Steve Spagnuolo knows what it takes to beat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator was DC of the New York Giants' 2007 squad that knocked off Brady's 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
The most stunning upset in modern Super Bowl history was attained in large part by a pass rush that battered Brady from start to finish, running Spags' now-famous "NASCAR" defensive package.
The 61-year-old defensive coordinator respects the G.O.A.T. QB that his squad is up against Sunday in Super Bowl LV.
"He's a step ahead of everything," Spagnuolo said of Brady. "Every film clip that you put on, he's putting their guys in the right (position). That's always the challenge when you go against what I call a 'cerebral quarterback,' and we all know Tom is like that. He has total control. He gets them out there in time to change things. We're going to have to be really good on the back end not to show him things, or as we say, don't let him read our mail. Because if he can read our mail, he knows exactly what to do."
Super Bowl XLII was Brady's second-worst Super Bowl (among nine starts) in many metrics: 14 points (13 in Super Bowl LIII win vs. Rams); 5.5 pass yard per attempt (5.4 in Super Bowl XXXVI win vs. Rams); 1 pass TD (0 in SB LIII win vs. Rams, 1 in SB XXXVI win vs. Rams); 82.5 passer rating (71.4 in Super Bowl LIII win vs. Rams).
Brady is 2-3 in his career (including playoffs) versus Spagnuolo as a defensive coordinator, including 0-2 with 4 TDs and 3 INTs versus Spags as Chiefs' DC.
Spags knows what worked in the past might not work Sunday.
"Every game is different," Spagnuolo said. "The game has changed from when we played back in '07. The quarterback we're playing is still the same. He's still as good. There may be a little different (things we can do). We'll try pressure-wise and all that, but I just think that we've got to be on point coverage-wise and see what we can get with our guys out of a four-man rush. We've called upon our D-line to do that in other games, and they've done a nice job ...
"Protection-wise, they're so multiple, it's hard to overload and do certain things we used to be able to do way back when. Maybe we can't get to those now. I think Tom's really good at identifying things in the motions, and he gathers all that information and spits it out, and puts them in the right place. It's going to be man-on-man, it's going to be if we can have out of our 11 versus their 11, can we have more guys on point every play than they do. If we do that, then we have a good chance of being successful. If it's the other way around, it will be a tougher day."
The Chiefs defense has been better since Spagnuolo took over in 2019:
- Since 2019: Allowed 20.9 PPG (7th in NFL) and 354.0 total YPG (16th)
- 2018: Allowed 26.3 PPG (24th in NFL) and 405.5 total YPG (31st)
The Chiefs have allowed 24 or fewer points in four straight playoff games, their longest such streak in the postseason.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, enter Sunday's game on a hot streak. Tampa is the second team ever to score 30-plus points in all three previous playoff games entering the Super Bowl -- also done by 2008 Cardinals (SB XLIII in Tampa: Steelers defeated Cardinals, 27-23).
Spags might want to get pressure with four, but that's not how he attacked Brady in Week 12. In that regular-season win over the Bucs, K.C. blitzed Brady on 45.2 percent of his dropbacks -- the third-highest blitz rate Brady faced in a game this season (including playoffs), per Next Gen Stats. Brady was 11-of-19 (57.9 completion percentage) with 1 TD, 2 INTs, and a 60.1 passer rating against the blitz in Week 12, compared to 16-of-22 (72.7 completion percent), 2 TDs, 0 INTs, and a 130.9 passer rating when the Chiefs did not blitz.
Whether he blitzes or relies on the front four, Spagnuolo knows the Chiefs must be sound against TB12 and mix up the coverages on the back end.
"We're going against one of the best," he said. "A guy that can change anything at any time. So, he's probably going to be right. We've just got to hopefully make a few more plays than they do."
Spags noted that the best way to attack a Brady-led offense is to make sure he can't read you like a book.
"You can't do one thing too much, or he'll find a way to make you pay for it," the DC said.
Not long after helping guide the Giants to that Super Bowl win over Brady, Spagnuolo became a head coach for the then-St. Louis Rams. The three seasons didn't go so well as he compiled a 10-38 record. But the veteran coordinator said if given a chance, he'd love another shot at a head-coaching gig.
"I would love that challenge again," he said. "I think anybody who is involved in this business has a lot of pride, would like the challenge of that again. I believe people in any business, in any walk of life, gain more perspective and more value of how to do a job when you've already done it, and maybe you've made mistakes. ... As long as you're willing to learn from prior mistakes, I just think that makes you better at whatever you do.
"Having answered that question, I do believe I have the best job in America, and if the head coaching thing never works out I'm OK with that."
Having Patrick Mahomes on the other side of the ball certainly helps take the pressure off the defensive coordinator.
However, Sunday against Brady, Spags will be right back in the pressure cooker, facing the best QB in NFL history.