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Steve Spagnuolo unleashed havoc for the Chiefs’ defense in his Super Bowl masterpiece

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LAS VEGAS – Justin Reid pounded the makeshift podium in front of him for emphasis. 

“I love Spags,” the Kansas City Chiefs safety said. “In Spags we trust, baby.” 

The popular refrain was an established a motto for the Chiefs defense – and the entire team – after the Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 25-22, on Sunday. 

“In Spags we trust,” right guard Trey Smith repeated. 

“Spags” would be Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, now a four-time Super Bowl champion as the shepherd of a championship team’s defense. 

Chiefs players printed shirts with the saying on them ahead of the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. With the resume Spagnuolo has built, the “trust” is well-earned. 

The coach also received contributions from his entire defense to contain the Niners.

“This is the most supremely talented defense that I’ve been a part of,” Reid said, “and he just puts us in a position to be successful.” 

Three of Spagnuolo’s rings have been won in Kansas City alongside Andy Reid, whom he has worked for across two stints beginning in the early 2000s with the Philadelphia Eagles. The other title came following the 2007 season with the New York Giants. Now he’s the most-decorated coordinator in NFL history. 

“He’s amazing,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said, “his resume speaks for itself.” 

The beginning of the Chiefs’ dynasty featured teams with high-flying offenses. The 2023 team will be remembered for its stars, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. But Spagnuolo’s unit was the real engine to power the latest championship. 

Kansas City stonewalled the Miami Dolphins in the AFC wild card round. The defense survived against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills a week later. They contained the MVP, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, in the conference championship game. 

Spagnuolo deployed his tool box of blitz packages down the stretch, particularly against the Ravens and Niners. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy ranked first in success rate among quarterbacks against the blitz this season. That didn’t stop Spagnuolo from calling pressures on 51.2% of Purdy’s dropbacks, the Chiefs’ fourth-highest rate in a game during Spangulo’s tenure. The second-year quarterback, who finished 23-of-38 for 255 passing yards, faced the third-most pressure of his career. Purdy was sacked once, although Chiefs defenders in his face prompted him to throw the ball at wide receiver Deebo Samuel’s shoestrings for incompletions on multiple occasions. San Francisco was 3-for-12 on third down. 

Jones helped save a pair of touchdowns by pressuring Purdy – first on a red-zone play action call by the Niners, in which Samuel got behind the secondary. The second came in overtime on what ended up being the 49ers’ final offensive play. San Francisco’s protection scheme broke down and Jones had a free run at Purdy, who needed to get rid of the ball and overthrew Jauan Jennings, who was open for a touchdown that would have put more pressure on the Chiefs’ offense.

Unlike his scheme against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl 16 years ago, Spagnuolo manufactured pressure. He did not simply rely on four talented defensive linemen to pursue the quarterback, a luxury the Giants had in that first Super Bowl victory over Brady and the Patriots. 

In a key moment Sunday, Spagnuolo leaned on his creativity and gutsiness. San Francisco lined up for a third-and-4 coming out of the two-minute warning. A first down would have given the 49ers the chance to line up for a game-winning field goal within 50 yards without having to give the ball back to Mahomes. Instead, “Spags” sent cornerback Trent McDuffie on a disguised blitz off the left edge. No San Francisco blocker accounted for him. Purdy tried to throw through the pressure, but the second-year corner knocked the ball down.  

“We’re going to come left, center or right,” Reid said. 

Spagnuolo has not coached another player, however, who has had the game-wrecking abilities of Jones. Leo Chenal and George Karlaftis won’t be receiving lucrative contracts this offseason, but Chenal’s forced fumble on Christian McCaffrey on the 49ers’ first drive and Karlaftis’ recovery set the tone.

“We were going to come out there with some fire,” Reid said. “We knew that we needed to set a tempo.” 

Outside of McCaffrey, none of the 49ers’ weapons did much. According to ESPN Stats and Info, it was the third time in 48 games together that Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel did not combine for 100 yards. The Niners are 0-3 in those contests; the 2022 NFC championship against the Philadelphia Eagles in which Purdy was knocked out and a rainsoaked Week 6 loss to the Cleveland Browns this season were the other two. 

“It’s Spags man,” Jones said, “what can you say?” 

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