In past seasons, Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive units often started slow, gaining momentum as the season progressed.
However, the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs present a distinct departure, boasting one of the NFL’s most formidable defenses.
Amidst the intricacies of defensive structure and philosophy, the key to the Chiefs’ defensive improvement lies in a more apparent factor – heightened athleticism.
Unlike previous years, the Chiefs’ current personnel is characterized by youth, speed, and agility. This shift allows Spagnuolo to employ his creative designs as strategic advantages rather than necessities.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, in analyzing the average age of NFL teams’ defensive units, weighted by snap counts, revealed that the Chiefs possess the youngest defense in the league.
Over the last two years, the team has transitioned from veteran players like Tyrann Mathieu and Anthony Hitchens to younger, athletically prime talents, transforming the defensive landscape.
At its core, defense is reactive. The ability to respond effectively to offensive plays is crucial. The Chiefs’ infusion of athleticism ensures that they can close in on ball carriers, eliminate angles, and cover a broader area, mitigating explosive plays – a struggle in the early stages of Spagnuolo’s tenure.
While they remain one of the best blitzing teams in the NFL, they now have the option to be more versatile.
A notable display of this versatility occurred in the recent matchup against the Miami Dolphins. During a critical drive, the Chiefs opted not to blitz on first and second downs, relying on seven players in coverage.
The subsequent blitz on third and fourth downs disrupted the Dolphins’ offense, showcasing the Chiefs’ newfound ability to be unpredictable and formidable.
The Miami game also exemplified the Chiefs’ improved athleticism. Facing the likes of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, known for exploiting defenses with explosive plays, the Chiefs limited Miami to just one explosive pass and effectively curtailed yards after the catch.
The enhanced speed and recovery abilities were evident when Trent McDuffie tackled Hill on a third-down slant route, preventing further yardage gain.
Bryan Cook returns a Tyreek Hill fumble for a 59-yard touchdown (after a lateral from teammate Mike Edwards). Cook reached a top speed of 21.31 mph, the fastest play by a Chiefs' ball carrier this season.#MIAvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 5, 2023
📱: Stream on #NFLPlus https://t.co/kbuNQC0uT9 pic.twitter.com/aLDaYjgj3r
To quantify the improved team speed, relative athletic scores (RAS) were considered. Out of the 10 players in the Chiefs’ back seven, eight boasted elite RAS scores above 9.2, showcasing the overall athleticism of the defensive lineup.
This abundance of athleticism opens up a myriad of defensive possibilities, making the Chiefs a formidable force.
While the defensive players’ talent is undeniable, it’s the team’s speed and athleticism that set them apart from previous years.
Spagnuolo’s customary early-season feeling-out process has been smoother, thanks to the versatility and athleticism of his personnel.
The coined ‘Spags bump’ after Halloween and in the playoffs, indicative of historical defensive improvements, should instill fear in the rest of the NFL, especially considering the heightened athleticism of this year’s Chiefs team.