No stranger to Arizona Super Bowls, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo preaches focus ahead of matchup against Eagles

Football coach in red jacket answers questions.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo speaks with media members during Thursday’s media availability. (John Riker/MEDILL)

By John Riker
Medill Reports

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has spent his Super Bowl week preparing his unit to play a high-powered offense featuring an MVP candidate at quarterback, with the ultimate goal of winning a championship in Glendale close at hand.

That script might sound familiar. Fifteen years ago, Spagnuolo had a similarly daunting challenge as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator when he faced the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, a game also played in Arizona. Spagnuolo’s aggressive game plan produced five sacks and held New England to 14 points, helping New York seal one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history.

“We were pretty blessed to win that game against a pretty good football team,” Spagnuolo said at Thursday’s media availability at the Chiefs’ Scottsdale hotel. “I reaped the benefits of a bunch of guys that played really hard that day, guys I love to this day.”

That landmark win, along with Spagnuolo’s two recent Super Bowl appearances as Kansas City’s defensive coordinator, continue to benefit the Chiefs’ defensive players as they prepare to take on the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Spagnuolo said he has shared a bit of wisdom from his experiences from his four previous Super Bowl trips, such as the eccentricities of daily media responsibilities and the week’s practice structure, to help younger players show up ready and focused against a top offense. 

His best player, defensive end and All-Pro selection Chris Jones, pointed to that experience as the main reason why his defensive coordinator has been so difficult to game plan against.

“Steve doesn’t get a lot of credit for the success of this defense,” Jones said. “Steve’s experience, this is his fifth Super Bowl. His resume speaks for itself.”

Like Spagnuolo’s 2007 Giants defense with Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck, the Chiefs have forged their defensive identity around their own star defensive lineman, Jones, and a fearsome pass rush. Kansas City compiled an AFC-leading 55 sacks in the regular season and added seven more in the playoffs. 

That trademark aggressiveness has helped the Chiefs weather considerable roster turnover and the transition of new faces into the starting lineup, especially in the secondary. Jaylen Watson, a seventh-round selection in last year’s draft, played every defensive snap in the AFC championship game, while fellow rookie Trent McDuffie played all but one. 

Watson said the complexities contained within Spagnuolo’s base 4-3 scheme made for a difficult learning curve, but that the emphasis on pressuring the quarterback has helped him thrive in a larger role.

​​“When I first came in, all five of us rookies on defense looked at the playbook and it looked like a foreign language,” Watson said. “We have so many different looks and so many different plays, pressures where you don’t know where they’re coming from. It’s great on us, it makes it easier for us because quarterbacks have to get the ball out faster.”

Spagnuolo isn’t the only coach who has been sharing Super Bowl wisdom with the young secondary. Defensive backs coach Dave Merritt has worked on Spagnuolo’s staff for both Super Bowl appearances with the Chiefs and also served as the secondary coach for Spagnuolo’s Giants defense in Super Bowl XLII. 

Like Watson, Merritt underscored the unpredictability in formations and pressures in Spagnuolo’s scheme as the reason for his continued success on the sport’s grandest stage.

“You can go really aggressive, and then he throws out a conservative part where you weren’t prepared for where the defensive line comes rushing you and hits you on the head,” Merritt said. “His defensive approach with his pressures, whether zone pressures or man pressures, those are the things that make him difficult to prepare for because of the multiplicity of the defense.”

Spagnuolo has noticed a couple of changes since his last Super Bowl week in Arizona, from the spectacle of Super Bowl Opening Night to a change in hotels from the NFC-designated site in Phoenix — where he stayed with the Giants — to the AFC representative’s hotel in Scottsdale. His emphasis on the fundamentals and thorough preparation has been a constant, though, and the Chiefs are hoping for a similarly dominant defensive performance this time around.  

“The events are similar, they’re a little bit bigger,” Spagnuolo said. “The work, the focus, is pretty much the same as you’re getting ready to win a game.”

John Riker is a Sports Media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter.