NFL

Super Bowl 58 Difference Maker: Kansas City Chiefs Have a Great Defense

By Scott Kacsmar

While we are not getting a direct rematch in Super Bowl 58 from last year, the Kansas City Chiefs are back in the big game against a familiar foe thanks to an elite defense that few imagined coming into the season. The Chiefs will take on the San Francisco 49ers, the team they vanquished in Super Bowl 54 to win the first championship of the Patrick Mahomes era.

If they win this one, then three Super Bowl wins in five years with the league’s first repeat since the 2003-04 Patriots would be enough to qualify as a new dynasty. But that term was usually reserved for teams who were elite on both sides of the ball, and it is only this season that the Kansas City defense has stepped up to that level to compensate for an offense that has taken some steps back in 2023.

A year ago, you never would have expected the Chiefs to win a 17-10 AFC Championship Game in Baltimore where the team did not score after halftime. But that just happened.

However, winning another Super Bowl usually requires a different path from the last one. The Chiefs were inevitably going to have to get stronger on defense while the offense deals with shortcomings at wide receiver and Travis Kelce turning 34 years old, an age where most star tight ends are already retired or in heavy decline.

Yet the Chiefs are in the Super Bowl again, and their defense is the biggest difference maker compared to the matchup four years ago against the 49ers when they came back to win 31-20. They will be facing a tougher San Francisco offense this time with Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey added to maestro Kyle Shanahan’s orchestra of weapons.

We will have a full Super Bowl preview next week, but for now, let’s profile the path the Kansas City defense has taken to reach this elite level of play that has them on the verge of a third championship.

Blessing in Disguise: 2018 Title Game Loss Makes Bob Sutton Leave Town

Yes, we are going back that far. Sometimes a team needs to lose before it can learn how to win. The Chiefs did a lot of winning right out of the gate in 2018 when Patrick Mahomes took over as the starting quarterback, but that team was a classic case of an offensive juggernaut held back by a poor defense.

Enough things still broke their way to finish 12-4 and earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but that team simply made too many mistakes on defense under coordinator Bob Sutton to be a serious championship winner:

  • The 2018 Chiefs allowed 43 points in New England, including a game-winning field goal with no time left in a 43-40 loss.
  • The Chiefs lost 54-51 to the Rams on a Monday night, the first and only game in NFL history where a team scored 50 points and lost. Orlando Scandrick dropped a Jared Goff interception on what became the game-winning drive for Los Angeles.
  • The Chiefs blew a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter to Philip Rivers and the Chargers at home after giving up a 2-point conversion in the final seconds in a 29-28 loss.
  • The Chiefs lost 38-31 in a shootout in Seattle with Russell Wilson, another playoff opponent with a good quarterback.
  • In the 2018 AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs had a chance to win the game late, but Dee Ford lined up offsides, negating an interception thrown by Tom Brady, who led a touchdown drive, then converted multiple third downs in overtime to Julian Edelman for a game-winning touchdown drive in a 37-31 loss for the Chiefs.

When Tony Romo is calling out the plays in overtime for CBS with 100% accuracy just based on the formation, you know your coordinator is cooked.

As tough as that title game loss was, it made it clear the Chiefs needed a new defensive coordinator. Sutton was there in 2013 when the team blew a 38-10 lead in the wild card round to Andrew Luck and the Colts. He was there in 2017 when the team blew a 21-3 halftime lead in the wild card round to Marcus Mariota and the Titans.

We are not saying the Chiefs have never blown such a lead since, but Sutton clearly had to go after that 2018 season so that the defense could stop being such a burden for what was obviously about to become the best offense in the NFL.

Look at the change since:

  • The Chiefs allowed at least 37 points in 5 of Mahomes’ first 19 starts under Sutton (26.3%).
  • The Chiefs have allowed at least 37 points in 2 of Mahomes’ 94 starts since 2019 after Sutton was fired (2.1%).
  • The Chiefs blew 4 leads in the fourth quarter in 2018, more than they have in any season since as 2019 (2), 2020 (0), 2021 (3), 2022 (3), and 2023 (2) all had fewer.

The Chiefs nipped their defensive struggles in the bud and were not going to allow this to become another great offense wasted by a bad defense like the Air Coryell Chargers, Dan Marino’s Dolphins, Dick Vermeil’s Chiefs, or those Peyton Manning teams in Indianapolis in the 2000s.

Steve Spagnuolo: In Spags We Trust

Kansas City’s run may not be what it is today if head coach Andy Reid did not hire an old assistant in Steve Spagnuolo, who coached Reid’s defensive backs and linebackers when the two were together in Philadelphia in 1999-2006. Reid ran the offense, and the great Jim Johnson oversaw the defense with assistants like Spagnuolo, John Harbaugh, and Sean McDermott on his staff. Reid of course just won road playoff games against McDermott’s Bills and Harbaugh’s Ravens to get to this Super Bowl, but these guys go back many years.

Truth be told, Spagnuolo had a rough decade of coaching when the Chiefs hired him to replace Sutton as their defensive coordinator in 2019:

  • Spagnuolo had an awful 10-38 (.208) record as head coach of the 2009-11 Rams.
  • He tried to run the defense in New Orleans in 2012 when Sean Payton was suspended for his role in Bountygate, and that was arguably the worst defense in the league that year.
  • Spagnuolo was a defensive assistant for the Ravens in 2013-14 after they lost legendary players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
  • He returned to the Giants as their defensive coordinator in 2015, and did have the defense lead the team back to the playoffs in 2016 before going 1-3 as the interim head coach in 2017.

Spagnuolo was out of the league in 2018 before Reid brought him back with a major opportunity. But some coaches are just better off as coordinators and are not cut out for the head job. The bright spot on Spagnuolo’s resume always will be the work he did as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2007-08.

That year, Spagnuolo overcame a so-so regular season to lead the defense to three straight road playoff wins and one of the all-time upsets in Super Bowl 42 against the 18-0 Patriots. The Giants faced three elite quarterbacks and offenses that postseason in Tony Romo (Cowboys), Brett Favre (Packers), and Tom Brady (Patriots), and they produced huge sacks and turnovers in every game while holding each to 20 points or fewer.

Before Super Bowl 42, Brady infamously scoffed “we’re only going to score 17 points?” after Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress predicted the Giants would win 23-17. The Patriots, the highest-scoring team in NFL history at that time, only scored 14 points against Spagnuolo’s defense in the Super Bowl for their only loss of the season and the only time they were held under 20 points. They did it with a ferocious pass rush led by Michael Strahan.

With Kansas City in 2019, Spagnuolo had the task of changing the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front, and he is no stranger to blitzing. Chris Jones had more flexibility between playing defensive tackle and defensive end in Spagnuolo’s defense, and he made his first Pro Bowl in 2019 while developing into one of the best defenders in the league. The Chiefs also brought in veteran help from edge rusher Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu. Both players had multiple Pro Bowls and/or All-Pro selections over the next three seasons as they became key contributors to Spagnuolo’s defense.

To date, Jones, Clark, and Mathieu are the only Kansas City defenders to make a Pro Bowl under Spagnuolo since 2019. Corner Trent McDuffie also was named to the All-Pro team in 2023, but it would not be right to say he has been handed an elite roster on defense all these years.

Still, the 2019 Chiefs improved to No. 7 in points allowed. While they were only 12th in points per drive allowed once you adjust for how efficient their offense was (fewer drives to face), this was a respectable number and something the Chiefs could win with in the postseason. They were also sound in situational football, ranked 12th on third down and ninth in the red zone.

In the playoffs that year, the Chiefs got off to an absurd start, trailing Houston 24-0 in the divisional round thanks to a series of dropped passes and special teams mistakes. But the team regrouped, Mahomes got red hot, and the defense only allowed one Houston touchdown on the final eight possessions in a 51-31 win.

Similar things happened in the AFC Championship Game against the Titans, who scored on all three drives to start the game and led 17-7. But the team calmed down, the defense adjusted, and the Titans only scored one more time and lost 35-24.

This would basically become the hallmark of the Spagnuolo defense in Kansas City. The Chiefs could start games (or even seasons) slowly, but they eventually adjust and play at a level that you can still win with when you have Mahomes and Travis Kelce in an Andy Reid offense.

In Super Bowl 54 against the 49ers, the Chiefs trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter but did not allow another point as the defense stopped Jimmy Garoppolo from making a comeback after Mahomes did. The Chiefs won 31-20 and Spagnuolo had a second Super Bowl ring.

In 2020, the Chiefs were again good enough defensively to win a Super Bowl even if some of the numbers like sacks and the situational football slipped. But the offense was so incredible at putting away games in the fourth quarter that year that it didn’t prevent the team from going right back to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, when you are facing Tom Brady and Mike Evans in their home stadium in the Super Bowl with a referee (Carl Cheffers) that loves to call pass interference, including phantom calls, you might not have a good night. But that 31-9 loss was more on the offensive line struggles and inability to score touchdowns than on the defense. No one’s perfect.

In 2021, the Chiefs got off to an atrocious start on defense, becoming the fourth team to allow at least 29 points in five straight games to begin a season. But Spagnuolo adjusted, and from that point on, the Chiefs actually had the No. 1 scoring defense over the back end of the season. But the postseason was probably the low point for the Spagnuolo defense. The Bills carved his unit up for 36 points and looked like they won in regulation with 13 seconds left after Josh Allen threw a go-ahead touchdown to Gabe Davis, his fourth touchdown of the game. But Buffalo’s mistakes on special teams, defense, and the failure to win the coin toss saved the Kansas City defense as it never took the field again. Mahomes and Kelce put the game away in overtime for a 42-36 win.

But in the 2021 AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead that went downhill after the offense blew a chance for points at the end of the half. Then in the second half, the Bengals got after Mahomes with just a 3-man rush on many snaps, and he played arguably the worst half of his career. In overtime, Mahomes threw an interception, and the Bengals were close to midfield where they drove for a game-winning field goal in a 27-24 final. Once again, the offense was more to blame than the defense for this disappointing loss for the Chiefs.

2022-23: From Young to Elite in a Hurry

The Chiefs were going to look like a different team in 2022. Not only did the offense trade speedy No. 1 receiver Tyreek Hill, but the defense said goodbye to Mathieu at safety. They brought in Justin Reid from Houston, and Reid is the one who is selling the “In Spags We Trust” t-shirts this month.

But at 25 years old last season, Reid was one of the more experienced veterans on what was suddenly such a young defense built primarily through the draft.

Jones was still the unit’s best player, and he was fantastic in 2022 with 15.5 sacks to earn his first All-Pro selection. But he had a new edge rusher alongside him in George Karlaftis, who the Chiefs drafted with the 30th overall pick in 2022. Karlaftis has stepped up this year with 10.5 sacks and is the second-best pass rusher on the team, a much-needed boost after they let Frank Clark leave for 2023.

The Chiefs were content with letting 4-year starting corner Charvarius Ward walk in free agency. He went to the 49ers, of all teams. But they were okay with this as corner L’Jarius Sneed, a 2020 fourth-round pick, was starting to show real potential as a starter, and he has only gotten better each year. Sneed made arguably the play of the game in Baltimore last week when he punched the ball out of Zay Flowers’ possession at the 1-yard line, but his coverage skills are even better than his tackling.

As Spagnuolo showed in that 2007 run with the Giants, you do not need an elite player like Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman at corner or Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu at safety to win in the secondary. The Chiefs are thriving right now with Sneed and 2022 first-round pick Trent McDuffie, a slot corner who was named an All-Pro in his second season. The Chiefs used both of their first-round picks on defense in 2022 on McDuffie and Karlaftis, and it is hard to argue with the results as they both improved in Year 2.

The Chiefs did not have a first-round pick in 2021 because of the Orlando Brown Jr. trade, but the player they drafted first was linebacker Nick Bolton with the 58th pick in the second round. He chose a perfect time to make his biggest play in last year’s Super Bowl when he scooped up Jalen Hurts’ fumble for a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Bolton has missed half the season with injury this year, but he is back for the playoffs and ready for another Super Bowl.

The 2023 Chiefs round out their defense with players who have never graded particularly high like linebacker Willie Gay and safety Mike Edwards (came over from Tampa Bay), but they have made things work all year with Spags calling timely blitzes and adjusting so well to what opponents are doing. The Chiefs are No. 2 in sacks (57) and pass pressure rate (27.8%) as they are one of the most aggressive blitzing defenses this year. Kansas City is No. 2 in points allowed and No. 3 in points per drive allowed, the first truly elite defense of the Mahomes era.

But the 2022 defense was statistically one of the worst to win a Super Bowl as the Chiefs ranked No. 21 in points per drive allowed. In fact, the 35 points allowed to the Eagles were the most ever by a Super Bowl loser in history. The 2022 Chiefs allowed 25.0 points per game in the playoffs and still won a Super Bowl, something only the 2019 Chiefs have also accomplished.

That defense was at least timely in the playoffs. They intercepted Trevor Lawrence when they had to in the divisional round. They sacked Joe Burrow 5 times in the AFC Championship Game, including a crucial one by Jones on a third down when the Bengals had a chance to get their game-winning drive going. We mentioned the fumble return off Hurts in the Super Bowl, and that was arguably enough to provide the margin that night as the rest of the team played so well.

But this year is something different for Kansas City.

Role Reversal: Super Bowl 58 vs. San Francisco

You could see from opening night that things would be different with the Chiefs this year. They held a very good Detroit offense to 14 points on a night where Chris Jones (holdout) did not play, and they would have won that game if Kadarius Toney didn’t give up at least a 10-point swing with his multiple dropped passes.

That became the theme of the season. The offense had so many mistakes in the form of receiver drops, turnovers going back for touchdowns, and offensive line penalties, and it cost the team dearly in its losses.

The defense never allowed more than 27 points in any game. In the playoffs, the defense shut down Miami and Baltimore, and while the Buffalo game was a bad performance for three quarters, the Chiefs owned the Bills’ running game in the fourth quarter, and they made the Bills settle for a tying field goal that they missed after the two-minute warning in a 27-24 win. That’s just playoff football and this team will take it if it means a dominant defensive showing in Baltimore the following week, holding the likely MVP winner this year, Lamar Jackson, to 10 points at home.

But this Super Bowl against San Francisco can be the ultimate test for these Chiefs:

  • The 2023 Chiefs allowed 126 points after halftime, the fewest by any team since 2021 (17-game era).
  • The 2023 49ers scored 224 points after halftime, the most by any team in 2023.
  • Only the Patriots (115) and Titans (123) scored fewer points after halftime than the Chiefs (128) this year, and that does not include the scoreless second half they just had in Baltimore.

In the past, you would frame a game like this by asking if the defense will be able to stop Mahomes from coming back to win the game late. But this time, the proper framing might be to ask if Brock Purdy can lead the 49ers to a comeback after halftime the way he’s done against the Packers and Lions this postseason. The Chiefs have a much stronger defense than those teams, and it may come down to that defense closing the door again to win this championship based on the way the Chiefs have played this year.

These are not the 2019 Chiefs anymore. They aren’t even the 2022 Chiefs. This team can win with its defense, but it will be fascinating to see who makes the final adjustments best between Spagnuolo and Shanahan.

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