Steve Spagnuolo’s game-winning play against the Browns — and how we got there

Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There will be better days for the Chiefs’ defensive players, but Spags’ play-calling helped them seal the deal.

There was bad, there was good — and there was a game-winning play calling by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 1 win over the Cleveland Browns. I broke down plays from the game that fit all three categories.

Usually, we would start with the good, but most of the bad from the game came much earlier than the good — so it’s natural we start there:

The bad

The Browns methodically marched down the field on the first possession, scoring a touchdown and a two-point conversion to conclude a drive that took over seven minutes. A few of their first-down conversions came by way of coverage mishaps.

First big gain of the day for the Browns came at the fault of 22

Trying to help vs run by starting close to LOS, but has deep 1/2 in Cover 2. Doesn’t bail fast enough, and Schwartz’ subtle speed cut gets him off-balance

If Schwartz catches it clean, it might be 6 #Chiefs

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

On the first play of the second drive, the Browns take a shot off a play-action fake — and it works for a gain of 44 yards.

Safety Juan Thornhill is responsible for the deep half of the field towards his side on this play. Seeing a heavy formation, Thornhill creeps up to the box to help against a potential run — but doesn’t bail back to his zone fast enough once he recognizes pass. This allows speedy, rookie wide receiver Anthony Schwartz to get behind him and give Mayfield a huge window towards the sideline to throw into. He bobbles the completion; if he catches it cleanly, he likely scores.

Schwartz was relatively unknown going into the game, so it’s possible Thornhill underestimated his speed on this play. Even then, he should have put himself in a better position to recover and prevent a receiver from getting behind him.

The absence of second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was felt throughout the game. His superior athleticism to the other linebackers on the field would have helped the unit defend play-action passes better.

Example of Gay being missed. Niemann in his spot in Nickel

3rd&5. Niemann puts himself in position to shoot the lane and make a tackle, just doesn’t have the burst to close on Hunt

A quicker tackle could’ve forced CLE to kick FG. Instead, they score next play on 4th and inches

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

I believe he also would have boosted the run defense. Here, linebacker Ben Niemann is the second linebacker alongside Anthony Hitchens in their nickel personnel. On an outside run, Niemann flows well and gets himself to the appropriate lane to attack the ball carrier. Yet, his lack of burst or short-area speed prevents him from making a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

Gay excels at exploding through lanes and closing on ball carriers in these types of situations. On a third-and-5, a quicker tackle could have prevented Cleveland from going for it on fourth down the next play — which resulted in a touchdown.


Counter play. Kaindoh should squeeze and stay square to LOS to take on kickout, squeezes down blindly instead. Basically down blocks himself

Sneed attacks WR w/ no regard for run play

56 keys on RB instead of pulling G, sets up easy angle for LG

Just bad

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

This play is the ugliest of them all. The Browns run a counter to the left, and running back Nick Chubb isn’t touched as he runs 18 yards for the score.

Rookie defensive end Joshua Kaindoh makes a rookie mistake here: as the left tackle blocks down, Kaindoh should stay square to the line of scrimmage and prepare for a kick-out block. Instead, he turns his shoulders and blindly follows the tackle inside. It makes the block for the pulling guard incredibly easy; he basically down blocked himself.

As for cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, he appears to disregard the possibility of a run and focuses on attacking the wide receiver’s release. This takes away the defense’s outside contain.

Finally, Niemann seems to read the running back’s initial step towards the right, because he also steps in that direction. He should have his eyes on the guards to see if either pulls, which the right guard does. That false step gives the climbing left guard an easy angle to seal him from the point of attack.

This touchdown gave the Browns 22 points in the first half; they totaled 318 yards in the period.

The good

What felt like the first positive defensive play of the game happened to be the last legitimate play before halftime.

Chris Jones had the #Chiefs‘ only two sacks v CLE

1. 2nd to last play before half. Love the setup of Danna in 4i and Reed at NT. Creates 1v1s, and Jones dominates backup LT

2. 1st down of 4Q 3&Out. Incredible get-off. Conklin barely touches him. Browns can’t recover from 2nd&17

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

Defensive end Chris Jones notches his first sack of the season thanks to an advantageous pass-rush alignment. With Mike Danna inside of him attacking the guard and Jarran Reed over the center, there’s no help for the backup left tackle taking on Jones. The All-Pro pass-rusher takes advantage of the one-on-one mismatch and prevents Cleveland from scoring again before halftime.

In the second half of this clip, Jones flies out of his stance and is barely touched by right tackle Jack Conklin for his second sack. This fourth-quarter play was equally crucial; it put the Browns in a second down with 17 yards to convert, and they couldn’t recover.

3rd&7. 2 man under, Thornhill has deep 1/2. Hughes is aware of the sticks and passes off Schwartz to Juan so he can take away throw at 1st down marker

Schwartz gets on top of 22 again, and a better throw to the sideline might convert this. Great technique on PBU by Juan though

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

On third down, with the Chiefs trying to keep their lead late, this incredible play on the ball was made by Thornhill. He tightly defended the receiver on a jump pass, cleanly goes up with him and has great technique in placing his hand between the pass-catcher and rips the ball away from the body as they fell to the grass.

However, this play is a mix of good and bad. The speedy Schwartz initially gets on top of Thornhill — who is responsible for that deep half of the field again — and has a step on him, angling towards the sideline. Mayfield just isn’t able to lead him there, and that allowed Thornhill to recover.

The game-winning play call

Spagnuolo dialed up a unique zone blitz on the last play of the game, leading to Mayfield throwing the ultimate interception.

What a play-call by Spags on GW snap

Dime p. Sorensen, Niemann, and Sneed blitz. Reed and Okafor drop into coverage. Pressure forces Baker to double-pump and put eyes on the pocket rather than downfield

W/O pressure, there’s a tight but throwable window to Landry at sideline

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

In their dime personnel, the Chiefs show a heavy blitz coming; it appears that three additional defenders besides the four down linemen are coming in the backfield. Those three do blitz — but defensive end Alex Okafor and defensive tackle Jarran Reed drop back into short-area zone coverage immediately after the snap.

The secondary also reveals they’re in zone coverage rather than man, which makes Mayfield hesitate to throw. The confusion forces him to focus his eyes on the pressure, which he maneuvers well initially — but a shoestring grab by the blitzing Dan Sorensen forces an errant throw by Mayfield.

The best part? Spagnuolo tested out this type of play earlier in the game.

First drive on a 2nd down. Spags mixes it up by dropping the DEs into coverage and blitzing Hitch/Bolton. It’s effective, Baker forced to scramble out

Props to Okafor (97) for carrying WR on corner route

P.S. Look at Saunders’ power on RT Conklin. Shoves him back 4-5 yards

— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 15, 2021

On this second down from the first drive, two blitzing linebackers penetrate the pocket while the two defensive ends drop into coverage. It worked against Mayfield the first time, and Spagnuolo waited for the perfect time to use it again.

The bottom line

Defensively, the Chiefs need to play better in future games — and they will. The three absent starters will return soon enough, and they won’t always play an offense as multiple and as unpredictable as Cleveland’s.

As long as they have Spags running the show, defenders will be positioned to make game-changing plays like they were in Week 1.

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