How Kevin Stefanski Attacks Steve Spagnuolo

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So, I was struggling to come up with a great preview concept. When I did it last year, I brought up a lot of personnel and minor details about how teams like to operate, but it didn’t really dive into matchups and the ways coaches attack each other. See, teams don’t generally run their offense vs other teams, but attack and adjust to the defense. That obviously makes sense, running a base offense or defense likely isn’t successful (hello, Bob Sutton). So, my previews were honestly kind of useless in that sense.

Obviously, I would like to be more useful, so I was really struggling to come up with a cool idea. Then when I was scrolling on Twitter last night, I saw this great thread from someone named Blitzology, talking about how Kevin Stefanski attacked Steve Spagnuolo in 2019. If you forget, Stefanski was the OC for the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, when they faced Spagnuolo and the Chiefs. The Chiefs defense was particularly good that day, but they definitely were hit with some issues in the ways they operated. So, we’re going to be looking at that game for some indication for what Stefanski did, and combine that with what he’s done for the Browns. Enjoy!

Bevy of Run Concepts

Bill Callahan, an elite offensive line coach, is known for his love for running all types of run concepts, and Stefanski brings a lot of that into his system as well. They’ll run zone, duo, trap, power, counter, draw, pitch, name it. It’s still primarily wide zone, as with Cook, but the Chiefs will need to be ready for a lot of run concepts. It keeps linebackers and defensive tackles guessing on where exactly to fit and flow. A lot of teams will stick with their favorite 2-3 concepts in a numbers game, but Callahan and Stefanski feel comfortable running a ton of concepts. The Chiefs have been really sound in the run fits this year, because Anthony Hitchens is great at aligning the fronts, but he’s going to have a ton of homework to go over this week to be ready.

Getting Chiefs into Base

One thing Stefanski did to the Chiefs a lot was force Spagnuolo into his base defense. The Chiefs played base a staggering 56% of the snaps vs the Vikings. They’re usually only around 25-30% in the base. Whether it was 21, 12, 13, or 22 personnel, the Chiefs were forced to play a lot of base defense. The three linebackers that day were Hitchens, Ragland, and Wilson, and not much has changed. Willie Gay has been playing base WILL this year, but he may not be able to play Sunday, so expect a lot of Niemann, Hitch, and Wilson this week.

Now, why is this an issue? Isn’t base good for countering runs? Absolutely. But when you have dynamic athletes at tight end (the Browns have some quality options there), it’s not great having slow linebackers. And when you can stick them in the slot like you can with Njoku, it really limits the coverage shells teams can call. The Chiefs don’t ask anything for their linebackers in space, so it was a lot of Cover 2, which Stefanski is prepared to attack the middle of the field often. Expect a lot of throws to the slot this week, whether it’s Njoku or Jarvis Landry.

Tight Ends, Tight Ends, Tight Ends

Three tight ends represents Stefanski’s love for using 3 tight ends. The Browns run 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE) at a staggering 13% of the time, which is the highest in the league. In 2019, with Minnesota, Stefanski ran 13 personnel about 8% of the time, which was 3rd in the league. He loves his tight ends for blocking, receiving, and to throw formations into a bind. He’s ran it more this year due to Odell Beckham’s injury, but he loves his tight ends, which is pretty common for a run heavy scheme.

In last year’s game, Stefanski was really using his tight ends to maximize a lot of coverages. Adam Thielen was hurt, so he had to use hyper-athlete Irv Smith in the slot and the outside more, which messed with a lot of the coverage shells with the Chiefs. Spagnuolo had to call a more conservative game, and it was difficult to get fronts and coverages aligned with so much moving personnel from TEs. Stefanski was calling a ton of vertical action, which really challenged the Chiefs at the 2nd level. Without Willie Gay, this is going to be a challenge Sunday.

Well, a lot of that ideology carried over to Cleveland. Andrew Barry, the GM, and Stefanski made it a priority to have athletic tight ends. They signed Austin Hooper to a massive deal (VERY similar to Rudolph), kept David Njoku as his Irv Smith, and added Harrison Bryant to be an over-qualified 3rd tight end. The Browns have a ton of athleticism and versatility with their tight ends, and I would expect a lot of that to carry over to Sunday. The Chiefs could get a lot out of watching this film to help them out with some of the tight ends stuff.

Screens!

With getting the Chiefs in way more base defense, Stefanski was adamant about using the screen game, with a lot of slip and jailbreak screens. Spagnuolo’s super aggressive, and has his linebackers play aggressive too. Stefanski was the one guy who absolutely killed them there, and that’s something that could be used again Sunday. The Chiefs have slower linebackers, and getting Chubb/Hunt in space with blockers? Oh no.

“Nub” and Empty Formations

Stefanski came out with two formations that really tricked Spagnuolo and the Chiefs a lot. The first was “Nub”. The Nub formation is classified by having Trips on one-side (generally field-side), with the tight end on the opposite side with the running back. This throws the alignment of the defense off, and can create numbers advantages in the run game. If you put four players on the Trips side, the run game has even numbers and the RB has one player to beat. If you put three players, you have good numbers in the passing game. So it can create massive matchup nightmares if you’re not aligned well, and that was an issue for the Chiefs in 2019. They’re going to have to be prepared for a lot of Nub formation this week, especially with Austin Hooper as that tight end.

Moving on, let’s talk about something that Stefanski didn’t use much, which was Empty out of 13 personnel. Empty formation has a lot of benefits, but especially out of this structure. It gives the quarterback full ability to read the coverage, and decide a matchup to pick on. Teams can’t really rotate their safeties or coverage shells well, because there’re five threats at once. Here, the Vikings do something radical, which is go empty out of 13 personnel! The Chiefs are in base, so there’re two options; classic spot drop Cover 2, or Cover 0. Cousins sees no safety deep, so he understands it’s man coverage. He should’ve attacked the #2 WR inside with a ton of space, but this formation really limits the coverage shells available.

Now, with the Browns, they can absolutely do this. I’ve mentioned their 3 really solid tight ends, and I think they can force the Chiefs into base. Njoku can absolutely play on the outside, Bryant may have some skills there. Getting into empty allows Mayfield to get a correct read against a disguising Chiefs secondary, and he can get the ball out way quicker to his great weapons.

Conclusion

Look, I love Kevin Stefanski. In terms of play calling, he’s awesome. His ability to get a QB on the move and in the play action game is great. His run schemes and the ways he attacks heavy personnel are awesome. Yes, he’s got awesome personnel, but he also understands how to get those players the football super well. He’s not Reid or Shanahan for me, but he’s close.

If Stefanski can get a lead or in a close game with you, Cleveland is hard to stop. Sure, the passing concepts aren’t amazing when forced to pass, but he’s still got a ton of concepts to throw at you. His ability to use a lot of motion, create space in the screen game, and run all the run concepts imaginable make it very hard for defenses to get a read on what you’re doing. The Chiefs better hope this game doesn’t stay tight for super long, because Stefanski is going to wear you down physically and mentally.

That being said, the key is getting a lead. I really like Stefanski, but his passing concepts aren’t superb? I think we saw that with Stefon Diggs especially this year, who dominates in the middle of the field, that Stefanski didn’t use him well enough there. The QBs he’s had (Mayfield and Cousins) definitely struggle there, but I do think when he’s forced to call designed passes, he’s much more predictable. He’s built a running system with heavy influence on tight ends, running backs, and offensive line, so his receiving core and quarterback are limited. That feeds into what Steve Spagnuolo wants. If the Chiefs offense can generate a lead, expect Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Spagnuolo to tee off and kill the Browns. I expect that, and that’s why I have the Chiefs winning big.

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upamtn
01/14/2021 4:21 pm

good stuff, Nate, thank you so much!

here’s hoping the Chiefs start off flaming hot … if they don’t, it COULD turn into a battle that we (fans) don’t want to see (and I do hope Gay is back at LB, KC must stop the run)

rip58lovealways
rip58lovealways
Reply to  upamtn
01/14/2021 4:54 pm

Ditto, great article…..

Stuckinpackland
Stuckinpackland
01/14/2021 4:16 pm

Oh God Niemann will get absolutely destroyed by hunt and chubb. That could be ugly hope the offense doesn’t play fuck fuck and puts up big numbers.

HawaiiFiveOh
HawaiiFiveOh
01/14/2021 3:11 pm

Once again, we enter the playoffs with two teams in front of us with heavy running games. Last year was Tennessee and San Francisco. This year is Cleveland and possibly Baltimore.

NobodyLikesDonkys
NobodyLikesDonkys
01/14/2021 11:05 am

Great stuff as always!

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