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Steve Spagnuolo says rookie defensive backs ‘didn’t blink’ in win over Bengals

After its best cornerback was injured early in Sunday’s AFC title game, Kansas City had to make adjustments.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs are returning to the Super Bowl after getting a 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in last Sunday’s AFC Championship — and a strong defensive performance was a key part of the victory.

On Friday, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo credited improved tackling from his unit.

“I thought the tackling was really good,” he told reporters before the team’s practice. “It seems like — in this league — the tackling gets better as the season goes on. We know what it’s like at the beginning — because you’re not doing much of it in practice and preseason — and then in the games, the veterans don’t play a heck of a lot in preseason.”

Like almost everyone else watching, Spagnuolo was impressed by Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones, who collected two sacks — his first-ever in the postseason — along with five pressures of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to lead the team.

“I thought Chris was dominant — and real disruptive — in the pass game,” noted Spagnuolo. “And we needed that; we know how elite that quarterback is.”

Spagnuolo confirmed that just as in recent games, his plan was for cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to play on the outside against Cincinnati’s top receivers, while rookie corner Trent McDuffie would continue playing inside as the slot cornerback.

“Yeah, he was going to be inside from the beginning,” said the coordinator. “L.J. was going to be outside. It was probably going to stay that way most of the game — [although] we had some things in there where L.J. would be back inside.”

But the Chiefs were forced to adjust after Sneed was injured on the fourth defensive snap of the game — right in front of Spagnuolo.

“I looked over as he was on the ground,” recalled the coordinator. “I knew he was pretty shook, so I was concerned for him. But then it was just, ‘Get the next guy in there.’”

That “next guy” was fourth-round rookie Joshua Williams, who stepped directly into Sneed’s outside role across from seventh-round rookie Jaylen Watson — with second-round rookie Bryan Cook getting a significant number of snaps as the third safety.

“We adjusted a little bit,” acknowledged Spagnuolo. “Part of the game plan changed, if I’m being truly honest; there were some things we couldn’t do after that. But I will say this: the guys stepped up in there.”

They certainly did. Burrow completed 26 passes on 41 attempts for 270 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 70.2. It was his worst performance since Week 1’s 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The guys didn’t blink,” said Spagnuolo of his rookie defensive backs, who combined for six passes defended and 18 solo tackles. “They went out there and executed whatever we called. That was pretty impressive.”

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