In 2019, veteran coach Steve Spagnuolo joined the Kansas City Chiefs as the second defensive coordinator under head coach Andy Reid. Spagnuolo, a then-21-year veteran of the NFL, took over after the dismissal of his much-maligned predecessor Bob Sutton. While the Whitinsville, Massachusetts-native has seen his own share of scrutiny, he's fared far better than Sutton.
In Spagnuolo's five-year tenure, the Chiefs have thrice posted a Top-10 scoring defense (2019-2021), and the defense has played a significant role in three Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl victories. Despite prior successes, Spagnuolo — affectionately known as "Spags" around the Kingdom — may be in the midst of his finest work yet in the early part of the 2023 season.
Through Spagnuolo's first four seasons as Kansas City's defensive coordinator, the team surrendered at least 21.3 points per game through Week 3. This season, the team has given up just 40 points to opponents (an average of 13.3 points per game). His defense had logged seven straight quarters without allowing a touchdown until Sunday when the Chicago Bears scored a garbage-time touchdown with 4:20 remaining in regulation. In fact, it wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Bears posted their first points of the day (a 21-yard Cairo Santos field goal).
There are myriad reasons why the Chiefs' defense is playing at such a high level so early in the season. Part of it is due to the maturation of a number of young defensive players. Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, George Karlaftis, Leo Chenal, Bryan Cook, and Jaylen Watson have developed into an impressive core of gifted defensive players under the age of 26. The last thing the league needs is for Patrick Mahomes to be complemented by a young, athletic, and battle-tested defense.
Uncharacteristically, through three weeks of the 2023 season, the Kansas City Chiefs' defense may be the team's best unit.
Perhaps the most underrated reason for Kansas City's defensive success in 2023, is the performance of Steve Spagnuolo's defensive staff. There's a case to be made that he has one of the premier defensive coaching groups in the league. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen and secondary coach Dave Merritt are two of the 10 best position coaches in the game. Couple that tandem with a linebackers coach with as much hardware as Brendan Daly (a now five-time champion) and an outside linebackers coach in Ken Flajole (a 20-year veteran of NCAA Football and 25-year veteran of the NFL) and it's tough to find a stronger, more evenly-distributed ensemble of defensive coaches.
Full disclosure: I think it's fair to take this defense's three-game performance with a grain of salt. One might argue that they caught a pair of great offenses in the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars in early-season form. Both teams appear to have a few kinks that still need to be worked out. That said, the Chiefs' defense will get a great test on November 5th when the Chiefs meet the Miami Dolphins at Deutsche Bank Park in Frankfurt, Germany—the same Dolphins team that scored 70 points on K.C.'s woeful division rival the Denver Broncos. That was a historic offensive performance when Miami became just the third team in NFL history to score 70 or more points in a regular-season game.
To a lesser extent, the Minnesota Vikings (albeit 0-3) could be a solid litmus test for the defense. They're currently in the cellar of the NFC North but are a talented offensive group that could have things turned around when they lock horns in Week 6. Minnesota is certainly feeling the losses of running back Dalvin Cook and 10-year veteran receiver Adam Thielen, but there are still plenty of pieces that could ultimately come together for the Vikes.
For now, it's been a revelation to see this defensive unit playing so well so early in the year. If this continues, there are good reasons to believe the Chiefs can successfully defend their title. Part of this will depend on the defense's ability to stay healthy. Fourth-year man Nick Bolton is battling an ankle injury that sidelined him for this past Sunday's matchup with the Bears. Fortunately for the Chiefs, linebacker Drue Tranquill filled in admirably with Bolton sidelined. As it stands, Bolton's injury is not believed to be serious so the likelihood is that he'll soon return to the lineup. If the rest of the group can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for Steve Spagnuolo and company.