Chiefs

These two players benefit most from Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive makeover.

Chiefs’ Kpassagnon said Spagnuolo told him ‘Be ready to play different roles’

Tanoh Kpassagnon talks about becoming a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and how he prepared.
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Tanoh Kpassagnon talks about becoming a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and how he prepared.

With 12 seconds left in the first half of the Chiefs’ first preseason game, Breeland Speaks manhandled guard Clint Boling.

He easily found his way to the Bengals’ Jeff Driskel, wrapping up the backup quarterback and dragging him down for a loss of 6 yards.

A play later, fellow defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon recorded a sack of his own — his first career sack, even if it won’t be registered in season statistics.

Finally, the game was fun for Speaks and Kpassagnon — two misfits of Bob Sutton’s 2018 defense.

“All of us were base 4-3 defensive ends,” Speaks said. “They took us from 4-3 defensive ends to 3-4 outside linebackers. We were already base defensive ends, so it’s just getting back into a defense that allowed us to do what we were already good at. Sometimes T.K. will go at the (three-technique) like the play from the game.

“Before I got my sack, T.K. got his and he was at three-technique. We were just playing off of each other. He went out there and got him one, so I was like, ‘Hey, I need to go get me one.’ It’s been fun with T.K., and we’ve always been pretty good guys together.”

Chiefs linebacker Breeland Speaks compares his experience under former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton with what it’s like with the current one, Steve Spagnuolo.

Playing out of position under Sutton, neither second-round pick ever found his true footing as an outside linebacker.

And while Speaks carved out some playing time when Justin Houston was injured, Kpassagnon languished in irrelevancy. The Villanova product was a healthy inactive late in the season against the Raiders and the Chargers, and it looked like his time with the Chiefs could be nearing its conclusion.

He’s gifted with a lot of tools,” coach Andy Reid said of Kpassagnon. “You have to re-learn the game a little bit coming into the NFL. But now he had to relearn the game, plus learn a new position. I think that was tough.”

But Steve Spagnuolo changed everything.

Soon after the new defensive coordinator took over in January, he called both Kpassagnon and Speaks. The pair would be key contributors in his simplified defense, and even more than that, they would go back to their natural positions on the defensive line.

“Everything from college started coming back to me, playing that four-front and just understanding my role,” Speaks said. “We saw what happened. That sack was fun, and it’s just been fun playing back in that 4-3.”

A year ago, Speaks had 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks, while Kpassagnon had just four combined tackles and one quarterback hit. Drafted from a smaller school, Kpassagnon was expected to be a work-in-progress as he shifted to outside linebacker. Speaks was also in a similar situation, although he joined the team with SEC experience as an Ole Miss alum.

Going back to a familiar and stripped-down defense was an easy — and welcome — transition for each player.

“You’re pretty much going from a lot of defense to just enough defense,” Speaks said. “Spagnuolo’s style is ‘We will attack.’ He let his players play. Bob Sutton was more so scheme-oriented.”

They slipped back into their old routines quickly, and thanks to injuries to Frank Clark, Emmanuel Ogbah and Alex Okafor, the pair took the bulk of their snaps with the first-team defense in the training camp practice during the last week. In the first preseason game against the Bengals and in practice, both players spent time at defensive end and on the interior of the line. Both positions are plenty familiar to them, and their versatility makes them invaluable in Spagnuolo’s scheme.

To return to the defensive line, each player had to change their bodies. Kpassagnon gained 20 pounds in the offseason and is now playing at 290 pounds. Meanwhile, Speaks had to shed a couple pounds picked up in the offseason. But the transformation wasn’t as dramatic as it would’ve needed to be if he was sticking at linebacker.

“I probably let myself go a little bit too much,” Speaks said. “I had a little bit too much fun over the offseason, but I’ve been getting it back to where I need to, which is allowing me to make more and more plays.”

To Reid, Kpassagnon’s work ethic is constantly impressive.

“I think he put his hand back down in the dirt playing defensive end, and he’s loving it,” Reid said. “And it’s showing. Listen, he’s going to continue to grow. He’s not near what he’s going to end up being. He’s got a work ethic. He’s a smart kid. So everyday it gets a little bit better.

“He’s one of those guys, certain guys kind of have a plan when they come out to practice as opposed to surviving. He comes out and he’s one of those guys that he’s going to work on something each day. “

And it’s not just what they do on the defense that makes them important members of the team. A week ago, Kpassagnon was all over the field. Like Speaks, he played 39 snaps on defense — good for 57 percent of the game — and he also played in 19 percent of the special-teams snaps (six).

The fact that Kpassagnon is working to become a well-rounded player isn’t lost on fellow defensive lineman Chris Jones.

“You have a player that can do so much for a team, his value goes up,” Jones said. “He can go on kickoff, he can go on kickoff return, this guy can play field goal and field-goal block. He can play defense. He can be a tight end on offense.

“The guy can play anywhere, and a guy like that, that’s why he’s so valuable. Because he can do a lot of things.”

For Speaks, the opportunity to return to his roots in a 4-3 defense is crucial to proving himself. The preseason isn’t even over, and he’s already feeling more confident in his abilities.

“That I didn’t get him on mistake, that I actually did come from a system that allowed me to play and do what I do best,” Speaks said when asked what he wants to prove to himself in camp. “Getting out here and being able to do it, just reaffirmed everything that I already knew.”

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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