By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After the Chiefs fell to the Houston Texas 31-24 in Week 6, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knew he had a problem. His defense lined up for 83 plays in that game, and averaged more than 71 plays per game through the first six weeks.
“There was a point in the season when we were concerned about how many snaps we were playing,” Spagnuolo said. “It was adding up early in the year. I know we had some 70 snaps, there might have been a couple that crept into the 80s, and that can wear on you over the course of the season.”
Last year’s Chiefs team serve as an example of how excessive play counts can wear down a defense. That defense ran 1,109 plays, the ninth-most of any team in the last decade. Add in the playoffs, and the 2018 Chiefs had the fifth-most defensive plays (1,256) of any team in the last 10 years, and the four teams in front of the Chiefs all played at least one or two more games.
The defense played 81 snaps in regulation against New England in the AFC Championship game. After that heavy workload, Kansas City couldn’t muster a stop on the Patriots’ 13-play game-winning drive. The Chiefs defense played 94 snaps that day; New England played just 47.
Last season the Chiefs had four defensive players with more than 1,000 snaps. Cornerback Steven Nelson led the NFL with 1,164 snaps. Cornerback Kendall Fuller (1,078), safety Ron Parker (1,026) and linebacker Dee Ford (1,021) also topped that barrier.
Heading into Sunday’s finale, safety Tyrann Mathieu leads the team with 1,018 snaps. Safety Juan Thornhill (993) and cornerback Charvarius Ward (985) also will likely reach that mark.
Since the peak of 83 plays against the Texans, the Chiefs defense hasn’t played more than 73 snaps in any game. During the club’s five-game winning streak, the defense averaged just 61.6 plays per game. The reduction in plays over the second half of the season effectively cut an entire game’s worth of plays from everyone’s snap counts.
“It’s been good to kind of balance that out,” Spagnuolo said.
How did the Chiefs down on their defensive work load? Mathieu says for him it starts with how Spagnuolo and secondary coaches Dave Merritt and Sam Madison structured his practice and playing time.
“I think my coaches do a great job really loading managing me through the week,” Mathieu said. “I probably do the most running of anybody throughout the week, but my coaches do a good job. I feel fresh on game day, my mind is clear, my legs feel good and I’m ready to roll.”
This defense certainly has also helped its own cause by getting off the field, ranking eighth in the league in third-down defense, allowing conversions just 35.8 percent of the time. Last season the Chiefs ranked 26th with third downs converted against them at a 42.1 percent rate.
Spagnuolo and his coaching staff have also managed the playing time of most of its starters. While a handful of secondary players such as Mathieu, Thornhill and Ward have played more than 94 percent of defensive snaps, no one else has taken more than 85 percent. Rotations, especially in the front seven, have reduced the demands on players at high-fatigue positions.
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens played 944 snaps last season in 15 games. This year he has only 654 under his belt with one game to play. Coaches have used a rotation in the linebacker group to keep players fresh, which includes backup Ben Niemann often taking a series or two per game to provide Hitchens a breather.
Hitchens likes practicing at game speed, but last season’s workload and playing through nagging injuries limited his effectiveness.
“There were times I had to miss practice, there were times I had to take drives or reps off in practice, I just couldn’t do it,” Hitchens said. “With Ben coming in and getting me some reps and getting him more reps, now it’s the end of the season and I feel like I’m fresh.”
A low number of defensive snaps, however, doesn’t always translate into success. The Chiefs defensive played just 49 snaps in a 35-32 loss at Tennessee in Week 10. The allowed a staggering 7.6 yards per play, their second-worst outing behind the 8.6 yards they allowed to Jacksonville in the season opener.
“You’d like to play 30 plays a game, but you got to be careful because if there’s five touchdowns over the head, it’s different,” Spagnuolo said.
The Chiefs might have played close to Spagnuolo’s ideal game against Chicago last week, holding the Bears to three points and just 4 yards per play while allow no gains more than 20 yards.
“No explosive plays and low play count is really a good thing,” he said.
The low play counts have many of the Chiefs defenders feeling fresh late in the season. Hitchens hasn’t played more than 54 snaps in a game since Week 4, and he sees a difference heading towards the postseason.
“If had to play 70 plays from here on out in a game, I can do it.”
If the Chiefs have their way, however, he won’t have to.
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.