It was February 3, 2008. Super Bowl XLII, in which the New England Patriots were supposed to complete the second undefeated season in pro football history. Instead, the underdog New York Giants put Tom Brady in a special section of hell with pass-rush concepts that had their defensive linemen moving around gap to gap, and often standing up in NASCAR fronts for which the Patriots seemed to have no answers. Brady was sacked five times, and hit nine more times, completing 29 of 48 passes for 266 yards, one touchdown, and a passer rating of 82.5 in a 17-14 Giants win.
Not what anybody expected from a quarterback — and an offense — that had set the NFL ablaze all season long, but Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had the perfect plan for Brady and the Patriots, and that bore out. Spagnuolo threw the entire buffet at Brady with advanced blitzes, moving linemen, and NASCAR fronts in which as many as all four defensive linemen were standing up pre-snap.
“I remember that game, and watching what they were doing, and I’ve watched it again since,” Super Bowl XLII Most Valuable Player Eli Manning told me on Friday. “He had Antonio Pierce, middle linebacker, and obviously now the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. They were flip-flopping blitzes, and I’d never seen that before, where they had a WILL [linebacker]-free safety blitz, and they’d see Brady read it and change protections to pick up that blitz, and they would flip-flop and roll it to bring a SAM [linebacker] and strong safety. You had free guys hitting Brady, so just mixing in and having that capability and communication and the trust in the defense to do that. To execute it, that’s the first time I’d ever seen that.
“I have great respect for Coach Spagnuolo and all he’s done in his career, his opportunity to win his fourth Super Bowl is impressive, and he always has the threat of blitz. That’s what he brings — exotic blitzes and exotic coverages. It’s a lot of work to get ready to play one of his defenses.”
Fast-forward 15 years, and “Coach Spags” is still doing it his way — perhaps at a higher level than ever before, and he’s now winning Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs. Moreover, he’s doing it now with the NFL’s youngest defense. There are a lot of deep football reasons why the Chiefs’ defense has carried the team to Super Bowl LVIII as the offense has been up and down (to say the least), but there are also personal dynamics between Spagnuolo and his players that mean a lot.
Let’s dive into why Steve Spagnuolo is the real star of Super Bowl LVIII.
A relentless intellectual curiosity.
In 2018, Spagnuolo was between jobs — he had been the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator and interim head coach in 2017, and the Chiefs didn’t hire him until before the 2019 season. He responded to that time away by talking to other coaches at other levels of football, and spending time with Greg Cosell at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, New Jersey — just watching tape and learning new things. This also happened after his time as the St. Louis Rams’ head coach from 2009 through 2011.
The goal, as always, was to improve.
“I’d like to think we all get better,” he said this week. “I know I never stop learning. I remember after my time in St. Louis, I went back and talked to college coaches. I visited with Nick Saban, and I spent time at Ohio State with Urban Meyer. Because I think you can learn something from everyone. I spent a year at NFL Films with Greg Cosell [before the Chiefs hired him], and he was great to me.”
Here's @gregcosell talking about the year before Steve Spagnuolo became the Chiefs' defensive coordinator, and how Spags would travel to NFL Films every day to grind tape and learn new things.
Intellectual curiosity is a good thing. pic.twitter.com/YEE1EHynKi
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) February 10, 2024
It’s important for this defense because it’s so young, and there are so many new pieces both in the draft and free agency. Because as Spags also said this week, he’s got a roster that’s as smart or smarter than he’s ever had before.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. I think this gets lost a little bit, but we have some great assistant coaches,” he told me. “I’ve been lucky to have that, and the staff has stayed together on this five-year run we’ve been on, so that cohesiveness helps a lot. But our young guys love football, and I’ve said this here – this is the highest number of high-cerebral players I’ve been involved with. They’re really smart. When you get that, and you can put it together, and they love playing together, it ends up being pretty good.”
Pretty good indeed, and Spagnuolo’s belief in the intelligence of his players means the world to them.
“I know he’s coached a lot of smart players,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said Wednesday, when I told him what Spagnuolo said about Tranquill and his teammates. “He brings up Antonio Pierce, who obviously just got the Raiders’ [head coaching job], and I do feel that we have a really smart group of guys. You just look at what our defensive line is asked to do – sometimes, we’ll have a defensive lineman dropping into coverage – a big, 320-pound guy moving like that, and having the knowledge of routes and schemes and what offenses are trying to do. We’ve got great guys at every level, and I certainly have felt like that this year.”
Spagnuolo is open and humble about his own process, and that facilitates the same positive characteristics for those around him.
“Oh, he’s put me in positions to make a lot of plays over my years,” linebacker Willie Gay said. “I can only say, ‘Thank you’ to him. Moving forward, he’s definitely prepared me for easier defenses, because in this defense, you have to think a lot and be smart enough to execute the plays. Once you get it, you’ve got it. And once you execute it, you can be unstoppable. That’s why we’re here today.”
Flexibility, and the willingness to listen.
“I mean, there’s a ton of things,” Tranquill said when I asked him what sets Spagnuolo apart. “You have to have a certain level of competence and football acumen, which he has. But what I love about Spags is that he’s always looking to innovate, and always looking to adjust. And he’s never too prideful to change things up, or take a different approach, or maybe lean into something his players want to see done. Even in the Super Bowl week, we’re making adjustments to the game plan because of the ways players feel about certain things. And it might not be the way he envisioned it or saw it, but he’s willing to listen to players. He’s also willing to put his foot down when he feels strongly about something. And we have the respect for him to listen and buy in. He’s just great across the board.”
Tranquill didn’t want to reveal too much, but there were examples in the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens in which Spagnuolo listened to linebacker Nick Bolton in the second half, and the results were impressive.
“Lamar [Jackson] was hitting us a little bit, beating us with his legs and with the checkdowns to open the second half. Nick had a couple of suggestions for calls that might work, and Spags ended up running one of those to get off the field on third down. It’s just an example of a player seeing something they’re doing with protection, and Spags as our play-caller taking that to heart.”
If we’re talking about protection, well, the Ravens’ final drive of the third quarter, and their first drive of the fourth quarter, both ended in sacks on third down. The Ravens had five-man protections on all but one of their third-down plays in the first half, and that extended to the second half. Which is where the Chiefs started to get tricky.
There was safety Justin Reid’s sack with 3:25 left in the third quarter, and this was a gutsy Cover-0 blitz call on third-and-six.
An understanding of everything on the field.
The 2023 Chiefs defense has had a string of logic tying the fronts to the linebackers to the defensive backs in ways that every defensive coach would love to have, but very few can accomplish. A primary reason for this is that if you’re one of Spagnuolo’s players, it’s not nearly enough to know your own assignment — you had better know what everyone in your position group is supposed to do, and how that all relates to the other position groups.
Defensive lineman Mike Danna was effusive in his praise of this mindset, and how it shows up on the field.
“That’s the preparation and the execution throughout the week. We’re really big on being on all cylinders and on the same page, So, when we get to Sunday, we can move fluidly, and it looks like we’re gelling together. You just know. You can trust the guys, like, ‘Oh, I know he’s going to be there; I don’t have to worry about that.’ It’s cool to have that, because just as much as the front end needs the back end, the back end needs the front end. The ‘backers need the D-line, and the DBs need the D-line. We all need each other. We’re all relentless. We all have a common goal, and that’s why we are where we are.”
“Oh, yeah — you do have to know what your linebackers are doing,” Gay told me this week, when I asked about Spags’ insistence that the defensive backs mist have the entire book read. “But that’s the easy part. You have to know what the defensive line is doing, what the cornerbacks on your side are doing, and it’s definitely a domino effect. If I don’t know what he’s doing, I’m going to do the wrong thing, and put both of us out of position. So, it’s a big deal.”
Endless schematic variance.
Offenses playing the Chiefs this season have discovered quickly that there isn’t a “book” on Spagnuolo’s defense — there isn’t one or two schematic trends you can bang on and exploit over time. They’ve run five different formations (4-2-5, 4-3-4, 3-3-5, 4-1-6, and 3-2-6) on at least 10% of their defensive snaps through the season. That’s highly unusual. They run more zone than man, and more two-high than single-high, but what you see after the snap is rarely what you see before the snap.
Rookie safety Chamarri Conner’s interception of a Josh Allen pass to Trent Sherfield against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14 was a prime example. Conner, a fourth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, hadn’t played much on defense until safety Bryan Cook went out with an ankle injury in Week 13. Then, it was Conner’s turn to be Next Man Up.
On the interception, the Chiefs were playing Cover-1 against the Bills’ 3×1 set. Conner was the free defender over the middle after he dropped down from two-high, which means he didn’t have a specific receiver assignment. Instead, it was his job to go where the ball went, and he did an amazing job of covering ground to make the play. Conner first followed receiver Khalil Shakir to the defensive right side on Shakir’s crossing route, and then doubled back to get in the way of Allen’s throw to Sherfield.
It’s a lot to ask of any rookie playing significant snaps for the first time in the NFL, but that’s how Spags rolls, with assistance from his few veterans. In Conner’s case, that’s been safety Mike Edwards, in his first year with this defense after four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I tell you what – if we didn’t have Mike after we lost Bryan Cook, and to come in and do the things Mike has had to do at safety, that says a lot about him,” Spagnuolo told me. “Very natural football player. He’s very instinctive. If we didn’t have him, we’d be in trouble, because Chamarri is a rookie, and Mike’s been able to step in. He’s very versatile, and we love that.”
It says a lot about Edwards, but it really gets back to the buy-in Spagnuolo’s players have with him. In the end, that’s the real story — and the ultimate reason this defense works.
As to all those blitzes Eli Manning was talking about? Well, the Chiefs have blitzed on 29% of their snaps this season, sixth-most in the league, and they rank fourth in defensive success rate when doing so. But if Spagnuolo is facing a quarterback like Brock Purdy of the San Francisco 49ers who has been ungodly good against the blitz all season, he’ll take a pause and come up with a different idea.
“Part of it is that he’s so poised,” Spagnuolo said of Purdy. “I don’t think people give him enough credit for the talent he has. And then, he’s got all those weapons around him. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with what I’ve watched on tape over the last eight days. I’ve watched about every game now, and I don’t see the guy making very many mistakes.”
Not that Spags won’t dial it up, but he knows the score.
“You want to do that to a quarterback all the time.,” he said of his pressure concepts. “You don’t really want them to know you’re coming. You are trying to find ways to get free rushers. It doesn’t happen to him very often, and when it does, he’s got a really good knack for getting the ball out quickly. He gets the ball out before the receiver makes his break, and the timing they have is tremendous.”
Game on, as they say.
"A lot of the things he believes in, I believe in. "
Spagnuolo can teach defense to anybody, and he’s done it for a long time. That’s obvious.
But when you talk to his players, it becomes clear that the alignment with their coach in a football sense stems from their respect for him in a personal regard. You’ve already read Gay’s and Tranquill’s thoughts; and there’s more where that came from.
Defensive lineman Mike Danna: “He’s a wizard. The way he makes his checks, his pressures, his coverages. But aside from all that football stuff, just as a person, he’s a great man. He’s a faith-driven person. A lot of the things he believes in, I believe in. I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Spags, and I’m just grateful to be a part of something like this.:
Safety Justin Reid: “Steve’s a great DC just because he’s a teacher, man. He’s an all-around great character man, and he teaches us not only football concepts, but he also has a way of drawing the best out of all of his players. He makes guys want to play hard for him; he makes us want to get it right. He’s just one of the best defensive coordinators I’ve had the privilege of playing under.”
It is a rare attribute for a coach to be able to take everything in his mind, and everything in his playbook, and distill it to the players he has, who believe in him without exception. Steve Spagnuolo was doing that a decade and a half ago, and he’s doing it this week.
And that’s why he’ may very well be the most important name in Super Bowl LVIII.