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Chiefs defense, youngest in NFL, has powered Kansas City to precipice of Super Bowl repeat

LAS VEGAS -- Patrick Mahomes remains a magician, Travis Kelce a GOAT, and Andy Reid a master offensive conductor. Yet they wouldn't be in Super Bowl LVIII if not for the best defense of this Kansas City Chiefs dynasty.

Not only was Steve Spagunolo's defense a pilfering menace, but it's more impressive considering it was the youngest defense in the NFL this season at 25 years, 279 days old, per NFL Research (based on the average age of players with one-plus games played in the regular season). It marks the second time the league's youngest defense has reached a Super Bowl (2009 Colts, lost in Super Bowl XLVI).

For sage veteran Chris Jones, watching the youth develop together has been beautiful.

"I just more so think it's guys growing and maturing," Jones said of the defense's evolution. "You know we've got a lot of young guys who we've asked to play a lot of reps this year. Like a guy like Trent McDuffie, his progression from Year 1 to Year 2 is astronomical. A guy like L'Jarius Sneed, you watch his base of work for his four years since he's been here. It's been extremely proud of those guys."

Jones is the only Chiefs defensive starter from Super Bowl LIV when K.C. beat the 49ers, who is still on the team's active roster for the rematch. In four seasons, the entire defense has been essentially remade.

"I would tell you age was some of the factor in this world of the NFL and free agency, things change," coach Andy Reid said of the turnover. "(General manager) Brett Veach has done a nice job of bringing an influx of young guys into the program. Those young guys, a bunch of them were in that secondary. And they've gotten better here with time, so we took some bumps and bruises early last year, but they've gotten better. They got better toward the end of last year and then they just picked up on it and have done a nice job working under this year. I would tell you that the job Brett does, between free agency and the draft, is second to none. He does a great job with all that."

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The Chiefs started three rookies in last year's Super Bowl. They leaned into the youth movement even more in 2023, seeing the likes of Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap, Juan Thornhill and Khalen Saunders leave in the offseason.

"When you look at where our defense was last year to this year…We kind of had bigger names on defense last year than we had this year," Jones noted. "But this defense outperformed last year's defense and showed that type of progression. What Spags was able to do with these young guys was remarkable."

Every Chiefs defender paid homage to Spagnuolo. Multiple called the DC a "father figure," praising his preparation, acumen and trust in the young players to execute his system.

"I think with Spags, it all starts about how much he cares about the guys," defensive end George Karlaftis said. "We can see that he truly cares about us. He loves us. He's like a father figure, if you will. It starts with that. He's a man that instills faith in our defense, just trusting in one another and everything goes from there. We love Spags, we love playing for Spags, his game plan, the stuff he's able to dial up speaks for itself. He's just a great human being, I'd have to say that before anything else."

Safety Justin Reid noted that Spagunulo is a "chess master" who can mold the defense to what his players do best.

With the multitude of blitz packages Spags has in his arsenal, it's impressive that such a young group rarely has busts. Newcomer Drue Tranquil said it's how the DC and his staff coach those blitzes that make the difference.

"I just think he does a really good job teaching," Tranquil said. "We're very multiple in our blitzes. We have overload pressures, we have double edge pressures, we have middle pressures. I think when you have a group of guys that can execute a plethora of different blitz schemes, it makes it challenging on a quarterback to ID protections. When you make it challenging on them, and you do things that are simple for you, you can find success."

Boy, the Chiefs' defense found success.

The 2023 Chiefs have allowed their fewest points per game in the regular season (17.3) and in the playoffs (13.7) since hiring Spagnuolo in 2019. With the young roster, it's a testament to the coaching staff to keep everyone on the same page and those few veteran voices leading the way.

"I think it has a lot to do with coaching and the development of players, but also the leaders in the group," Jones said. "You know, the coaching kind of puts the blueprint in front of the leaders, and the leaders kind of execute it. So I always say you're only as good as your last player on defense, and we don't really have a bad guy on defense. I think everybody is honed in and trusting in each other and believing in each other. And this has been about progression the whole year. It's not about how you start, it's how you finish, so you've got guys like Chamarri (Conner) who really hadn't had an opportunity to start because we've got J. Reid, and Bryan Cook went down as Chamarri stepped up and played, rookie year, and he's come up big for us in a lot of big games."

The Chiefs' defense, like most, had dealt with its share of injuries. Each time, someone stepped up. Willie Gay Jr. went down. In flew Tranquil, gobbling up ball carriers, or Leo Chenal making plays. Safety Mike Edwards stepped in, giving the Chiefs versatility on the backend when Cook got hurt.

A bully of a defense has surged in the postseason, its 13.7 PPG in the playoffs marking the fourth-lowest since 2000 by a team that reached the Super Bowl, behind only the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs and 2013 "Legion of Boom" Seahawks. To have such a young Chiefs defense in a category with those legendary units is an eye-catch.

Credit goes to Spags, but the DC won't take praise, instead flea-flickering the bouquet back to his players.

"This is a group of smart, passionate guys that love playing together, and that's a good recipe for playing good defense," he said.

K.C.'s defense kept the club afloat when the offense meandered through the season. Entering Sunday, the Chiefs allowed more than 21 points twice all year, including playoffs. They never gave up more than 24 in any game all season.

During the postseason, they ran the gauntlet, smothering the high-flying Dolphins, withstanding a bulldozing Josh Allen, and discombobulating Lamar Jackson. It's been quite the run, especially considering the youth-filled roster.

"I think this year, with a lot of new faces, we was more so doubted that ever," Jones said. "When you've got a lot of new guys, you never know how rookies can pan out, you never know that second-year progression for guys, like George Karlaftis coming in and having six sacks, this year he was able to almost double that, and going into the playoffs, he's been striding. You've got a guy like Trent McDuffie, whose first year it's like he's got potential, second year he'll All-Pro. So I think a lot of guys grew over the course of the year, and just the journey we had to take. Going to play the Miami Dolphins, the best offense in the league, then having to go to Josh Allen, who beat us this year, and having to deal with that Buffalo crowd, and then having to play the best team in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, with MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson. So that journey right there speaks volumes for this team and what we had to go through to get here."

The next stage of the journey is attempting to slow Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Brock Purdy with a Lombardi on the line.

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