Why Steve Spagnuolo Is Undoubtedly Better Than Bob Sutton, And It’s Not Close

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When the Chiefs fired Bob Sutton and went to Steve Spagnuolo, there was a lot of controversy around the decision. Sure, most fans wanted to fire Sutton after 2018 (except my boss, unfortunately), but when the hire was announced to be Spagnuolo, fans weren’t generally happy. Spagnuolo had had a lot of failure in his NFL career, and wasn’t the flashy hire people wanted. There was a lot of love for Chris Hewitt, Kris Richard (thank god, we dodged a bullet there), or even Matt House, current linebackers coach. Spagnuolo seemed to be a relic of the past, with his glory days over 10 years ago.

Then, Spagnuolo seriously outperformed expectations, especially mine. I thought we would be lucky to be a top 20 defense in the league, but we finished 10th in scoring defense, after being 24th the year before. For some people, that would be enough to prove Spagnuolo was the better defensive coordinator, but that doesn’t even come close to telling the full story on why Spagnuolo was so good in 2019. He was so good, he blew Sutton and the 2018 Chiefs out of the park, with arguably not a ton of talent. The proof? Pretty simple, let’s just look at basic stats.

1st Down

For defensive coordinators around the league, and even from a high school level, a lot of the way they measure success on defense is Yards Per Play, based off the given down. Everyone has a different system to measure success, but by comparing each individual down and yardage allowed to the NFL, we can make clear conclusions on the general success of a defense, and compare them to the league.

So, for this article, we’re using two main benchmarks to compare the 2018 and 2019 Chiefs: YPP, and 1st Down% Allowed. I may include other stats for context, but by using both of those things, we can make clear conclusions on the level of play in one year. Both teams are compared to the 2019 NFL results, so that’s where the rank comes from. I broke each down into different categories, such as 2nd and 4-7, 3rd and 1-3, etc. For first down, I have four main categories: Total first downs, 1st and 15+, 1st and 6-14, and 1st and 5-. Using those benchmarks, here were the results for the Chiefs.

Team1st Down Total YPP1st Down % Allowed1st and 15+ YPP1st Down % Allowed1st and 6-14 YPP1st Down % Allowed1st and 5-1st Down % Allowed
2018 Chiefs6.427.2%10.133.3%6.526.0%3.444.8%
2019 Chiefs5.620.6%5.45.0%5.720.4%1.546.7%

When I came into this project, I expected the major difference between the two defenses to be on 3rd down for the two teams (stay tuned), but clearly, the biggest difference came on 1st down for the teams. In terms of total first downs, the 2019 Chiefs allowed 0.8 yards less than they did in 2018. While that doesn’t seem like a massive difference, that was the difference of 15 teams in the league. The biggest split was definitely on 1st and 15+, where the Chiefs allowed 4.7 yards less per play in 2019. While the sample size is smaller (20 plays for 2019, 15 for 2018), that’s still a significant difference. On normal first downs, the Chiefs allowed 0.8 yards less in 2019, which moved them to 15th in the league. Wherever you look on first down, the Chiefs got substantially better. In 2018, we were one of the worst first down teams in the league. While we were great on 3rd down, average on 2nd, the 1st down defense generally killed us. It’s easy to forget, but teams would continuously get 2nd and shorts, which is one of the hardest downs to defend in football. The 2019 Chiefs being so much better on 1st down allowed them to get to more of their exotic looks, and dictate what opposing teams had to call against them.

Now, the numbers are a bit skewed by the run/pass split for the two teams. The 2018 Chiefs faced a 47-53% run/pass split, while the 2019 Chiefs faced a 50-50 run/pass split. Still, the difference isn’t significant enough to discredit the difference between the two teams. Maybe you’re thinking that a 0.8 yard difference isn’t significant, but if you compare it to the rest of the teams in the NFL, it’s pretty significant. A 2nd and 5 vs a 2nd and 3-4 is a big difference. Teams call their defense differently with even just that difference.

For 2020, if the Chiefs want to get into the top 10, they’ll need to shed 0.4-0.5 yards off their 2019 number. While that sounds easy, they showed an ability to do it. From week 7 to week 17, the Chiefs allowed 5.2 yards per play on 1st down, which ranked 10th in the league for that time period. That was already 0.4 yards off their total year number. Now, with improved speed, a healthier defensive line, and continuity from the staff, it’s not ridiculous to suggest they could maintain that number in 2020, or even get better. They were there last year, and the entire defense is back. Expect them to be around 10 again next year.

2nd Down

Team2nd Down YPP1st Down % Allowed2nd and 12+ YPP1st Down % Allowed2nd and 8-11 YPP1st Down % Allowed2nd and 4-7 YPP1st Down % Allowed2nd and 1-3 YPP1st Down % Allowed
2018 Chiefs5.738.5%7.516.7%5.628.1%5.542.5%5.368.9%
2019 Chiefs5.936.7%4.57.3%6.429.9%6.040.6%5.466.7%

Now, the 2nd down numbers for the two teams are definitely different. In fact, just in terms of YPP, the 2018 were marginally better on 2nd down than the 2019 Chiefs. While the difference is only 0.2 yards, that still made a big difference in terms of ranking. In fact, the 2018  Chiefs were way better in all 2nd down categories except 2nd and 12+. So, that would seem significant, and show a decline in quality there. Still, with further context, those numbers don’t actually represent too much of a decline.

In terms of 1st Down % allowed, the 2019 Chiefs were actually better than the 2018 Chiefs, in totality and in 3/4 of the separate categories. In fact, the difference was massive in some places, which would signify that maybe the YPP doesn’t tell the full story here. What causes that massive of difference between the two statistics? Sacks and turnovers.

  • 2018 Chiefs: 17 sacks, 6 interceptions, 4 fumbles forced
  • 2019 Chiefs: 11 sacks, 7 interceptions, 1 fumble forced

Splash plays really helped the Chiefs numbers in 2018. The sack and pressure numbers were down for the Chiefs in 2019, mainly due to injuries throughout that entire defensive line. Chris Jones, Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah, Frank Clark, and Xavier Williams all missed significant time in 2019 with injuries, which caused a lack of continuity and buildup for the defensive line. Plus, less strip sacks in 2019 hurt the numbers too. So, while the Chiefs in 2018 allowed less YPP, the overall output was still much better overall. The coverage was better, the run defense got a lot better, so the overall play was still better in 2019.

Still, I want to see the Chiefs get better on 2nd down in 2019. We don’t need to be an elite 2nd down defense, as to me, it’s the the least valuable down of the 4. If you’re good on 1st down, it’s way easier to be good on 2nd down, and vice versa. The first down stats should help on 2nd down. Still, if we’re looking for improvement, let’s strive to eliminate 0.2-0.3 YPP in 2020. That would put the Chiefs anywhere from 15th to 20th in the league, which would put them at average. Hopefully we’ll get better there, because 2nd down was definitely the weakness of this defense in 2019.

3rd Down

Team3rd Down Total YPP1st Down % Allowed3rd and 12+ YPP1st Down % Allowed3rd and 8-11 YPP1st Down % Allowed3rd and 4-7 YPP1st Down % Allowed3rd and 1-3 YPP1st Down % Allowed
2018 Chiefs4.942.5%6.822.6%3.722.2%4.949.1%5.167.3%
2019 Chiefs4.338.1%6.113.3%5.631.3%2.038.0%3.762.7%

Now, the 2018 Chiefs were good on 3rd down. In fact, they were one of the best teams in the league there. Even in 2019, the numbers were still great. So the fact that the Chiefs were even better on 3rd down in 2019, with a worse pass rush, is astonishing. By most metrics, the Chiefs were a top 5 defense on 3rd down in 2019, which is amazing for a team with a brand new defense.

The proof? Look at the 3rd and 4-7 numbers. While more plays happen on 3rd and 1-3 range, the true way to measure a 3rd down defense is between that 4-10 yard range for me. It’s very hard to stop 3rd and 1, which is okay. If you’re in that situation, and you allow a first down, that’s okay. Even the best teams in the league give up over 50% on those situations. If you’re good in that 4-7 range though, that determines a good 3rd down defense for me.

Now, how does that relate to the Chiefs. Well, the 2019 Chiefs allowed 2.0 YPP in that distance, which was easily 1st in the league. In fact, the 2nd place team, the Miami Dolphins, allowed 3.7 YPP in this distance. That means the Chiefs nearly allowed 1/2 of the yards in this range compared to the next best team. That’s ridiculously good. Especially considering it the was 1st year of a scheme, the fact that they were so good there is truly exceptional. Great work by the coaching staff.

Will that number be anywhere near the same in 2020? Probably not. That would require insane play by the defense, and let’s be honest, that’s not how our defense will be. Still, even if they regress by 1.5-2.0 yards, that’s still a top five defense in the league there. Being that good on 3rd down, and giving the ball back to Patrick Mahomes, is the ideal way to win. I don’t expect much regression there, as the entire defense is back, plus the coverage is so much better for this team, that they’ll be fine. As long as they keep it around 3.5-4.0 yards there, they’ll be just fine to win.


Bob Sutton was once a fine defensive coordinator. Once he had 5-6 Pro Bowlers on the roster, sure, he was a good defensive coordinator. But once the talent started to diminish, Sutton was slow to react to the change, and still only called 1-2 coverage shells, 1 front, and was the most simplistic defensive coordinator in the league. Even in just one season, Spagnuolo changed everything.

And yes, the talent was better in 2019, but let’s not act like this defense was stacked or anything. The entire defensive end rotation except Tanoh Kpassagnon was hurt in 2019, the linebackers were slow and couldn’t cover, and the cornerbacks were UDFAs or journeymen. This wasn’t some grand talented defense. And in just one year, they got results. The results were so much better than the 2018 defense, even with similar talent on the field.

You may still feel that Bob Sutton had a bad ending in Kansas City, and didn’t deserve the outcome he was handed. That’s your opinion, we’ll disagree, but I can’t say you’re necessarily wrong. But nobody can argue at this point that Spagnuolo wasn’t way better than Sutton, even in year 1. Now, with the same people and more speed on the field, a lot of those numbers will probably get better. That should terrify the NFL. If the Chiefs even become a top 12 defense, and the offense stays healthy, they may never lose. Seriously, that’s all we need to be. Given the success year 1, I expect that. We just may never lose for another year!

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06/11/2020 5:42 pm

That picture of Sutton always makes me think he just filled his Depends.
I’ve never understood how his scheme could be so complicated for his own players and simultaneously so easy for opposing QB’s to read. I was one of those who thought Spags would be just another mediocre retread, but he appears to have spent his year off studying the changes in the modern game. I’m a fan of the concept of having versatile players and disguising what the defense is doing presnap. Many QB’s (looking at you, Alex) are highly dependent on their presnap reads and get flustered when the defense shifts to something else.
A great writeup as always. The huge difference on first down is interesting and a bit counterintuitive given the “Chiefs can’t stop the run” meme.

06/11/2020 5:10 pm

Why Steve Spagnuolo is Undoubtedly Better Than Bob Sutton, And It’s Not Close…
Three words? Super Bowl Champions.
Okay, now off to read the article!
[EDIT] I’m not very far into the article, but I can already tell you it’s a good writeup, as per usual. Thank you for the breakdown!

Last edited 1 year ago by Nasrani
06/11/2020 1:46 pm

I met Derrick Nnadi last offseason at a dinner event where he spoke (he’s from my hometown (virginia beach) and went to the same high school). He said the biggest problem with Suttons defensive scheme was that you had to make 3, 4, 5 reads pre and post snap just to know what your assignment is and know who was doing what. And that since it was so complicated, they were reading more than reacting alot of the time. It also led to alot of miscommunication as one could expect.

He said it took Eric Berry 2 full seasons to completely grasp Suttons scheme. Which if you imagine Berry had trouble, EVERYONE had trouble. He also said even though Berry didnt play that whole last year, he was revered by the team as someone who could help explain Bob’s defense to the rest of the team since he had it down pat and could explain it to the younger players in a way Bob couldnt.

Last edited 1 year ago by QuackTastic
John Doerty
John Doerty(@tsv0728)
Reply to  QuackTastic
06/11/2020 2:09 pm

Great insight. Nnadi seems like a real cool guy, it’s cool he was willing to share this.

Reply to  QuackTastic
06/11/2020 6:02 pm

Makes a lot of sense to me, Quack. Shouldn’t take much to rememberr how I harped and bitched in defense of Sutton was that the biggest reason they struggled in ’18 is that Sutton needed Berry on the field but didn’t have him (because of that ferschlugginer heel!). Without EB out there directing traffic the defense wasn’t working correctly.
What Nnadi told you fits that perfectly, though for slightly different reasons than I’d had. Which figures, I was estimating as an outsider but he knew more facts and could add to my guesses with them. Makes me feel good, even though that’s not of a “called it” to dunk with. lol

Big Chief
Big Chief(@big-chief)
06/11/2020 12:15 pm

During this quarantine period, I’ve gone back and watched some old Chiefs games based on Seth Keysor’s recommendations in The Athletic. I was shocked at how much more aggressive Sutton was in those first couple of seasons than he was the last 2 or 3. I didn’t realize he had changed so much. It wasn’t just the players, it was the calls. I don’t know why Sutton changed, but it never made sense to me to run a Ryan style defense without blitzing, that goes totally against everything I’ve ever read or seen of Buddy’s defensive philosophy.
I guess I was more upbeat about Spagnuolo than most because when you looked at the issues he had as a DC in the past, I thought many were outside his control, especially his short stint in NO when Payton was suspended. I don’t think there are many DCs who could have made that work. I’m in the “create a flexible defense” camp, and he said some things early on that made me think he would go that way, and he has. I hope to see more of it going forward.

Last edited 1 year ago by Big Chief
Reply to  Nate Christensen
06/11/2020 6:14 pm

Not to mention Derrick Johnson. If EB29 was Sutton’s troubleshooter out there, DJ was his Enforcer. Both guys could read and react like nobody’s business.
Which brings up a thought for you, Nate. It might benefit you to go back and study some old tape of those two with a focus on each one’s “click-and-close” abilities. Not my specialty, but to my memory they both had a real knack of showing up in the right place in the right time. Play diagnosis, too, if that’s not a part of it. Whatever it takes for a player to get there fast and blow up plays.
I’m not certain, but i don’t think it’s a stretch to call both guys exemplars of that in their respective positions, which would not only provide you a couple “gold standards”, it would also provide you with a reference point that we non-experts can directly relate to.

Reply to  BleedingRedAndGold
06/11/2020 6:21 pm

sorry about going on like that, Nate, but I was developing the idea as I was writing and it just kept evolving. Not an assignment, of course, but I think it would be worth the effort simply as a couple solid reference points.
Another one might be a study of Hali’s legendary handfighting, guy wasn’t just a technician out there, he worked with a Jiujitsu instructor on it, so he’s an innovator, as well. (IIRC in Japanese “-do” is “way, but “jitsu” means “technique”) He might also prove an exemplar of that at his position, and likewise a very useful reference point for your audience. .

Reply to  Nate Christensen
06/11/2020 7:17 pm

Reasonable, though. With all you’re doing I would toss your room for adderal, cuz I wonder if you ever sleep. 😉
Just a matter of getting your mental back burners a bit better organized for things like this. It’s a learnable skill, and even I managed to learn how to do it. lol

Big Chief
Big Chief(@big-chief)
Reply to  BleedingRedAndGold
06/12/2020 9:14 am

I wish the NFL had games going back to early in DJ’s career. I remember in his first few years it seemed like he had one big game every season where he would just dominate. Then he largely would just disappear again. Then the next season a breakout game and the announcers would talk about how he was on his way and he would disappear again. He never really seemed to put it all together until Crennel got here. I think that, along with Haley refusing to start him until he got consistent, really turned his career around. But I’d really love to go back and watch those early years before Haley and see what he was doing versus later in his career.

06/11/2020 10:38 am

It kind of stings knowing that if we had Spags the year before, we would have likely got to the Superb Owl and would have a good chance of winning it.

Team Player
Team Player(@kc_sundevil)
Reply to  Nate Christensen
06/11/2020 12:14 pm

Peters makes everyone around him worse.

Reply to  SuperMegaChief
06/11/2020 10:49 am

This is possible. If we had been better on one series on Defense, stopped any one of their 3 and whatevers, we would have gone tot the Big Game. One, that is all we needed. OR….to play Devils Advocate, if the Offense had scored on ANY of their 1st half drives, we would have gone, too. Both actually give me pains at night, but it’s gotten better since early Feb of this year. Not sure what changed…

Reply to  SuperMegaChief
06/11/2020 7:24 pm

If we imported the ’19 Spags back? Sure, but the ’18 Spags was diving deep into tape and analytics to re-think his defensive approaches. Pull him out of that and you wouldn’t get the Spags we ended up getting.
Sample size is currently too small, especially with half the season too contaminated with injuries and the difficulties associated with installing a brand-new scheme, but maybe after next season there’ll be enough to compare how his defenses differ from before and after ’19.
I don’t think it’s safe to depend on his pre-’18 behaviors to forecast where he’ll go next because we don’t know what’s changed in his mind because of that year off. Old approaches can be informative and even turn out to have continued, but the dichotomy can’t be safely ignored. Ah, well, that’s just spitballing, at this stage.

zulu trader
zulu trader(@zulu-trader)
06/11/2020 9:32 am

D-Fence. D-Fence D-Fence!!!
good informative write up, Nate. Keep it up!

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