‘Cram Award’ an example of how Chiefs’ Steve Spagnuolo built dominant defense

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed may be the perfect human embodiment of a Steve Spagnuolo defense.

A safety at Louisiana Tech, the Chiefs selected him in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. At 6’1″, 192 pounds, Sneed has the length that defensive coordinator Spagnuolo craves from his cornerbacks and defensive ends with the football IQ and physicality to add to his athleticism.

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So when Sneed faces former Chiefs star wide receiver Tyreek Hill one-on-one and presses him so hard that he can’t even run his route, the football world is introduced to how good this defense has been all season, certainly something Hill’s Miami Dolphins saw in two losses to KC this year.

“Everybody was happy for me but I been doing it all year,” Sneed said. “It’s Tyreek, so they made it big.”

Sneed allowed Hill to garner one catch for nine yards in the Wild Card matchup, although Hill scored a 53-yard touchdown in cornerback Trent McDuffie’s coverage.

The defense also held the high-powered Dolphins offense to 264 total yards, 188 passing yards and one TD in -4-degree weather.

That play along with Sneed’s play against the Dolphins earned him the “Cram Award,” an award given out by Spagnuolo after every game for who brought the most physicality during the game.

‘Cram Award’ an example of how Chiefs’ Steve Spagnuolo built dominant defense

“Everybody gets hyped up, and that’s one of the things I feel like Spags does to make things more fun,” McDuffie said, “more challenging and more competitive within the defense.”

The second-year corner has won the “Cram Award” several times, making his All-Pro selection no surprise.

The reward for the Cram Award or Cram of the Week? Freshly made food from Spagnuolo’s wife, Maria. Pasta and banana pudding are just a few dishes on the list.

“Mrs. Spags is the best. She really be treating us right on this defense,” McDuffie said.

“Her cooking is unbelievable,” defensive tackle Matt Dickerson said. “Unbelievable Italian cook.”

Maria’s cooking has stuck with lots of defenders who have played for Spagnuolo stretching as far back to his days as a DC with the New York Giants in 2017 and to his days on head coach Andy Reid’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles.

It is just another piece to the puzzle that makes up a defense that is second in points allowed per game (17.3), second in yards allowed per game (289.8) and ranks first in sacks per pass attempt (10.25%).

Spagnuolo’s wife also moved to Kansas City from their home of Philadelphia in Spagnuolo’s fifth season with the team, and players can see a clear difference in their defensive leader’s demeanor.

“The main difference and what people don’t know is that Spags’ wife moved to Kansas City and that changed the whole game for us,” DT Chris Jones said during an interview on The Rich Eisen Show.

“She hadn’t been living in Kansas City, and this is her first year living in Kansas City, and that’s what’s changed.”

“He has his family here, he has his wife here, and when you have your significant other around you, it just makes you a better person, honestly,” Jones said. “I think that’s what she being here has done for him and done for us.”

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Spagnuolo has been a coach all over the East Coast with more than a decade of college coaching experience to go with three decades of NFL experience, including NFL Europe.

He was an assistant for Reid in Philly from 1999 to 2006 before taking his first NFL DC job with the Giants in 2007, before becoming a head coach for the St. Louis Rams from 2009-2011.

After a season as the DC of the New Orleans Saints and being with the Baltimore Ravens before a second stint as Giants DC from 2015 to 2017, Spags ended up with the Chiefs in 2019 after Bob Sutton was fired.

Formation of this year’s defense

The Chiefs came into the season with most of the questions on offense and very few questions for the defense. A lot of defensive talent returned with a few add-ons in free agency.

The secondary was the main discussion topic with the Fab Five 2022 rookie secondary class (CB McDuffie, S Bryan Cook, CB Joshua Williams, CB Jaylen Watson, CB Nazeeh Johnson) returning after each player made substantial plays to anchor the defense to a Super Bowl title. Veteran safety Mike Edwards also replaced Juan Thornhill, who left the team in free agency.

Linebackers Nick Bolton (broke the franchise record for tackles in a season in 2022), Leo Chenal and Willie Gay returned with free agent signee Drue Tranquill adding to that unit.

On the defensive line, Jones returned for his potential final year as the center of the defense despite his contract holdout with defensive end Charles Omenihu signing on from San Francisco, and Lee’s Summit/Kansas State product DE Felix Anudike-Uzomah being the team’s first-round draft pick along with the second year of first-round pick George Karlaftis.

The Chiefs broke a lot of hearts with the necessary cutting of beloved DE Frank Clark in the offseason and they lost veteran DE Carlos Dunlap, who only had a one-year contract with the team.

For Omenihu, his arrival in KC was delayed when the Chiefs traded for Clark from the Seattle Seahawks and signed him to a five-year, $105.5 million contract with $63.5 million guaranteed in 2019.

“I always told them I remember during the draft process, my best meeting was with Spags,” Omenihu said. “He loved me up, there was no negative. But obviously, they signed Frank, so when they signed Frank, I knew I wasn’t gonna be drafted here.”

The Texas product was drafted by the Houston Texans in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.

Omenihu’s free agency was altered because of a domestic violence case and he was suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The suspension stems from a case in January when he played for the San Francisco 49ers last season.

Police were called to Omenihu’s home in San Jose, and a woman claiming to be his girlfriend said Omenihu, “pushed her to the ground during an argument.” There were no visible signs of injuries, and the woman declined medical treatment. Omenihu was booked at the Santa Clara County Jail and shortly released after posting bail.

Omenihu still ended up with the Chiefs anyway.

“All things happen for a reason. I’m grateful for my situation,” Omenihu said. “It put me in a place where I was super nervous about coming back just for the fact that I want to perform at a high level, and through the grace of God I did.”

The 26-year-old is one of several Chiefs defenders who are having career years.

Omenihu has seven sacks, Karlaftis and Jones lead the team with 10.5 sacks each, and DE Mike Danna has 6.5 sacks. Sneed and McDuffie have formed one of the most formidable cornerback duos in the league giving up three TDs between the two of them all season.

And despite a banged-up Bolton and Tranquill, the linebacker room has performed well all season between those two, Gay and Chenal.

Rookie safety Chamarri Conner has also improved throughout the season with Cook being placed in injured reserve, which pushed Edwards and Conner into premier playing time.

“He is a young man who has been playing multiple roles for us, I’m talking from safety, free and strong to nickel to dime,” defensive backs coach Dave Merritt said about Conner.

“He’s probably the only rookie that I’ve ever had that has played four different positions because that is what he is doing. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve had another guy that has done that. A super smart young man, quiet, but at the same time, like I said, he has some bite to him. He’s developing, he’s growing where we would like him to grow.”

Spagnuolo’s influence on his players

Spagnuolo has his bevy of prototypes at every position. Tall, physical, long-limbed, power rushing edge rushers who can pass rush inside and outside. Lengthy, physical fast defensive backs who can cover in man or zone and can blitz when needed. Fast linebackers who can run sideline-to-sideline in the run game and pass game.

Mix and match the lineups, rotate safeties in creative ways, scheming DL to getting 1v1 matchups in pass rush situations, it’s all a testament to the job that Spagnuolo and his staff have done this season.

“Spags is a wizard,” Danna said. “Having us all be versatile and moving inside and free up pass rushers, more one-on-ones, you know, it makes a whole hell of a difference.”

In the locker of Chiefs’ defensive players, they have three defensive keys for the playoffs: Individual discipline, unit discipline, and tackling.

It perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the 64-year-old play caller who has taken his years of football knowledge and fed it to men that are decades younger than him with lots of detail.

“We do two walkthroughs each and every day,” McDuffie said.

One walkthrough is before practice and one is during practice that has a bit of pace to where it’s essentially called a “runthrough.”

The Washington product thinks the walkthroughs are huge for the defense.

“I like it because it allows you to get used to the timing, get used to getting your legs knocked out and stuff like that.”

The Chiefs have been diligent enough to get players who can pick up Spags’ defense and understand it the more that they play in it, which is why young players may struggle at first and get better as they spend more time in the defense.

But the Chiefs have built a culture on defense that is free-flowing and open where coaches and players care for each other, like Mrs. Spags’ treats or where Merritt can walk in on a Thursday afternoon and play some basketball in the locker room with DT Mike Pennel as he passes through.

“I think it’s all the guys being humble enough, being hardworking enough, asking any questions,” Chenal said.

“Coach Spags himself, dude. He is the true definition of a leader. He’s firm, yet loving, you know? Taking care of his own players, looking out for us all the time, and you know, guys truly feel that. I feel like it’s reciprocated on both ends and you’re as strong as your leader.”

“You got a lion leading a bunch of lions.”

Sometimes, it’s as simple as creating an environment where players want to come to work every day, and playing in the playoffs makes it even better.

“You get to this point in the season, and you don’t go too far away from where you are,” Spagnulo said on Thursday.

“There always is a wrinkle. (Head coach) Andy (Reid) talked about that in the team meeting this week that all three phases are going to have some wrinkles, because when you get to this point in the season everybody knows you, everybody is studying you.”

As the Chiefs get ready to face the Bills for the second time in a little over a month, they face the tall task of attempting to shut down QB Josh Allen, who collected almost 291 total yards and two total TDs in their Week 14 matchup.

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“We’ve played Buffalo before, so you’ve got to have something a little bit different,” Spagnuolo said.

“If you’re in the position in the playoffs and you need to do that, it’s nice to know you’ve got cerebral guys who can roll with that. They do embrace it, our guys, they like it. Nick (Bolton), Nick doesn’t want vanilla, Drue (Tranquill) doesn’t want vanilla, Justin Reid, those guys want to be challenged mentally.

“They want to challenge the opponent’s offense. Not all guys are like that. I’ve coached guys before that are like, ‘I just want to play man, or post and just let it roll.’ These guys are great that way.”

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