This recent defensive shift helped Chiefs to Super Bowl: ‘A beautiful thing to watch’
Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo smiled wide, taking a step toward assistant general manager Mike Borgonzi in the Chiefs draft room.
“You know I like that guy,” Spagnuolo said, shaking Borgonzi’s hand before patting him on the shoulder.
This was April 29, 2022 — the second day of the NFL Draft — and Chiefs video cameras captured the moment as part of the team’s “Work to Win” documentary series.
A television in the background provided some additional context, too.
ESPN’s broadcast showed the San Francisco 49ers turning in a late second-round pick. That meant the Chiefs were on the clock next for the 62nd selection overall.
This gives all the clues needed to deduce the player that Spagnuolo was celebrating that Friday night.
And some 10 months later, Spagnuolo’s excitement for Cincinnati safety Bryan Cook appears not only prophetic but justified.
Cook’s addition to KC’s defense provided more than a physical presence on the back end; it also allowed Spagnuolo to shift more to a familiar defensive look he’s had success with in the past.
And though the Chiefs’ “Dime” defensive look — one with six defensive backs — was far from perfect against Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game, it still provided one of the game-changing moments last Sunday.
Spagnuolo played three safeties and three corners on a third-and-3 in the fourth quarter when Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow tested the Chiefs deep. Cook — playing half-field safety — deflected the ball in the air, while fellow rookie Joshua Williams cradled the carom for a Chiefs’ interception.
It’s the type of setup that’s become more commonplace as a young defense has gained experience. The Chiefs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, have played with six defensive backs on the field for 30% of the snaps or more in four of the last five games; that was after reaching that 30% mark in only three of their previous 14 contests.
Sports Info Solutions (SIS) indicates the shift has been part of a defensive uptick. During the last five contests, opponents have combined for negative-19.42 expected points when attempting passes against KC’s Dime defense, which included an overall negative total in four of those five games.
How Spagnuolo utilizes this wrinkle also is rare among NFL teams. The Chiefs’ primary Dime look is a 4-1-6, meaning the team takes a linebacker off the field (usually Willie Gay) to insert Cook as a third safety.
To give some context: Sports Info Solutions had the Chiefs playing 4-1-6 on 135 opponent pass attempts in their 19 games. That not only led the league, but also was 22% of the entire NFL total; twenty teams used a 4-1-6 on fewer than 10 opponent passes all season.
KC’s 135 snaps of 4-1-6 this season, meanwhile, is almost exactly double the total (68) that it played a season ago.
The advantages — when performed properly — can be significant. One is the potential for greater versatility, as cornerbacks and safeties can disguise coverages or bring blitzes from unexpected places.
An example played out in the Chiefs’ Divisional Round playoff win against Jacksonville. Spagnuolo brought pressure from safety Justin Reid through a gap the Jaguars didn’t anticipate, forcing a quick throw as quarterback Trevor Lawrence tossed a fourth-quarter interception to Jaylen Watson.
OH MY GOODNESS @JAYLENWATSON12 pic.twitter.com/v4UrSL7CEK
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 22, 2023
“Just something that we typically do, and the guys executed it well,” Spagnuolo said last week. “There are times we’ve run those or called them and we don’t execute them quite as well, or they turn protection and get it picked up. But that particular time, we got it.”
A rewatch shows just how creative things can get. Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark, for instance, fakes a rush at the snap before trailing Jaguars’ No. 1 receiver Christian Kirk down the middle of the field.
“It also allows you to just play around with the disguises and not really show the quarterback exactly what we’re doing, because you can have different moving parts,” Chiefs rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie said of the 4-1-6. “Guys can play different positions, which is always nice. So I love the defense.”
It can help with the pass rush in another way too: by confusing opposing offensive linemen while creating single-team matchups.
That happened during Sunday’s win against Cincinnati — as noted during the CBS broadcast by analyst Tony Romo.
Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton faked a blitz up the middle as part of KC’s Dime package on third-and-18, which caught the attention of Bengals center Ted Karras. When Karras respected that Bolton might come, he wasn’t available to help double-team Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones, who darted around right guard Max Scharping for his first career postseason sack.
Jones first sack of the game. Lined up in a 4i KC, with Bolton walking up on the LOS. A great get-off and quick hands help him beat the RG. No slide protection due to the threat of a blitz. Jones engulfs Burrow forcing a punt. pic.twitter.com/sm34NtVCaw
— Playoff James (@CJScoobs) January 31, 2023
Jones, in particular, has feasted with the Chiefs’ Dime personnel. His 12.5 sacks as part of that grouping lead all NFL players (New England’s Josh Uche is second at 9.5), while the Chiefs have combined for 12 sacks from the look in the last five games combined, according to SIS.
While the Dime works best in obvious passing downs, Reid and Cook’s presence — along with willing tacklers on the back end — has subsequently limited damage when opponents try to run. KC ranked 14th out of 27 NFL defenses in expected points allowed per run attempt in Dime via SIS, meaning the Chiefs weren’t gashed to the point where they quickly had to return bigger bodies to the field.
McDuffie says, ideally, the Dime defense works to have quicker guys on the field in passing situations who can match each receiver’s speed vertically. That, in turn, can help take away deep throws while forcing check-downs.
When teams do dare to throw bombs against KC, the hope is that players on the back end can clean things up.
Watson did that two weeks ago against Jacksonville, while Cook came through with his big play Sunday against Cincinnati.
“You want to get that edge,” Cook said. “So I think with the moving parts, (Spagnuolo) does a great job of having things looking similar and playing ball from that.”
Cook admits he’s still learning in his first season. And he’s adjusting to how Spagnuolo teaches and coaches.
But the Dime look is part of what’s impressed him most, saying the team’s six-DB look can often be “a beautiful thing to watch for sure.”
“To see the playbook, this is a masterpiece,” Cook said. “Because it has everything that you can ask for as a defender.”
Including a Dime look, it turns out, that first became a greater possibility some 10 months ago.
Back when a defensive coordinator couldn’t stop grinning in the Chiefs’ draft room — even before his guy was announced on TV.