NFL Analysis


5 min read

How Steve Spagnuolo, Chiefs Defense Spoiled Lamar Jackson's Magical Season

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive tackle Chris Jones pressure Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson throws the ball around Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Trent McDuffie (22) while being sacked by Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) during the first half in the AFC Championship game on Jan. 28. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Nobody calls a defense in January like Steve Spagnuolo. 

Every year, without fail, Spagnuolo tunes up the Kansas City Chiefs defense for the playoffs. Whether it's making a bad defense serviceable, turning solid into sensational or maintaining an already impressive unit, Spagnuolo's defense inevitably becomes the one no team wants to face in the postseason. His ability to get the most out of the defense when it counts is as much responsible for the Chiefs' magic as Andy Reid or Patrick Mahomes. 

Spagnuolo's latest trick was a vanishing act against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Watch him make this MVP quarterback disappear!

The Ravens put up 10 points against Spagnuolo's defense. Their only touchdown came in the first quarter — a broken play where Jackson found Zay Flowers down the field matched up on a linebacker. 

Broken plays like the Flowers touchdown were about the only thing the Ravens offense did well the rest of the day. A couple of scrambles here and there, as well as another open deep shot to Flowers late in the third, made for most of the Ravens' other standout moments. 

On a down-to-down basis, Jackson never looked comfortable after that long touchdown drive. The Ravens offense as a whole was slow and out of sorts, scrambling for any answer it could against a defense where there were no answers. All the Ravens could do was prey on the small handful of mistakes in chaotic moments. 

Chiefs Pass Rush Limited Jackson's Options

So much of the Chiefs' success on defense boiled down to the pass rush making the most of its opportunities. The Chiefs' defensive backs were plastered all over the Ravens' receivers all game, hardly allowing Jackson any free opportunities to unload the ball down the field. 

In turn, Jackson was stuck in the pocket late in the down on play after play. The Chiefs got home about as much as they usually do — 37.0 percent, per TruMedia — and they made it count when they did. They sacked Jackson four times, including once for a strip sack. 

A couple of those sacks were simple four-man rushes. The secondary did its job, a pass-rusher won their rep, and boom, Jackson went down. Charles Omenihu's strip sack and George Karlaftis' fourth-quarter sack were both just 1-on-1 wins around the edge. Nothing more to it. 

In other instances, however, Spagnuolo picked the Ravens' pass protections apart. He was poking and prodding at them all game long. Spagnuolo sent at least five rushers on 43.5 percent of plays, the highest mark for any Chiefs game over the past two seasons. Not all of them got home, but when they did, they were devastating. 

Spagnuolo attacked Baltimore's running backs, in particular. He regularly sent enough men or gamed up the blitz in a way that forced the Ravens' running back to account for someone. 

Justin Reid's third-quarter sack was the best example. Before the snap, the Chiefs had four defenders lined up in front of the center or to his right. The Ravens only had three offensive linemen, obviously, and no tight end on that side. Baltimore's "bigs" (linemen) accounted for Kansas City's "bigs" (linemen and linebackers), leaving Reid blitzing through the B gap straight at running back Justice Hill. For the nth time that game, Hill whiffed and let Reid have a free run at Jackson. 

The Chiefs had a play earlier in that drive where they created a similar blitz concept, using linebacker Drue Tranquill through the B gap instead of Reid. Tranquill beat Hill, but Jackson spun out of the sack before throwing the ball away. Not a sack, but still a bad play for the Ravens. 

Those types of pressures didn't work every time. Even shaky NFL pass pro units will get it right sometimes. 

What they did, however, was keep the back in protection consistently. Not only did that eliminate a checkdown option for Jackson, but it created a winning pass-rush matchup for the Chiefs a majority of the time. Jackson found ways to mitigate it at certain points, as he does, but it wasn't close to enough to win this game. 

Ravens Contributed To Their Own Demise

What's bizarre is the Ravens opted into this by never running the ball. They handed the ball off eight times. A couple of designed runs for Jackson bump that number up a little, but a dozen or so rushing attempts for arguably the best rushing team in football is incomprehensible. 

It's a bad plan of attack on its own, but especially against Spagnuolo. His entire career has been defined by knowing how to get after the quarterback and change the coverage picture devilishly well on clear passing downs. 

Being headstrong about running the ball could have kept the Ravens in more favorable down-and-distances. Not only that, but it wouldn't have let the Chiefs' edge rushers fly off the line of scrimmage the way they were for most of the game. Running the ball and remaining patient could have avoided all of what Spags does best. The Ravens just didn't do it. 

If you let Spags play his game, this is what he does. He usually finds a way to muck things up anyway, but offenses crumble by his hand if the game script and opposing game plan allow it. There's nobody who manipulates protections and terrorizes quarterbacks the way Spags does when he's cookin' in the playoffs. 

That's what makes this Chiefs team, despite all the adversity throughout the season, a nightmare. The inevitability of Mahomes and Reid is scary on its own, but knowing Spagnuolo is up to his tricks again and has the most talented group he's ever coached in Kansas City is just as daunting this time around.