Chiefs DC wowed by Burrow: ‘It feels like he’s got six eyeballs around his head’
Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo says what works against nearly every other quarterback is no problem for No.9.
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - “Nifty.”
That’s what Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo says is his favorite word for describing Joe Burrow. Far from faint praise, Spagnuolo intended it as his highest compliment.
“The guy is elite at everything he does,” he said. “It’s not just throwing the football, it’s throwing it to the right spot, it’s making the right decisions, it’s getting out of trouble when he’s rushed by good pass rushers. You’ve got to find a way to get him under control, because he’s nifty.”
Spagnuolo got a little colorful discussing the Bengals quarterback in his Thursday press conference.
“He’s nifty,” Spagnuolo said again. “He never panics in the pocket. It feels like he’s got six eyeballs around his head. I mean, seriously. Last night, [Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen] and I were watching him, and there’s a rusher coming in, and it looks like he’s gonna get him... and Joe didn’t do very much, but he made a move and never lost balance and threw the ball down the field. He’s elite.”
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Burrow poses a problem for defensive coordinators in that he’s exceptionally quick at reading coverage tells pre-snap and can diagnose post-snap rotations with ease—”He sees things quicker than I would,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said on Thursday.
Burrow also gets the ball out faster than nearly anyone else in the league. Against the Bills, he averaged 2.3 seconds from snap to throw, and once he made a pass in just 1.2 seconds (Joe conceded it was a wobbly one.)
He can fit the ball into tight windows with pinpoint accuracy, and he can manipulate the pocket—or escape from it—with his above-average movement.
It’s dogmatic of defensive play-calling that a quarterback becomes less effective the more they get hit. But Burrow, not unlike Mahomes, excels even against pressure. He throws into blitzes with ease and has no problem taking hot routes and checkdowns. (You can read more in an SB Nation piece with the particularly evocative title: “How Joe Burrow breaks down defenses with his mind.”)
“I don’t think anything bothers either one of these quarterbacks,” Spagnuolo said of Burrow and Mahomes. “I really don’t. You can say, ‘Hit the quarterback, hit the quarterback, hit the quarterback,’ and they eventually get happy feet. These guys don’t do that. They just line up and play the next play. That’s the most amazing thing about these quarterbacks.”
Cincinnati’s defensive gameplan against Mahomes has included simulating pressure looks and then dropping out of them. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo often drops the strong-side defensive end into coverage upon the release of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and then rolls a safety to the other side of the formation. Anarumo also uses both ends in spy roles targeting Mahomes’ scrambling ability—Mahomes led the league this year in touchdowns out of the pocket. (See Kurt Warner’s Bengals-Chiefs film breakdown)
With Mahomes nursing what’s been described as a high-ankle sprain to his plant leg, Anarumo could be tempted to bring more designed pressures to force Mahomes into awkward back-footed throws. He did just that against the Bills, blitzing nickel cornerback Mike Hilton from depth. Anarumo on Thursday described the 5′9″ Hilton, who pestered Josh Allen all second half, as “the best nickel back in the league.”
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On the other side of the ball, Spagnuolo knows it’s dangerous to pressure Burrow. But like all other defensive coordinators in football, he also knows it’s dangerous not to.
“We’re gonna pick our spots,” he said of blitzing. “I don’t think we’re going to go completely away from it, but we gotta be careful, because we know what and his three running-mates can do if they do protect it—and they’ve found ways to protect it.”
The defensive coordinator’s word of choice might be “nifty,” but it’s “protection” that’s on the mind of every Bengals fan without three starters on the offensive line. And yet, somehow Burrow is still playing exceptional football.
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Spagnuolo has been in the NFL since 1999, when he was hired as the defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was head coach of the St. Lous Rams for two years from 2009-2011 and has spent ten total seasons as a defensive coordinator in the league, including four in Kansas City beginning in 2019.
Spagnuolo won Super Bowl XLII as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007. The Giants beat a Tom Brady-helmed New England Patriots team that had completed a perfect 16-0 regular season. He also won Super Bowl LIV as defensive coordinator with the Chiefs.
Asked whether Burrow compares to Brady, Spagnuolo answered, “I do think he’s elite like that,” before acknowledging it’s hard to compare. “But he certainly looks like he’s on his way.”
Spagnuolo continued: “We got so much respect for this quarterback and what he does, and we got to find a way to slow him down.”
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