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The Chiefs’ Defense Unleashed Hell

10:30 AM EST on February 12, 2024

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 11: Trent McDuffie #22 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates with teammates after defeating the San Francisco 49ers 25-22 in overtime during Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

"How about that D, baby?" a hoarse Andy Reid hollered, and Big Red wasn't working blue. He was praising a Chiefs defense that bent but rarely broke, that made this hydra of a 49ers attack, gadget plays and all, look increasingly pedestrian as the game wore on. It took Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel out of the picture. It mostly limited Christian McCaffrey's open space: 160 yards for the only scary San Franciscan on the night, but on 30 touches. And it made Brock Purdy's life miserable, regularly bringing pressures that forced him to dump off harmless passes or throw balls away. The Chiefs' second straight championship may have been won by Devil Magic or by the greatest quarterback alive, but it was preserved by pressure.

Defense is about adjustments, and KC defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo made them. At halftime the Chiefs moved almost entirely to man coverage, and started bringing the heat on Purdy. Spagnuolo has always been a particularly creative blitzer: movement, deception, and risk are his hallmarks. He's an absolute menace if you give him all-pro pass rushers, like with the Giants that punished Tom Brady in the 2008 Super Bowl. But these Chiefs, like those Giants, often won their battles not in the trenches but with their schemes, before the ball was even snapped. They blitzed more than they didn't, and with those blitzes generated a whopping nine unblocked pressures. If Reid gave credit to the entire defense, the defenders were giving credit to their coordinator. “I love Spags! In Spags we trust, baby!” " safety Justin Reid said, echoing the custom t-shirts they brought to Las Vegas.

The best example of KC's shifty blitzing came on what in retrospect was the biggest play of the game. The Niners were driving, the two-minute warning had sounded, and a conversion on this third-and-4 would have allowed SF to run the clock down before kicking a go-ahead field goal, giving the Chiefs about a minute and no timeouts to match. That didn't happen, because CB Trent McDuffie got to Purdy completely unblocked.

"He's so cerebral and smart," Reid said of McDuffie, who also had some massive pass break-ups in this game, "you can do so many things with him." This was a slot blitz that would leave Aiyuk momentarily uncovered over the middle, and it was a gamble that McDuffie could get to the quarterback before he could unload the ball. It worked: The 49ers never picked it up, and in the chaos on the other side were devoting two blockers to one rusher, and Purdy was forced to throw it away. San Francisco settled for the field goal, and the Chiefs had plenty of clock, and two timeouts, to answer and send things to overtime.

"Coach Spags dialed it up and every time he dials up a blitz for me, I know it’s gonna work,” McDuffie said. “I got a lot of trust in him. I’m just happy I was able to help the back end because I know it’s hard in cover zero.” Ever-shifting looks, disguised blitzes, even the little backpedal McDuffie showed before the snap—all these things are designed to give a pass block fits, and have a second-year quarterback's head spinning like the Mr. Krabs meme.

A similar scenario unfolded on the 49ers' overtime drive: a third-and-4 inside the red zone, with the momentous difference between three and seven points looming. This moment, Spagnuolo decided, called not for deception but for assault. “Coach Spags, man, he’s going to heat you up,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “On third down, we brought the house.”

The Chiefs rushed six, blowing up what looked like a sparkling play-action pass call for Jauan Jennings. Of course, Jennings only had so much space because that was the idea: wreck shit inside before the play can develop down the field. DT Chris Jones went unblocked and forced Purdy to chuck the ball away, even with Jennings gaining separation and Aiyuk wide open over the top. They'd settle for the field goal, and Patrick Mahomes would lead the game-winning drive the other way.

The Chiefs let the 49ers convert just 25 percent of their third downs in this game, an emphatic cap on a monster run. KC never allowed more than 27 points in a game this season, and finished the regular season with the league's second-best unit in both yards and points allowed, and first in second-half points allowed. Then they got even stingier in the playoffs, limiting what might be the NFL's scariest offenses in Miami, Buffalo, Baltimore, and now the Niners. "This is the best defense I’ve ever played with," Travis Kelce said.

So much of the Chiefs' defensive philosophy relies on risk-taking like these two calls, and the belief that their rushers can get where they want to go and their DBs can clean up enough messes when things go wrong, even in cover zero. You can win a game with schemes, and you can win a game with personnel, but when you have both, you can have a dynasty.

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