KANSAS CITY CHIEFS cornerback L’Jarius Sneed approached defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo during the offseason with a simple request. Instead of having him bounce back and forth between slot and outside coverage, as he had done in 2022, how about allowing him to follow the opponent’s top receiver each week?
Spagnuolo didn’t give Sneed an immediate answer. But the more he thought about the idea, the more it made sense.
The Chiefs had been burned by some big receiving games in 2022 with Sneed frequently away from the action. They had an option for slot coverage in their other starting cornerback, Trent McDuffie, so Spagnuolo figured why not give it a try.
The experiment worked. There are several reasons the Chiefs finished the regular season yielding the second-fewest points (17.3) and yards per game (289.8), and Sneed’s work is high on the list.
«The thing about LJ is he loves a challenge, he wants to go against their very best,» Spagnuolo said. «That’s why we do it. When you have a guy like that, that you have confidence you can put him on their best guy, I think the other 10 guys rally around him.»
Sneed is part of a defense that has helped the Chiefs create a new identity in a season filled with offensive struggles. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is having the worst statistical season of his career, and the wide receivers lead the NFL in dropped passes. But the Chiefs will play in their sixth straight AFC Championship Game on Sunday (first time on the road), largely because of their defense, which might face its toughest challenge yet going against MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens (3 p.m. ET, CBS).
«I really would not want to play [against] our defense,» Mahomes said. «You have depth, guys rotate in, can do it all and then you have Spags with the scheme. All the guys are so well-coached in the scheme that they use it to their advantage, and you never know where they’re at.»
THE DEFENSIVE RESURGENCE began last season, when the Chiefs’ major free agent signing was safety Justin Reid. They traded wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins for a package of draft picks, including Miami’s top choice, which gave the Chiefs two first-round picks.
They used both on defensive players: McDuffie, who was selected this year as a first-team All-Pro and defensive end George Karlaftis, who tied with Chris Jones for the team lead in sacks with 10.5.
The Chiefs could have spent free agent money this season on a veteran wide receiver like Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins or JuJu Smith-Schuster or continue to try to build their defense. They banked on development from their young wide receivers, which other than with Rashee Rice hasn’t happened.
But the money they expended on defense has been a wise investment. They signed defensive end Charles Omenihu, linebacker Drue Tranquill and safety Mike Edwards and have enjoyed significant contributions from all three.
Omenihu was third on the team in sacks with seven despite missing six games with an NFL suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Tranquill started eight regular-season games, played frequently in the others and had 4.5 sacks. Edwards became a starter late in the season when the Chiefs lost Bryan Cook with an injury, but even before then he contributed several key plays, like his fumble recovery that led to the decisive touchdown in a Week 9 win over the Dolphins.
«If you could bank on doing that every year in free agency, wouldn’t that make a huge difference?» Spagnuolo said. «What they did stepping in I think speaks volumes to how important they’ve been.»
Among the Chiefs’ top 21 players in terms of snap counts, 17 were either drafted by the Chiefs or signed by them as rookie free agents. The average age of the Chiefs’ defensive players is 25.4, the youngest in the league.
«Sneed can play inside [and] outside, McDuffie can play inside [and] outside, all the linebackers can guard and can make tackles. That’s why in training camp I was like, ‘Man I’m glad I don’t have to play those guys, because that would be tough,'» Mahomes said.
The Chiefs were hopeful as the season began about where their defense might be headed, but not as certain as Mahomes. Jones, the Chiefs’ sack leader in each of the previous five seasons, was holding out, Omenihu was suspended and Spagnuolo had enough concern at the time that he warned the Chiefs might not be ready.
«A lot of moving pieces right now,» Spagnuolo said shortly before the start of the season. «Sometimes it takes the first quarter of the season to figure out who you are and what you have. Along the way you hope you’re winning games, but it might take us a little while to figure all of that out.»
It didn’t take much time. The Chiefs allowed 14 offensive points in the opener to the Detroit Lions, who went on to finish fifth in scoring, and then controlled the game defensively the next week against Jacksonville, keeping the Jaguars without a touchdown despite three trips inside the red zone.
Reid said the Chiefs’ defensive success started late last season.
«We had five rookies playing last year,» Reid said. «There’s a lot of youth on the field. We still have one of the youngest defenses in the league. But we have a year in the system. We have a lot of trust in each other, and that knowledge, that chemistry from last year, playing well into February has come into [play] for us this season.
«It’s just building off that, not starting over but continuing to elevate. Then we got some free agent signings that came in and helped us out, too.»
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PLAYER VERSATILITY HAS been a key for the Chiefs. Their linemen frequently are aligned in different spots from snap to snap to allow for more favorable matchups. That helped the Chiefs finish the season second in the league in sacks. Jones played primarily as a tackle but had five of his sacks from an edge position.
The Chiefs have some interchangeable parts in their secondary as well. They blitzed defensive backs often as they moved players around in coverage.
«No other coordinator in the league is going to give you the amount of volume that Steve gives the players every week,» defensive backs coach Dave Merritt said. «It’s constantly, constantly changing. It’s fluid.
«I told the young guys, ‘You will never play in another system that’s as hard as this one. No matter where you go from this point on, if you find another coordinator that puts more on your plate technique-wise [and] coverage-wise … make sure you give me a call and I’ll pay you a hundred dollars.'»
The Chiefs also play a lot of man-to-man coverage, mainly because of the skills of McDuffie and Sneed. They played 35% man coverage during the regular season, seventh most in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
«We have to do what our guys do best, and one of the things that our defensive backs do best is press man coverage,» Merritt said. «Zone does allow you to see the quarterback, see route concepts and make breaks on the ball. You’re going to have more interceptions if you’re playing zone.
«When you’re up there pressed in front of a guy and running with your back to the ball, you’re not going to get as many touches on the football. But yet that skill set throws off the timing for the quarterbacks and the wide receivers.»
Sneed has been responsible for covering the opponent’s top receiver most of the season; the list includes Hill twice, Justin Jefferson, Garrett Wilson, A.J. Brown and Ja’Marr Chase, among others.
Only Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 12 caught at least three passes and had 50 yards with Sneed as the nearest player in coverage, according to Next Gen Stats.
«When you’ve got a DB like that that can just go out and cover their best receivers, it makes it easy for the rest of us,» McDuffie said.
Sneed didn’t seem impressed with the season he has had, saying, «I still have more work to do. I’ve still got a point to prove.»
The Chiefs know otherwise.
«LJ being able to go and match up with an elite receiver, that allows you to do a lot of different things,» Merritt said. «He’s probably, if not the best press corner in the league, he should be considered as one of the top two. And I don’t see him as a No. 2.
«If I was a defensive coordinator, he’s one of the first guys that I’m going to come and grab because he’s probably one of the more complete corners that I’ve ever been around in my building as far as when it comes to tackling as well as coverages.»
The Chiefs weren’t the only ones who appreciated Sneed’s season. While he wasn’t initially voted onto the Pro Bowl team or All-Pro units, Sneed received a special invite from AFC Pro Bowl coach Peyton Manning.
«He should have made it,» Manning said.