empty protections with blitzes. A quarterback who struggles with reading (and handling) pressure will be in for a long day against those play-calls.
McDuffie’s blitzing popped in this game, in which he produced two sacks. On the second one, Hurts seemed to struggle against a simulated pressure that began with Spagnuolo using the gravity of defensive tackle Chris Jones.
McDuffie's sack was picked up well, but Hurts frequently struggled vs these creeper pressures and with dropping DL. Hurts doesn't realize he's hot here even after it's relatively well picked up. RT can't push out with CJ getting upfield, leaving 22 free. Love the stunt into A-gap pic.twitter.com/CkpybTvqlf— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2023
Once again, the Eagles call the right protection. The Chiefs again walk Reid into the B-gap — but again, Reid doesn’t blitz. While the ageless savant Jason Kelce isn’t fooled, his quarterback takes the bait. Hurts doesn’t realize McDuffie is hot off the edge — and Jones spiking upfield also prevents the right tackle from bumping out to stop the cornerback. So Jones’ gravity helps give McDuffie a free run to the quarterback, who was unaware of any pressure on his right side.
Throughout the game, Spagnuolo did a good job of maintaining rush integrity while sending pressure — something that creates problems for scrambling quarterbacks. By using late stunts into the A-gaps, Spagnuolo was able to take away Hurts’ ability to easily run up the middle. A shout-out here to second-year defensive end George Karlaftis, who did an excellent job executing these stunts.
The bottom line
It’s pretty clear that Spagnuolo learned some lessons from the Super Bowl, expanding them in this matchup — and he was able to put even more pressure on Hurts.
The Eagles actually did a good job of picking up most pressures — but that wasn’t always the point. Hurts struggles to read second-level pressure, which frequently leads to bailing and altering his footwork. Spagnuolo knew if he could get Hurts “off his spot,” it would seriously impact his effectiveness.
So once again, the Kansas City defense proved it is one of the league’s best. Spagnuolo has built a broad, innovative scheme with versatile personnel (who can adapt to any issue) at all three levels. There is no reason its success can’t be sustained through the playoffs, because Spagnuolo has proven he can find answers to any offensive problem — and gameplan against any quarterback.
This defense can absolutely carry Kansas City to a Super Bowl.