The Kansas City Chiefs defense has already made recent history by reaching Super Bowl LVII, becoming only the second team in the last 15 seasons to allow the most passing touchdowns (33) in the regular season and make the postseason, joining the 2008 Arizona Cardinals. That team, led by Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, lost in Super Bowl XLIII to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, the Chiefs have something those Cardinals did not: a two-time Super Bowl champion defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo. His past defenses have thrived when blitzing and flummoxing opposing quarterbacks with tidal waves of pressure, but across Kansas City's seven-game winning streak since Week 14, his defense has experienced a turnaround with less blitzing. They have the sixth-highest quarterback pressure rate (39%) and the 10th-lowest blitz rate (21%) in the NFL during the winning streak, which has resulted in opposing passers averaging the second-fewest yards per pass (5.8) in the league during that span.
One of largest reasons for that increased pressure despite sending fewer pass rushers is All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones' dominance in this stretch, totaling the second-most sacks (7.5) in the league since Week 14 behind only Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick (10.5 sacks) as well as the second-most quarterback pressures (43) in that time behind only Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (48).
Chiefs pass defense this season
|First 12 Games||Last 7 Games|
Opp Comp Pct
Opp Passer Rating
* 2nd-best in NFL in span
Even though the Chiefs blitz on 24.6% of opposing quarterback dropbacks this season -- the lowest rate for Spagnuolo since becoming their defensive coordinator in 2019 -- he may have to go back to his historical bread and butter because Eagles Second Team All-Pro quarterback Jalen Hurts has a dramatic drop-off when blitzed. Hurts has the NFL's second-best passer rating (105.6) when not blitzed, but the 22nd-ranked passer rating when blitzed (90.0). His dynamic is a tall task for a defense to handle, but Kansas City head coach Andy Reid and the rest of Chiefs kingdom can sleep easy in the nights leading up to Super Bowl Sunday since Spagnuolo has overcome the odds to stop a number of top-five offenses in NFL playoffs past.
Here's a look at how Spagnuolo's defenses have risen up in the postseason to stop some of the NFL's top offenses en route to two Super Bowl titles with two different teams: the 2007 New York Giants and 2019 Kansas City Chiefs.
"He's [Steve Spagnuolo] the best, brilliant," Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan said on Tuesday when asked about his former defensive coordinator, via 100.1 FM Kansas City. "He would come up with schemes and see things on film that no one else would see. He did a great job of relaying that to the players and letting guys know that he believed in them. That's his greatest gift, he lets you know that he believes in you. You just don't want to let him down. ... He always a guy to say 'you're my guy', and he made each and every one of us feel that way. I just think he's a brilliant coordinator obviously."
Playoff matchups with top-five scoring offenses
- NFC divisional round: 21-17 win at #1 Dallas Cowboys (averaged 28.4 PPG, second-most in NFL)
- NFC conference championship: 23-20 OT win at #2 Green Bay Packers (averaged 27.2 PPG, fourth-most in NFL)
- Super Bowl XLII in Arizona: 17-14 win vs. 18-0 New England Patriots (averaged 36.8 PPG, most in NFL and third-most in a single-season in NFL history)
After making quick work of the Jeff Garcia-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 24-14 wild card win, the Giants traveled to Texas to take on the NFC's top seed, the Dallas Cowboys. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had one of the best seasons of his career, throwing a then-franchise record 36 passing touchdowns with two First Team All-Pro pass-catchers on his side in wide receiver Terrell Owens and tight end Jason Witten. Spagnuolo's defense prevented Romo from finding a rhythm all game long, pressuring him on a season-high 50% of his pass attempts, which led to him putting up a stat line of 18 of 36 passing for 201 passing yards, one passing touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 64.7, his fourth-lowest of the season. They blitzed him on 35% of his dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate he had seen in a game in 2007. The Giants only came away with two sacks that day, but the consistent pressure wore Romo and the high-powered Dallas offense out.
The following week at the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, the Giants and Spagnuolo's defense threw a change-up, opting to not blitz Hall of Famer Brett Favre, the 38-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback, and drop back into coverage. The adjustment worked as Favre tossed two interceptions, including on his final pass as a Green Bay Packer on the opening possession of overtime. He finished 19 of 35 passing with 236 passing yards for two touchdowns in addition to the two picks for a 70.7 passer rating, his fifth-lowest of the season. The freezing conditions and the Giants secondary were two hills Favre couldn't climb in Year 16 in Green Bay as the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl.
The entire world was ready to crown the 18-0 AFC champion New England Patriots as the greatest football team of all time. All they had to do was get past a team they had already defeated 38-35 in the final week of the regular season. Problem was, they couldn't block Spagnuolo's defensive linemen as Brady was sacked a 2007 season-high, as well as what's now tied for his playoff career-high, five sacks. Justin Tuck led the way with two while Strahan, Jay Alford and Kawika Mitchell each added another. The 2007 NFL MVP had a completion percentage of 60.4% (29 of 48), nearly nine points lower than his season average. Outside of their NFC Championship Game victory, pressure was the key to victory for Spagnuolo's "D."
Playoff matchups with top-five scoring offenses
- Super Bowl LIV in Miami: 31-20 win vs. #1 San Francisco 49ers (averaged 29.9 PPG, second-most in NFL)
The NFC champion San Francisco 49ers bulldozed their way to an appearance in Super Bowl LIV, defeating the second-seed Green Bay Packers 37-20 by throwing only eight passes and rushing for a combined 285 yards on 42 carries, a whopping 6.8 yards per carry. Running back Raheem Mostert ran for a historic 220 yards and four touchdowns, the second-most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a playoff game all time.
In the Super Bowl, Spagnuolo went back to his roots, blitzing on 48.5% of Jimmy Garoppolo's passes and forcing him into throwing a season-high two interceptions on 20 of 31 passing for 219 yards and one touchdown as well. His 69.2 passer rating that night was his third-lowest of the season. Trailing 20-10 entering the fourth quarter, Spagnuolo's defense kept San Francisco off the scoreboard, allowing Patrick Mahomes to work his magic, which culminated in a Super Bowl victory.
Whether it's dropping back into coverage or pressuring the quarterback with a variety of blitzes, Spagnuolo's big-game experience is undeniable, and the Chiefs will need every ounce of wisdom from those experiences to come away with their second Super Bowl championship in four seasons.