Speaking to local media last week, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo attempted to adjust expectations for his defense under the scenario in which his top NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, defensive tackle Chris Jones, was to sit out actual regular-season games.
Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo on whether a DL room without Chris Jones and Charles Omenihu would be enough for Week 1 vs. Lions: "It will have to be, right? It will have to be."— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) August 22, 2023
HC Andy Reid and DC Steve Spagnuolo have said the same thing here regarding Chris Jones and his status two days in a row now. The Chiefs are at a point where they are handling it as if the All-Pro defensive tackle is out of the lineup due to injury. Next-man-up approach.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) August 23, 2023
It was a snippet of raw honesty that Spagnuolo tends to convey publicly, more so than many of his fellow NFL coaching counterparts. His defense is worse off without Jones — it will almost assuredly show in their on-field productivity, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge that in the open.
The old adage is true — it will take everyone elevating their game in order to compensate for missing the unit’s best player. However, some are going to feel a greater sense of urgency than others.
So, if we are to see the Chiefs play without Jones versus the Detroit Lions on September 7 or beyond, where does the most pressure fall defensively?
It wouldn’t be fair not to lump the other defensive coaches in this post, too.
The sudden necessity to quickly develop young defensive ends like George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah has never been stronger for defensive line coach Joe Cullen. It’s still Spagnuolo’s unit to lead though, ultimately. He’s the down-to-down play caller.
With Jones, Spagnuolo has ultimate flexibility in his game plans each week. If he wants to leave more defenders in coverage because he believes Jones and company are more than capable of dominating the opposing offensive line straight up, it’s a luxury he can absolutely afford due to Jones’ dominance and how it makes life easier for his peers as well.
Without Jones, Spagnuolo will be forced to go to his blitz packages, perhaps more frequently than he would like. He won’t be able to adapt his plans based on the opponent that week and what they do, but will generally need to do whatever it takes to create a steady pass rush — even if that means sending an extra linebacker or defensive back far more often.
The Chiefs have a few players in particular who have proven to be productive, skilled blitzers already, and Spagnuolo will have to leverage that early and often. Names to look for include linebackers Drue Tranquill, Willie Gay Jr., and Leo Chenal — as well as defensive backs Trent McDuffie, Chamarri Conner, L’Jarius Sneed, Justin Reid and others. This is the best group of back-seven blitzers that general manager Brett Veach has rostered since Spagnuolo arrived in 2019.
Even still, how Spagnuolo and his staff are able to motivate and instill confidence within their players is paramount to withstand Jones’ absence. It will take some time to feel out the unit’s identity (it always does, even with Jones) but this year, it might be harder than normal.
We could spend a lot of time talking about the depth — or lack thereof — at defensive tackle behind Jones and how that impacts the upside of the unit. Let’s keep it simple — no one is replacing Jones at the position, especially as a full-time, three-down player. Sure, defensive linemen Charles Omenihu (who is suspended for the first six games), Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton have all proven to be highly capable interior pass rushers in situations where the opponent is very likely to pass, but they aren’t built to stay at the tackle position at all times.
A less impactful group of starters at defensive tackle means the defensive backs will have to be relied on in coverage even more. The secondary has the makings to be arguably Kansas City’s best, most well-rounded position group in 2023, and they’ll have to be for the defense to be good without Jones.
Think of the way Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have manufactured so many top 10 defensive units in the past decade — largely built on exceptionally smart and athletic secondaries while the coaching staff schemed the defensive front in unique ways that maximized their talents.
This is probably Kansas City’s one and only path to containing the best offenses the NFL has to offer if Jones is not in uniform.
George Karlaftis, Mike Danna and Felix Anudike-Uzomah
Lastly, three specific defensive ends — Karlaftis, Danna, and Anudike-Uzomah — become the focal point of what is left of the Chiefs’ four-man pass rush, at least until Omenihu returns from his six-game suspension.
The team has high hopes and expectations for the aforementioned players, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them logged double-digit sacks this season, especially if Jones were to assist them for a full 17 games. If he doesn’t, though, it means one or more of those players has to become the guy. Some opponents feel threatened by and need to account for every snap. Odds are, especially with how young Karlaftis and Anudike-Uzomah are, they may not be ready to take that kind of step. A championship-caliber team waits for no one though, and thus somewhat unfair expectations could be in store for the next men up in the defensive line room.
Chiefs fans remain quite divided on the topic as emotions run high during contract negotiations, but for 2023 and likely beyond, the best solution remains a contract extension in which Jones and Kansas City meet somewhere in the middle — ensuring he does stay a “Chief for life” as he stated he would earlier this offseason, and positioning the Kansas City defense to truly ascend to a level not yet seen in the Spagnuolo era.
Will Chris Jones play against the Lions?
This poll is closed