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Steve Spagnuolo’s top Chiefs’ defense has been five years in the making

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By: Ron Kopp

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kansas City defense has gradually ascended, becoming one of the NFL’s best units in 2023.

Four years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were celebrating their victory in Super Bowl LIV. The 31-20 defeat of the San Francisco 49ers was capped off by a defensive stand by the Chiefs, who didn’t allow a score in all four of the 49ers’ fourth-quarter possessions.

That finish provided validation for 2019’s hire of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. After being away from coaching for a season, he came into Kansas City with a plan to build a championship defense. As the team celebrated its championship in Miami, it seemed like that goal had already been accomplished: Spagnuolo had maximized the defensive talent he had been given, forming a defense that did just enough to win.

Now, however, Spagnuolo is looking ahead to his fourth Super Bowl in Kansas City — and his unit does much more than “just enough.” Over his five seasons, Spagnuolo has molded and developed his unit to his vision — and in 2023, it finally came into its own as one of the league’s top units.

That doesn’t surprise a four-year player like defensive end Mike Danna, who has seen this process nearly from start to finish.

“From Day 1, I knew Spags was a special coach — a wizard,” Danna told reporters during a Super Bowl LVIII media availability on Wednesday. “You can see his defense continually get better every year.”

NFL: DEC 17 Chiefs at Patriots
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Looking back at it, it doesn’t seem like Spagnuolo’s fingerprints started appearing on the team’s personnel moves until the 2020 NFL Draft — one year after he was hired. In that offseason, the Chiefs acquired core defenders like cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and defensive end Mike Danna. All three players have grown noticeably over these four seasons, transitioning from role players to starters.

And Danna believes that all the credit for that belongs to Spagnuolo.

“The way he coaches his defense to his players, the way he takes care of his players and his coaching staff is second to none,” explained Danna. “This is my fourth year in the system, and I’ve seen this defense continually get better and better. It’s [been] exciting to see that — because I knew, sooner or later, [that] this defense was going to be one of the top [units] in the NFL.”

That belief shows up in the players’ confidence on the field. When he first arrived, Sneed was a quiet player. Now, however, he has grown into an alpha mentality. Gay’s energetic personality comes through in his play more than it did during his first few years.

As these four-year developmental projects come to fruition, younger players accelerate their growth, too. For a handful of young Chiefs, Sunday’s game will be their second Super Bowl in two seasons in Kansas City. That’s something that one of them — defensive end George Karlaftis — recognizes as a unique advantage.

“Last year, we had a lot of guys that were first-year starters — not even just rookies, just first-year starters,” Karlaftis pointed out. “The biggest thing is making that leap from being a first-year starter to that next level.

“We had a lot of guys that had that experience… We came together in OTAs and challenged each other to become better… We knew what we were capable of at the end of the day.”

This layered development process has helped make this young, ascending Kansas City defense one of the NFL’s best. Trusting the youth of the defense allowed the team to be comfortable when they cut ties with veteran leaders in the last offseason.

That doesn’t mean Karlaftis (and other young players) dismiss the lessons they learned from more experienced players like Frank Clark and Chris Jones.

“I’ve learned to not make the same mistake from both [defensive line coach] Joe Cullen and Steve Spagnuolo,” said Karlaftis. “[But] Frank and Chris taught me how to be a professional — and so did Carlos Dunlap. I’ve had a lot of great people [mentoring me], and I think that was a key part of whatever success I had last year.”

Now, though, this Kansas City defense seems to be peaking — thanks not only to the talent the team has acquired, but also to how it has been developed and implemented by Spagnuolo. Five years ago, he was entrusted to build a championship defense. Before that even happened, it played a key role in collecting two Super Bowl rings.

If the Chiefs can win another championship on Sunday, it will be because Spagnuolo’s defense played a primary role in its 2023 success.

Originally posted on Arrowhead Pride