A plume of cigar smoke clouded the visiting locker room at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night. Music thumped, and Kansas City Chiefs defenders, still riding high after their conference championship win over the Baltimore Ravens, paraded around in custom T-shirts featuring images of their coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, and a catchy slogan: “IN SPAGS WE TRUST.”
“I had these made just to show you how much we believe in Coach Spags, bro,” safety Justin Reid said. “Coach Spags is the greatest defensive coordinator ever. I’ve played for five defensive coordinators. I love Coach Spags.”
The Chiefs had plenty of reasons to love Spagnuolo after they rattled a Ravens offense that converted only three of 11 third-down attempts, turned the ball over three times and rushed for just 81 yards, its lowest output since the first game of the 2022 season.
With Spagnuolo pulling the strings, the Chiefs did what so few teams have been able to do this season: frustrate MVP candidate Lamar Jackson.
“We threw the book at Lamar, man,” Reid said. “Zone pressures, man pressures, fake pressures that look like pressures and end up being zone drops. So we tried to do as much as we could to confuse him and not give him the same look twice throughout the whole game.”
The Chiefs also left no doubt that Patrick Mahomes will return to the Super Bowl with his finest defense yet, a luxury he’s learned to value even more this season.
On Sunday, Kansas City relied on its defense to keep Jackson at bay for much of the game. The Chiefs’ offense got off to a quick start with two touchdowns, but they turned the ball over on downs in the second quarter, then punted on six of their next seven drives.
“Whenever they’re rolling like that, I have to kind of manage my game,” Mahomes said. “… Even if we’re not having the success that I want to have, [if] the defense is rolling [and] getting stops, let’s just take the safe choice, get the ball out of my hand, don’t turn the ball over, and let’s go win a football game.”
Kansas City hired Spagnuolo in 2019 to improve an aging defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in many major statistical categories. With an influx of draft talent — defensive back L’Jarius Sneed, linebacker Nick Bolton, cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis — and key free agent signings, such as Reid, Spagnuolo turned the Chiefs into a top defense. In 2023, only the Cleveland Browns allowed opponents fewer yards than Kansas City did.
On Sunday, the results the Chiefs’ defensive transformation was laid bare.
Their defensive plan centered on Jackson. They turned to their safeties, corners and linebackers to lay on extra pressure, blitzing him on 43.8 percent of his dropbacks. Kansas City hadn’t blitzed that much in any game (regular season or playoffs) in two years, and the defense married its rush and coverage to try to take away Jackson’s deep options.
With sticky coverage on the back end, Kansas City forced Jackson to hold onto the ball for an average of 3.3 seconds, per TruMedia, which allowed its blitzers time to get home. (During the regular season, Jackson held onto the ball for an average of 2.9 seconds.)
“We knew we were frustrating [Jackson] the whole game,” Reid said. “He’s a tough opponent. We just challenged ourselves to keep the pressure on him and not to let up and relax and let him get back into the game. We kept the pressure on him the whole game.”
In the fourth quarter, a series after receiver Zay Flowers beat Sneed in coverage for a 54-yard catch, the veteran corner responded with a forced fumble at the goal line. The Chiefs rushed six, and Sneed sprinted from the right side of the red zone to tackle Flowers and punch the ball out of his grasp just before he crossed the goal line. The Chiefs recovered in the end zone for a touchback, ensuring their two-score lead stayed intact.
“We were able to kind of play tango or cover-three on the other side with man-to-man on [Sneed’s] side, because we’ve got faith and trust in him,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said. “We’re not worried about [Sneed]. He adds a whole other dynamic to this defense.”
Even when they sent only four rushers, the Chiefs’ front still managed to get to Jackson. Defensive end Charles Omenihu strip-sacked him in the second quarter, and Karlaftis, who had another of the team’s four sacks, recovered. In the fourth quarter, defensive back Deon Bush intercepted Jackson in the end zone. Bush, a practice squad player who signed to the active roster late in the season, played only two snaps Sunday before his interception.
As he celebrated with his teammates, Jackson trudged off the field and slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration.
“Is one of the better defenses? Yeah, I’d say it’s one of the better defenses that I’ve been around,” Coach Andy Reid said Monday. “We had some real good ones in Philadelphia, and some of the early defenses here, I don’t want to slight those guys, they did a nice job for us. Surely, this is a defense that has helped guide this team along as the offense was growing, and now that both are playing well, that’s a tribute to everybody involved.”