Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has the opportunity to become the first coordinator ever to win four Super Bowl championships. To do so, his defense will have to limit the San Francisco 49ers' explosive offense during Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.
When Spagnuolo joined the Chiefs prior to the 2019 NFL season, the defense was in disarray. Kansas City was coming off of a disappointing overtime loss against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Head coach Andy Reid knew the defense needed to improve, and he knew what Spagnuolo had to offer. After all, Spagnuolo got his first NFL job as a defensive assistant on Reid's coaching staff with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Although the results weren't apparent immediately, Spagnuolo changed the dynamics of the Chiefs defense. General manager Brett Veach acquired talent to fit Spagnuolo's scheme, and it finally clicked this season. During the 2023 NFL season, the Chiefs proved they can win by relying on their defense.
Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo could be the key for a Chiefs' Super Bowl win
Everything on the Chiefs defense begins with All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones. San Francisco All-Pro tight end George Kittle recently offered high praise for Jones, who has established himself as one of the league's best defensive linemen.
"You have to account for him on every play," All-Pro tight end George Kittle said. "You have to treat him Aaron Donald-ish, because he can wreck any drive."
The 49ers know that Jones can singlehandedly wreck a game, but that's no secret. The 49ers will focus a lot of their protection on Jones, and Spagnuolo will likely use that to his advantage.
Spagnuolo's defense will attempt to swarm and confuse 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy
Spagnuolo rose to prominence with the New York Giants during the 2007 NFL season, when he slowed down the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Spagnuolo's defense used a four-man pass rush to wreak havoc in the backfield. Instead of using traditional personnel — two defensive tackles and two edge rushers — Spagnuolo deployed his infamous "NASCAR" package, which put four defensive ends on the field at the same time.
There are personnel differences between the old Giants teams and the current-day Chiefs, and there are new wrinkles in the alignment and coverage, but the recipe is the same. Spagnuolo's defenses attack the interior of the offensive line by teasing A-gap blitzes and aggressively attacking the lanes.
Equipped with All-Pro caliber players like defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerbacks L'Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie, Spagnuolo can confuse opposing offenses with disguised coverages and exotic pressures. That's how the Chiefs defense dominated their opponents throughout the 2023 NFL season.
In the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Chiefs ran an inverted Cover 2 where cornerback L'Jarius Sneed rotated into a safety role. In their Divisional Round win, the Chiefs ran a Cover 2 coverage where linebacker Drue Tranquill played as one of the deep safeties. The Chiefs can get away with playing coverages like that because they have versatile players who can physically and mentally excel in multiple positions.
The chess match between Spagnuolo and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will likely be the deciding factor in the Super Bowl, especially considering San Francisco has an inexperienced quarterback at the helm. Spagnuolo will likely throw various looks at quarterback Brock Purdy in hopes of forcing sacks or turnovers. If Purdy wants to prove his doubters wrong and establish himself as one of the league's best quarterbacks, out-dueling Spagnuolo would be a great place to start.