Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo vs. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan: Who has edge in Super Bowl 58?



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Super Bowl LVIII gives the world not only a rematch between two of the NFL’s best teams across the last five seasons with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs squaring off against the San Francisco 49ers, but it also provides a showdown between two of the games best play-callers.

San Francisco 49ers head coach and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan versus Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. In the Super Bowl era, since 1966, Shanahan’s offenses average the most yards per play (5.9) and yards per pass attempt (8.1) of any head coach, minimum 100 games as a head coach.   

Spagnuolo is the only coordinator to win a Super Bowl for multiple franchises with two rings in Kansas City, including one against Shanahan to conclude the 2019 season in Super Bowl LIV, and another with the New York Giants. His Giants ring came during the 2007 season in which his defense helped hand the 18-0 New England Patriots their only loss of the season in a 17-14 win. Spagnuolo is looking to become the first coordinator ever with four Super Bowl wins.

Most Super Bowl wins by offensive/defensive coordinator 
NFL history

Steve Spagnuolo*

3

Giants/Chiefs DC

Josh McDaniels  

3

Patriots OC

Charlie Weis

3

Patriots OC

Romeo Crennel

3

Patriots DC

Richie Petitbon  

3

Washington DC  

* Only coordinator to win Super Bowl with multiple teams

Let’s look into who has the edge in this matchup. Hats off to CBS Sports Research for some of its contributions to the data below. 

The case for Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense 

Not only is Spagnuolo’s 2023 defense the best of his Kansas City tenure, but it’s the best Chiefs defense of the 21st century. Including the postseason, they rank second in the league in scoring defense (16.8 PPG allowed), fourth in total defense (294.7 total YPG allowed) and first in sack rate (8.6%). 

Chiefs defense this season including playoffs

CHIEFS DEFENSE STATS KC’S BEST SINCE

PPG Allowed

16.8*

1997

Total YPG Allowed

294.7*

1995

Sack Rate

8.6%*

1992

* All top four in NFL this season

“Damn, that’s the boss bro,” Chiefs 2023 First Team All-Pro cornerback Trent McDuffie told CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr after the team’s 17-10 win over the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game. “That’s the mastermind behind everything you see. I feel like everybody on this defense … shoot, everyone in the building … really respects that man. He’s a generally good dude. I got a lot of love for him and he got a lot of love for us. He allows us to go out there and play. It [the level the defense played at against Lamar Jackson’s Ravens] ain’t surprising to us. We’ve been doing this all year.”

The Chiefs defense is playing this year is at an all-time great level, in the company of some of the best defenses in recent memory. They have allowed under 28 points in all 20 of their games, the most such games in a season in NFL history including the postseason. Each of the four teams to do so in all of their games in the Super Bowl era — the 2000 Ravens (all 19 games), the 2002 Buccaneers (all 19 games), the 2005 Steelers (all 19 games) and the 2010 Packers (all 19 games) — each won the Super Bowl. 

In their last six games, which includes their entire playoff run and their last three regular-season games, Kansas City’s defense has been impenetrable in the second half and especially the fourth quarter. They have allowed one touchdown and only 19 points in their last six second halves, including no (none, zilch, zero) touchdowns and just six points in their last six fourth quarters.  

How are they doing all this? Spagnuolo’s group is equipped with All-Pros at defensive tackle (Chris Jones) and cornerback (McDuffie) and plenty of youth that is growing into their own (George Karlaftis, tied for a team-high 10.5 sacks with Jones, defensive end Mike Danna, linebacker Willie Gay, linebacker Nick Bolton). 

Spagnuolo himself has also shown the type of schematic flexibility that is necessary to adapt and survive throughout the playoffs. He is known as an aggressive blitzer, and the 2023 regular season supported that notion: The Chiefs blitzed on 37% of opponent dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Spags has become more selective with manufacturing pressure, blitzing on only 30.4% of opponent dropbacks, the eighth-highest rate out of 14 playoff teams. 

He has varied round to round with his signature pressure-heavy game plans. The Chiefs blitzed 21 times total against the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills in the first two rounds of the postseason, but then they cranked it up against 2023 First-Team All-Pro quarterback Lamar Jackson with 20 blitzes against the Ravens. All 20 were unique blitzes, meaning each was different based on who blitzed, from where and with what coverage behind it, according to CBS Sports Research. Spagnuolo dialed up a Chiefs’ season-high 12 defensive back blitzes against Jackson to great results: 21 passing yards allowed and a sack taken on 3 of 10 passing. 

Spagnuolo mixes it up

Chiefs blitzes this postseason

  • vs. Dolphins/Bills: 21 blitzes (four with six+ pass rushers)
  • vs. Ravens: 20 blitzes (seven with six+ pass rushers)

The Chiefs utilize the defensive back blitz more than anyone with 108 plays with it, and the fewest passing yards per pass attempt allowed (4.9) with the concept in 2023. When McDuffie is involved in pass-rushing, opposing quarterbacks struggle: 46% completion percentage, 4.2 yards per pass attempt and an 0-2 TD-INT ratio when McDuffie is in the pass rush this season.

They are allowing 13.7 points per game this postseason against opponents that combined to average 28.0 points per game in the regular season, tossing elite offenses 6 feet under round after round. 

Chiefs defense this postseason

  • Held Dolphins to season-worsts in points (7), yards per play (4.5) and third downs (1 of 12)

Miami had the longest active NFL streak of averaging 5+ yards per play snapped (17 games)

  • Held Bills to their fewest yards-per-pass attempt (4.8) since 2021 and fewest yards per completion (7.2) since 2018

Buffalo had the second-longest active NFL streak of averaging 5+ yards per pass attempt (39 games) snapped

  • Held Ravens to season-low 81 rush yards and fewest time of possession (22:30) of Lamar Jackson’s career

Baltimore had its longest active (also tied for fifth-longest streak in NFL history) with 100+ rush yards snapped (35 games)

“It’s special,” Patrick Mahomes told CBS Sports’ Jeff Kerr. “That’s a great team and a great quarterback. And Spags, it seems when the games get bigger, and when the challenges get higher, he performs even better. Even if we’re not having the success that I want to have, when the defense is rolling and getting the stops, let’s take the safe choice. Don’t turn the ball over and let’s go win a football game.”    

The case for Shanahan and the 49ers offense 

San Francisco’s offense is loaded. Shanahan has Pro Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy, 2023 First Team All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, Pro Bowl wide receiver Deebo Samuel, 2023 First Team All-Pro tight end George Kittle, 2023 Second Team All-Pro receiver Brandon Aiyuk and 2023 First Team All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams at his disposal. Shanahan also knows how to make the most of his offensive talent perhaps better than any other coach. 

“It’s scary to watch all the weapons they have,” Spagnuolo said on Feb. 2 when asked about the 49ers offense. “He’s [Christian McCaffrey] one piece, a big piece, of it. … He’s explosive. A real smart football player. He’s not the only one. They’re all over the place.”

This season, Shanahan’s offense utilized motion at the second-highest rate in the NFL (70.2% of offensive plays), trailing only his former assistant Mike McDaniel’s Miami Dolphins offense (78.6% motion rate). They also led the NFL in passing yards per attempt (9.3),  yards per reception (13.6) and yards after catch per reception (6.5). Each of the aforementioned players led or co-led the NFL in one or more notable metrics this season. 

NFL leaders/co-leaders this season on 49ers

Brock Purdy

Pass yards/attempt (9.6) and passer rating (113.0)

Christian McCaffrey

Rush yards (1,459) and scrimmage TD (21)

Deebo Samuel 

YAC/rec among WR (8.8)

Brandon Aiyuk

Pct of catches to go for a first down or a TD (81.3%)

George Kittle

Yards/catch among TE (15.7)

The 49ers can create mismatches against any team’s base defense with their 21 personnel (2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE) thanks in part to eight-time Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s versatility. They use 21 personnel at the 2nd-highest rate in the NFL this season (36%). They led the NFL in yards per play in 21 personnel this season (6.7, minimum 25 plays).

Shanahan also mixed and matchup the different spots some of his top players aligned in. Their positionless personnel makes for an even harder matchup, forcing a defense to sometimes align linebackers or defensive backs in spots they wouldn’t normally be in. The 49ers registered the third-most snaps this season by offensive skill players (RB, WR, TE) lined up at different positions (587). Different positions specifically this refers to running backs lined up at wide receiver or tight end, a tight end lined up at wide receiver and a wide receiver lined up at running back or tight end. 

49ers notable out-of-position snaps this season

  • FB Kyle Juszczyk: 321 snaps at WR/TE
  • RB Christian McCaffrey: 159 snaps at WR/TE
  • TE George Kittle: 59 snaps at RB/WR
  • WR Deebo Samuel: 56 snaps at RB/TE

Naturally, the 49ers led the NFL in the rate of plays in which they utilized two-back sets having at least two running backs, or one running back and a fullback, on the field for 47.5% of their plays.  

“When you have a fullback out there, that’s the only time an offense can fully dictate what’s going on. If you don’t have a fullback in there, there are certain things a defense can do where you have to throw the ball … so having a fullback always protects that,” Shanahan said in January to NBC Sports Bay Area when asked about the importance of a fullback in his offense. “It doesn’t mean you’re gonna [run the ball], but it allows you to do it if you want to. So you don’t have to audible as much, you don’t have to change things that the defense puts you in. That’s why we like it. You also have to have a fullback who doesn’t just play fullback and can kind of do everything. That’s what Jusz does.”

The result of this mixing and matching of personnel resulted in the 49ers once again having one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, especially when utilizing the Shanahan staple of outside zone runs. Overall, San Francisco co-led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (27) while ranking third in rushing yards per (140.5), fourth in yards per carry (4.8) and fourth in rushing expected points added (15.5). 

On outside zone runs, the 49ers led the league in rushing yards (1,250) and rushing touchdowns (11) while having the second-most carries on such concepts (220). San Francisco led the league in rushing expected points added by a wide margin (21.0) with the team with the second-highest such EPA, the Miami Dolphins, at 7.2. 

Who has the edge?

While Shanahan’s squad utilizes motion at one of the highest rates in the NFL, so too does Andy Reid’s Chiefs (60.5%, fourth-highest rate in the NFL. That means Spagnuolo’s defense has plenty of practice against those looks, and the numbers bear that out. The Chiefs allowed 4.9 yards per play against motion, the sixth-fewest in the NFL this season.

Screens and yards after catch have also been the 49ers’ bread and butter this season because of all of their dynamic playmakers and their yards after catch production detailed above. Purdy led the NFL in yards per pass attempt on screens (8.8), but Spags’ Chiefs allowed the fifth-fewest yards per attempt on screens (4.3). On a related note, San Francisco led the NFL with 28 plays with 20 or more yards after the catch. 

A few reasons for why Kansas CIty has had so much success limiting screens and yards after catch is both scheme and fundamentals. The Chiefs played press man coverage, man coverage right up at the line of scrimmage, on 81% of their defensive plays, the second-highest rate in the league. They also rarely miss tackles, just 10.9% of the time, which is the ninth-lowest rate in the NFL. These qualities translate to Spagnuolo’s bunch limiting big plays involving yards after catch. They allowed only six plays with 20 or more yards after the catch this season, the fewest in the entire league. 

Shanahan’s offense revolving around McCaffrey and his intricate run game thrives in part to his team’s typically elite ability to play from ahead, allowing him to dictate the terms of engagement in terms of what plays he can call, run or pass. In the regular season, the 49ers time with the lead (11:10:20), was the second-highest in the NFL, trailing only the AFC’s one seed, the Baltimore Ravens (11:32:57).

That ability abandoned them in the postseason as they have the fewest time leading (27:30) of any team entering a Super Bowl appearance in the 21st Century, since 2000. In the divisional and conference title game round, Shanahan’s squad was able to overcome his teams’ typical inability to come back. The 49ers ended Shanahan’s 0-31 record when down five or more points entering the fourth quarter in their 24-21 win against the Packers. San Francisco also ended Shanahan’s streak of being 0-19 when down 17 or more points in the second half in their 34-31 NFC Championship game win versus the Detroit Lions. 

Should the Chiefs go ahead early thanks to some Patrick Mahomes magic, Spags will have the opportunity to dial up his creative blitz packages to get after Purdy, who struggled playing from behind in the regular season and did just enough to get by when playing from behind in the postseason.

Brock Purdy tied/trailing in 2nd half this season

  • Reg Season: 1-4, 57% comp pct, 2-6 TD-INT
  • Postseason: 2-0, 66% comp pct, 1-0 TD-INT

The edge between these two vaunted playcallers likely comes down to which one will be able to dictate the terms of engagement based score, time remaining, etc. With Spagnuolo calling a top tier defense that is complemented by Mahomes and Travis Kelce on the other side of the ball, he has the edge over Shanahan entering Sunday’s big game. 





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