The Chiefs defense has been one of the best in the league this season. No qualifiers, no soft schedule, no “They’re just doing enough to support the offense on a playoff run.” They’re eighth in success rate and third in expected points added per drive. They’re tied for second in total sacks and tied for third in forced fumbles. This is the sort of defense that you have to prepare for, scheme around, worry about—as if you weren’t already doing enough of that for Patrick Mahomes and the other side of the football.
In previous years under Steve Spagnuolo, who has been the defensive coordinator in Kansas City since 2019, the Chiefs have fielded a pleasantly average defense: the sort that was good enough to hang in the postseason but rarely impacted a long stretch of games. This season, it’s taken a pretty big leap. The Chiefs defense isn’t the only one to do so, but other defensive jumps around the league are easier to explain. The Ravens are in year two of Mike Macdonald’s system; the Browns are in their first year with Jim Schwartz.
The Chiefs are in their fifth season under Spags. Their stars are Chris Jones, who’s been on the Chiefs for his entire career, and … shoot. Who’s the second star on the Chiefs defense? The Ravens have Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton; the Browns have Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward; the Jets have Sauce Gardner and Quinnen Williams; the Steelers have T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward.
Because the Chiefs are never drafting in the top of the first round or playing with tons of money in free agency, many of the names on their defense are either unknown or underappreciated. But the story of the Chiefs’ defensive surge starts with their personnel—not just how good it is, but how new it is.
Here’s every Chiefs defensive player who took at least 10 snaps against the Dolphins on Sunday. I’ve highlighted every player that was acquired in the past two offseasons.
That’s pretty much the whole defense, man. Every single starter in the secondary save for L’Jarius Sneed joined the team in 2022. First-round pick Trent McDuffie is one of the best young talents in the NFL, while second-round pick Bryan Cook, far less heralded, is enjoying a substantial sophomore leap after an up-and-down rookie season. Justin Reid, signed last offseason for just over $10 million per season, is playing the same caliber of ball that Budda Baker, Quandre Diggs, and Eddie Jackson are playing on much larger price tags. Mike Edwards, a veteran on a one-year deal who was available for anyone days into 2023 free agency, has made impact plays all season.
The secondary is the place to start for the Chiefs, because that’s the unit they’ve intentionally and aggressively retooled, and they haven’t missed on a single move. They let Tyrann Mathieu walk as his legs started to go; ditto for Daniel Sorensen, who had a target on his back in coverage during his final years in Kansas City. Juan Thornhill and Charvarius Ward were legit solid players on this defense, but still, the Chiefs let them walk, believing they could replace them with draft picks.
They were right.
The result of this change is that the Chiefs have the youngest defense leaguewide—yes, the youngest.
Snap-adjusted age so far for 2023— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 4, 2023
Five oldest teams: Saints, Eagles, Broncos, 49ers, Raiders
Five youngest teams: Packers, Giants, Bears, Colts, Cardinals pic.twitter.com/T8CrN9gNNP
The impact of the youth is for another day, another year—two seasons from now, with all the same players, when the Chiefs are still doing this and we’re all tearing our hair out because they’re still getting away with it. What’s meaningful about all of the youth today is this: They were all handpicked for this defense. They were all selected to play with one another and for Spagnuolo. And watching it work is a thing of beauty.
To be a Spagnuolo defensive back, you need to do two things very well: tackle, and everything else. Spagnuolo asks an incredible amount of his defensive backs. He plays press coverage at one of the highest rates; he nudges them up to the line of scrimmage to appear as blitzers and then sends them careening back into deep zones.
Here’s a good rep on third down against the Jets. Spags shows seven players at the line of scrimmage as potential rushers, with an eighth peeking off the edge to the top of the screen. As the ball is snapped, Mike Edwards gets from the line to the deep middle of the field, looking for anything vertical from the three-receiver side; Justin Reid is underneath him, taking away any quick seams or curl routes.
The goal with this sort of coverage is to trap Zach Wilson into looking for a quick throw to the three-receiver side, only to take all that space away with Reid and defensive end George Karlaftis. But because of all the numbers committed to making the bluff work, cornerback Sneed has to line up in isolated, press-man coverage (with absolutely zero help coming from Edwards or any safety) against Garrett Wilson. Sneed plays him tight, the pressure gets home, and the pass is broken up.
Here’s another beautiful example from this Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. Just watch the coverage rotate and the blitz unfurl live.
This is a corner cat blitz, and it’s just about the gnarliest thing you can do as a defensive coordinator. You’re sending the outside cornerback, a blitzer who will never be in the offensive line’s protection count. And to do so, you have to rotate a deep safety (Reid) over into man coverage, rotate the strongside safety (Cook) to the weak side, drop the nickel corner (McDuffie) into deep-half coverage, and bring a defensive end (Karlaftis) out in coverage. Here’s what all that looks like on the freeze-frame.
Think about all of the demands here. You have to trust Reid in man coverage (which you can—Reid has always been known as a versatile safety, and he plays over the slot often in this defense). You need to trust McDuffie as a deep-half zone defender (which you can—he’s one of the smartest defensive backs leaguewide). And you need to like your ability to time everything up, with proper spacing, across the entire coverage shell and the blitzers. It’s run to perfection here.
One more really twisted one, on a third-and-long against the Broncos. Denver has a screen dialed up here, so we don’t really see coverage play out. I just want you to see the nasty stuff this defense is up to.
This is the sort of system that many defensive coordinators dream of running. When new defensive coordinators get hired this offseason and hop on the mic at their introductory press conferences and say, “We’re gonna be a multiple defense. We’re gonna be versatile, and we’re gonna be aggressive,” this is what that looks like.
But to do this, you need interchangeable players like Reid, McDuffie, and Cook: three players the Chiefs acquired in 2022. You also need long, press outside corners like Sneed, Jaylen Watson, and Joshua Williams; the latter two were 2022 draft picks. The Chiefs didn’t achieve this defense with platitudes at press conferences. They went out and built it.
But remember, the first thing Spagnuolo asks of his defensive backs isn’t versatility; it’s tackling. That’s really where the magic is. You can do all the clever scheme shenanigans and coverage rotations that you like; if you play with this many defensive backs at the line of scrimmage, they better be able to tackle. It’s something the Chiefs do extremely well.
Now, I want to take the entire story of the Chiefs secondary, replace the word “secondary” with the words “defensive line,” and then repeat the whole thing. Tackling matters a little less here, as defensive linemen play in space a lot less often. But the Chiefs have gotten excellent play this season from Karlaftis, another 2022 first-rounder, as well as 2023 free agent signing Charles Omenihu. Omenihu is a 280-pound edge rusher with the ability to bounce inside; Karlaftis, at 263 pounds, has 18 snaps in coverage this year—fifth most among defensive linemen. That isn’t so much about him as it is about Spagnuolo’s willingness to use his defensive linemen in weird and unpredictable ways.
Another example: Karlaftis also lines up at defensive tackle sometimes just so that Chris Jones can line up at defensive end. Look at this front, with which the Chiefs have gotten multiple easy pressures for Jones.
That’s Karlaftis and Mike Danna at defensive tackle. Danna is listed at just 257 pounds! The heaviest player on this line—Jones—is playing defensive end! Spagnuolo should be investigated for high jinks and tomfoolery.
The fact that Jones is such a big name can pull attention away from the other defensive linemen on this unit. Omenihu is a known, quality player, and his contract reflects that—but Karlaftis and Danna are having the best seasons of their respective young careers.
The Chiefs have never had a stronger cadre of pass rushers around Jones, which has a multiplying effect on all of the foolishness that Spagnuolo gets up to on the chalkboard. As an offense, you have to worry about additional bodies coming in the rush; and, whether they do or don’t come, you’d like to have an additional body for Jones as well, who could be rushing from the interior or the outside. If you somehow manage to solve both of those problems, well, shoot—the Chiefs have a group of guys who can win one-on-one now. 2023 first-rounder Felix Anudike-Uzomah hasn’t even started contributing to the group yet, and if it keeps playing like this, he won’t need to.
The depth and versatility of this defensive line is yet another check in the win column for general manager Brett Veach and the Chiefs scouting department, with a tip of the cap to Spagnuolo for his insight and development. The Chiefs have drawn more reliable contributors on defense from picks outside of the top 20 and free agents outside of mega-contracts than any other team in the past few offseasons. And now, they’re reaping the rewards. (If only they had the same luck at wide receiver!)
Because many of the players are young and unheralded, it can feel like the Chiefs defense is punching above its weight and is likely to regress. I think some of that is inescapable. It’s had great injury luck this season, losing only linebacker Nick Bolton—and, again, having great, young options to replace him in Willie Gay Jr., 2022 draft pick Leo Chenal (who looks excellent), and 2023 free agent signing Drue Tranquill. If the injury bug comes, the unit will inherently get worse. And by playing a chaotic style of defense, the Chiefs are always liable to experience a couple of dramatic coverage busts and an accordingly poor defensive performance against an offense they should otherwise beat.
But I think, mostly, this Chiefs defense is here to stay, now and for a while. Chris Jones’s contract situation looms; he’ll be a free agent in 2024, and given how the 2023 negotiations went, I’m not sure there’s much of a reason to believe he’ll be back next year. Sneed, Danna, and run-stuffing nose Derrick Nnadi all need and deserve new deals, as well. But the Chiefs have so much impactful, inexpensive youth along the defense that we should reframe this early-season performance from surprise to new reality; from outlier to expectation.
What if the team with Patrick Mahomes also fields a legit top-10 defense every year? What does the rest of the NFL do then?