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For Better or Worse, Steve Spagnuolo’s Seat Is Heating Up

The Chiefs' defense has struggled this season and if that level of performance persists, there may not be any saving the team's creative defensive coordinator.

Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Kansas City Chiefs' defense has been bad this season.

It wasn't always supposed to be like this. Entering year three under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, hopes were high for a unit that has essentially been a middle-of-the-pack one since his arrival. Add in offseason moves like acquiring defensive tackle Jarran Reed, moving Chris Jones to the defensive end spot and drafting linebacker Nick Bolton, and things seemed to be on the up and up. Some impressive preseason reps amplified that optimism.

Seven games into the 2021 campaign, that legitimate hope has turned into serious doubt — and rightfully so. Of all 32 NFL teams, the Chiefs currently rank 27th in points allowed per game, 27th in rushing yards allowed per game and 26th in passing yards allowed per game. They have the league's worst run stop win rate and its fifth-worst pass rush win rate. The defense is above that of only the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars in Football Outsiders' total DVOA. No matter how you slice it, the Chiefs have trotted out one of the NFL's worst defenses this season. 

There are multiple levels at which the Chiefs' defense is failing. Personnel-wise, the talent of the unit is below average. Coaching-wise, adjustments have been inconsistent all year. On the field, the players haven't executed properly. With general manager Brett Veach and head coach Andy Reid firmly entrenched in their current positions, any potential renovation to the Chiefs would likely result in Spagnuolo's tenure with the team ending.

It may not be fair and it may still be early enough for him to turn things around but nevertheless, his seat is undoubtedly heating up. Conner Christopherson of Arrowhead Report joined me on today's Roughing the Kicker podcast to talk about what's gone wrong for the Chiefs on defense and who should be blamed for such a massive failure thus far. 

Let's start with Veach. Rather than pursuing quality help along the edge, the 43-year-old executive moved an All-Pro caliber three-technique to an unfamiliar position and replaced him with an outsider on a one-year deal worth over $5 million. He also spent a Day 3 draft pick on a defensive end and brought back an old friend who hasn't made much of an impact this season. Up front, not enough was done to help the Chiefs generate a consistent and reliable pass rush with just four players. This, in turn, puts even more pressure on Spagnuolo and his second-level defenders to pick up the slack.

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In the most recent NFL Draft, Veach used a second-round selection on a linebacker. This was the second consecutive year in which he did so. He also avoided investing anything serious into the cornerback position. He also opted to re-sign safety Daniel Sorensen, whose poor play led to him getting benched by Week 6. From a decision-making standpoint, the big-swinging Veach hasn't seen many of his moves from the offseason pay off when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.

Now, let's get to the players. A common theme for the Chiefs this year has been a lack of communication. Players haven't been on the same page all season long, whether it be lining up out of position, not processing things quickly enough in real-time or not picking up on cues from others. It's been hard to watch. Countless times in 2021, blown coverages or missed tackles have led to big plays by the Chiefs' opponents. Those aren't necessarily scheme-related issues: It's on the players to play fundamentally sound football.

Sure, Spagnuolo hasn't done his players any favors. He waited far too long to replace Sorensen with Juan Thornhill. He's just now figuring out what he has in cornerback Rashad Fenton: a seemingly reliable starter. He has yet to bail on the Jones-on-the-edge experiment. He may be asking too much of a defense that simply isn't talented enough to complete tasks in the way he needs it to. Part of the blame goes on him for not simplifying concepts when needed.

The Chiefs run a good amount of concepts that ask safeties and cornerbacks to be put in precarious positions. Cover-0 asks safeties to start plays with great depth and work quickly downhill and the modified Tampa 2 shell leaves the flats in flux while stressing linebackers. Strategies like bail techniques force defensive backs to make up for lost ground because Spagnuolo wants to make an attempt at disguising coverages before the snap. These things work great when given the proper personnel, communication and time but if one or more of those items is missing, the defensive coordinator needs to be able to adjust. Spagnuolo hasn't always done that.

It's difficult to set up a definitive hierarchy of blame when looking at why the Chiefs have been so bad on defense in 2021. There's a split that should be spread between Spagnuolo, Veach and the players but it's entirely possible that the former takes the fall for everything. Again, it may not be fair. With that said, it's how situations like this work in the NFL. Spagnuolo is an intelligent defensive mind who is rooted deeply in what helped him find success early in his stint with the Chiefs. Right now, it isn't working. If he doesn't adjust soon and if his players don't pull their own weight, that aforementioned seat will grow even warmer as the season goes on.

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