How the Chiefs defense stifled the Ravens and led the way back to the Super Bowl


BALTIMORE — Before the Kansas City Chiefs won their most important game this season, before they took another huge step in their quest to become the NFL’s first repeat champion in two decades, several members of the defense executed a telling gesture. While warming up, the Chiefs’ defenders wore black T-shirts with four words in large, all-caps text: IN SPAGS WE TRUST.

The shirts included photographs of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, each one photoshopped and put together in a red-and-yellow design that also featured the American flag in the background.

More than three hours later Sunday, amid another impromptu on-field celebration — this one after the Chiefs’ valiant 17-10 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game — Spagnuolo shared his thoughts on how his players, who produced yet another stellar performance, had praised him.

“I was embarrassed and humbled at the same time,” Spagnuolo said, smiling. “I hope they burn them. The trust is in the players.”

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Once again, Spagnuolo’s players were instrumental in the Chiefs dominating the Ravens, who entered the postseason with the NFL’s best record at 13-4 and quarterback Lamar Jackson, the presumptive NFL MVP.

The Ravens never led in Sunday’s game, and Spagnuolo unleashed a variety of tactics to make Jackson feel uncomfortable. The Chiefs’ victory earned them a spot in Super Bowl LVIII, their fourth appearance in the past five years.

“It’s the same story: We made adjustments that we haven’t practiced all week,” safety Justin Reid said while donning a crisp new AFC championship ballcap. “We change things and it holds up for us. We have a plan for everything. Spags is a magician, man, the way that he sees the game, his feel for the game, his timing of the calls and when to bring pressure and when to fake a pressure and drop back into coverage.”

Together, the Chiefs’ defenders hit Jackson over and over and over. Spagnuolo called blitz after blitz after blitz, with many of those plays disrupting the rhythm of the Ravens’ passing attack. Linebacker Drue Tranquill explained that the Chiefs’ top defensive linemen — Chris Jones, Charles Omeninhu, George Karlaftis and Mike Danna — collectively caged-rushed Jackson many times to perfection, a pass-rush plan that Spagnuolo designed to have at least one defender to the quarterback’s right, left and in front of him, all three working together to dissuade him from scrambling out of the pocket for large chunks of rushing yards.

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For much of the game, Spagnuolo’s players accomplished three tasks at once: They often pressured Jackson, corralled him within the pocket and still had excellent man-to-man coverage of the Ravens’ receivers. One of Spagnuolo’s blitzes late in the third quarter led to Reid sacking Jackson near midfield, which pushed the Ravens out of field goal range. Reid even slipped past running back Justice Hill, who was supposed to block him, before he wrapped up Jackson. After the play, Reid raised his right hand, his index finger pointing to CBS’ spider camera.

“You see it!” Reid shouted. “You see it!”

Jackson finished with a game-high 326 all-purpose yards, but he struggled in the fourth quarter, including throwing an interception.

“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” Tranquill said of Spagnuolo. “He knows how to get the most out of each of his players. He knows how to put a great game plan together. He’s not just a hoo-rah guy. He’s brilliant when it comes to the X’s and O’s.”

The Chiefs’ offensive players did plenty early in the game to support their counterparts. In their two previous postseason victories, the Chiefs scored a touchdown on just four of their 10 trips inside the red zone. But in their first two possessions against the Ravens defense — the league’s top unit, allowing just 16.6 points per game — the Chiefs scored two touchdowns, both from the red zone. And just before halftime, kicker Harrison Butker made a 52-yard field goal, sending the Ravens to their locker room down by double digits at the half for the first time this season.

“It seems like when the games get bigger, when the challenges get higher, he performs even better,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said of Spagnuolo. He later added of his defensive teammates: “Seeing this defense all year long, I’ve learned that sometimes I’ve got to let them play, let them be the show. That’s what they were today. We didn’t score in the second half, but I knew if I just didn’t turn the ball over, we were going to win.”

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Four defenders — Omenihu, Karlaftis, Reid and defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton — sacked Jackson, who was hit seven times. Even when Spagnuolo blitzed, the Ravens struggled to connect on deep passes because of cornerbacks Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson and Trent McDuffie, who led the team with two pass breakups.

The Chiefs’ secondary produced two outcome-swinging turnovers, too.

Jackson’s longest completion came in the final minute of the third quarter, a 54-yard connection with rookie receiver Zay Flowers, who was able to get behind cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. After the play, with most of the 71,439 fans roaring inside M&T Bank Stadium, Flowers pushed Sneed on the turf, spun the ball next to him and then stood over him, drawing a 15-yard taunting penalty.

“I was mad because I didn’t see him behind me,” said Sneed, who had moved from his usual position to be one of the two deep safeties. “I heard he stepped over me, so I was like, ‘OK, get back up and next play.’ And I made the play.”

Four plays later, Flowers made another reception, this one also against Sneed, who was trailing in coverage. But as Flowers sprinted toward the end zone, he dived, extending the ball toward the goal line. Sneed, with perfect timing, knocked the ball out of Flowers’ hands. The ball bounced into the end zone, where McDuffie recovered it.

Sneed’s momentum-halting play dropped the Ravens’ win probability from 28.3 percent to 13.5 percent, according to Next Gen Stats.

“I’m just thankful, man,” Sneed said, smiling. “I just punched the ball out. We practice that every week.”

On the Ravens’ next drive, safety Deon Bush took the field for starter Mike Edwards, who was required to go to the sideline to be evaluated for a concussion. Even without Edwards, Spagnuolo relied on his best personnel, his dime package. With three safeties on the field — Reid, Bush and rookie Chamarri Conner — the Chiefs’ secondary perfectly covered Jackson’s four pass catchers. Instead of scrambling to extend the play, Jackson threw an ill-advised deep pass into the middle of the field for tight end Isaiah Likely. Bush watched Jackson’s eyes the entire play and leaped to make his first interception, catching the ball in the end zone.

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As a frustrated Jackson slammed his helmet to the turf near the Ravens’ sideline, Bush cried in celebration, cradling the ball as if it were a baby. In the moment, Bush said he thought about his entire season — cut by the Chiefs before the season, returning to their practice squad, not playing his first game until last month and spending most of the year in Kansas City while Amina Smith, his wife and a host and reporter for NBC Sports Boston, and their son, Deon Bush Jr., who turns 1 next month, stayed in Boston.

“I get to see them every three, four weeks,” Bush said. “It feels good for this moment, so it’s not all in vain. I’m thankful. Getting released (in late August) was one of my hardest moments. I kept faith and kept believing.

“I love Spags, I love (secondary coach Dave) Merritt and I love all the DBs, man. This is a family to me.”

As they’ve done all season, the Chiefs’ defenders performed better as the game progressed, allowing just three points in the game’s final 45 minutes.

When the game ended, Reid celebrated by shouting — to anyone who would listen — that the Chiefs indeed have the league’s best defense. When Tranquill realized he was going to play in the Super Bowl for the first time in his career, he sprinted toward the seats behind the Chiefs’ bench to hug Jackie, his wife, and their three children, Elijah, Anna and Mackenzie. Sneed cried when he put on his commemorative ballcap.

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Despite not playing, linebacker Willie Gay danced in the corner of the end zone while blasting hip-hop music through a large speaker. Jones, the Chiefs’ best pass rusher, tipped his cap to the hundreds of Chiefs fans who cheered him as he walked off the field. Inside the locker room, Omeninhu, who vowed to play in Super Bowl LVIII after suffering a knee injury during the game, took a selfie while holding the shiny silver trophy named after Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs’ founder.

When Spagnuolo arrived, he joined 12 of his players in the back of the locker room for a photograph. He smiled and posed for the camera, too, holding the trophy in his left hand while he flexing his right arm.

“These are special guys,” Spagnuolo said of his players. “I love them. I’m just so happy I get two more weeks with them.”

(Photo of Chris Jones tackling Lamar Jackson: Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)





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