By the time Super Bowl 54 in Miami comes around, it will have been fifty years since the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings for their only Championship win to date. Their defeat to the New England Patriots in this season’s AFC Championship Game means they have lost twelve of their last fourteen play off games.
With a record like that, something had to give this off season, and it did. Defensive co-ordinator Bob Sutton was given his marching orders just two days after that defeat to New England.
If you’re a fan of the other 28 teams that don’t make it to Championship weekend, firing someone after getting to that stage might seem harsh. However, Sutton has overseen too many defences that have failed in big games since his tenure began in 2013.
This season has been no different. Whilst the offence has fired on all cylinders behind the arm of Patrick Mahomes and the super speed of Tyreek Hill, the defence has struggled.
Despite Chris Jones having a disruptive season off the edge with 15.5 sacks, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens being ranked in the top five for total tackles, the Chiefs featured near the bottom of most defensive categories. They were 31st in both total and passing defence, and only marginally better in the run game, ranking 27th. Those run game statistics are somewhat misleading. So often in games, opposition teams had to abandon their ground game as they were already a touchdown or more behind thanks to Mahomes and co.
The problems for the Chiefs defence were encapsulated in the Week 15 loss to the LA Chargers. After keeping Rivers in check for most of the game, the defence capitulated late on. Weak play in the secondary and poor play recognition lead to chunk plays being given up especially on third down. Sutton’s inability to adapt and adjust in situations like these are ultimately what lead to his dismissal. It was also reported that he had lost the confidence of the players and coaches.
The Chiefs took no time at all in finding a replacement. Two days after Sutton’s departure, Steve Spagnuolo was announced as the new defensive co-ordinator.
The overriding feeling coming out of Chiefs Kingdom is that change is what was needed. The fan forums, a dark place to delve into, screamed with “anyone but Bob Sutton”. In Spagnuolo, change is most definitely what they have got.
Where Sutton employed a base 3-4 defence, Spagnuolo prefers a 4-3 base. He is an aggressive defensive co-ordinator who loves to run blitz plays. In his time as New York Giants DC he would put 3 or 4 defensive ends on the line and attack the quarterback. He isn’t shy to use corner and safety blitzes either.
His aggressive approach was famously put to best use with the 2007 New York Giants. His defence lead the league in sacks and in Super Bowl 42 put Tom Brady on his back a season high five times.
This will be music to the ears of players like Jones and linebacker Justin Houston. For me, it would make sense that Houston could line up at defensive end in Spagnuolo’s system.
Franchise Tag for Ford?
Another key cog of ensuring the defensive success going forward will be Dee Ford. The linebacker had a formidable season in 2018 with 13 sacks and will be one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market. It would be in the Chiefs best interest to ensure that doesn’t happen. Franchise tagging him would cost the Chiefs around $16 million. That figure would pay him around the average of teammate Justin Houston’s current deal. Demanding any more would put him amongst the likes of Von Miller and Khalil Mack.
Keeping Ford will be a priority, but there is a draft class brimming with defensive talent to help the transition. The Chiefs will pick at 29 in round 1 unless a trade takes place before or during draft day. Due to the depth of the class there should still be plenty of high calibre players available. A defensive tackle or end will be a must, as will adding to the secondary. If Christian Wilkins is still available then I suspect to see the Chiefs sprint to the podium to select him. Delaware’s Nasir Adderley would be a nice pick at safety and he could learn from one of the best in Eric Berry.
What have you done for me lately?
For all the generally positive chatter, there is some element of doubt about Spagnuolo’s appointment.
Those elements point to his recent record in the league and his season spent out of the game.
For all the success of those 2007 New York Giants, it hasn’t been plain sailing for Steve.
Firstly, there was the 10-38 record as head coach of the Rams from 2009-11.
Then, Spagnuolo found himself collateral damage in the New Orleans Saints bountygate scandal. Returning to a role of defensive co-ordinator, he had to steer the ship without the his head coach as Sean Payton was suspended for the year. He guided the Saints to a 7-9 record and the dubious accolade of the most porous defence in the history of the league.
After a two season stretch as an assistant coach in Baltimore, his last action in the league saw him return to New York. It would be another less than successful spell as the 2015 Giants finished bottom in overall defence. He would be relieved of his duty along with the rest of Ben McAdoo’s staff at the end of a 3-13 2017 season.
Familiar face in an unfamiliar place…
Spagnuolo will be hoping for a return to winning ways as he returns to the league. He does it at a team with a familiar face and an ally in his corner. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid worked with Spagnuolo at the Philadelphia Eagles and had this to say about:
“Steve is a bright defensive mind with a lot of coaching experience and success in our league. I know him well from our time together in Philadelphia and I feel that his leadership skills and teaching abilities, combined with his scheme, will be a great fit for our team as we move forward”.
When you fall short just shy of reaching the Super Bowl, moving forward can only mean one thing…
Photo Credit: Kim Klement (USA Today)