Ask players about Eric Bieniemy, and it becomes apparent the Chiefs’ energetic running backs coach believes in hard coaching.
Bieniemy is tough on all of his backs, even star Jamaal Charles, but fullback Toben Opurum said no one receives the brunt of Biemiemy’s, um, attention, like rookie Knile Davis.
“Knile hears from E.B. every day, every period, any chance that he gets,” Opurum said with a chuckle. “You can tell E.B. is obviously harder on Knile because he’s got a lot of potential and he’s a guy they’ve drafted high this year. They have high expectations for him.”
And with Charles on pace to finish with a ridiculous 388 offensive touches, the Chiefs willingly admit they need Davis, whom they selected in the third round.
“With where we’re at in our season, he’s gonna have to play more,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “You can’t just keep putting two-five (a reference to Charles’ jersey number, 25) on the field all the time. We get that. So I think you’ll start seeing his playing time increase.”
In fact, the Chiefs already have started do increase it. Davis has logged 20 offensive snaps the last two weeks, which is as many as he had in the previous four games combined.
Some of this, of course, had to do with Charles’ injury issues (he suffered a knee contusion against the Browns on Sunday), but it appears the Chiefs are giving Davis every opportunity to prove he can contribute during the second half of the schedule.
“Two-five can only do so much,” Davis said. “He’s gonna have to take a break.”
Yet, it remains to be seen if Davis, who has logged just 17 carries for 59 yards this season despite being able to run a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at 5-feet-10 and 227 pounds, will emerge as the answer.
In addition to his extensive injury history and fumbling issues, Davis also has encountered other roadblocks, like learning his responsibilities in pass protection. For instance, when the Chiefs first explained their blocking schemes to him, Davis admits he was bewildered.
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Davis said with a laugh. “I felt like I was in the quarterback room.”
Teammates at his position, such as second-year running back Cyrus Gray, say the quarterback analogy fits.
“It’s a lot more complex (than it is in college), especially in our scheme,” said Gray, who starred at Texas A&M. “You’re not having to know just what you do, you have to know what everybody else has to do. So pretty much, you have to be the quarterback — you have to know everything.”
In college at Arkansas, Davis said that generally, he was asked to help toward a certain side of the field in pass protection. The NFL, however, is a different world, one where he might be asked to block a blitzing linebacker on the weak side, depending on his responsibilities.
“You’ve got to know who the O-line’s got, then once you know who the O-line’s got, you know who you’ve got,” Pederson said. “You’ve just got to pay attention to tendencies.”
This can be especially difficult considering the myriad of ways NFL defenses can dial up pressure. In essence, he has to know the playbook and his responsibilities so well that he can’t be thrown off by a late audible by the quarterback or center, lest he blow an assignment or get someone hurt.
“In college, it’s all spread and it’s not a lot of reading — you just block one side,” Pederson said. “Now, we’re asking them to see right to left, left to right and say, ‘Oh wait, there’s my guy.’ It’s a learning process, and he’s got to be able to anticipate. That’s the part that he continues to get better at.”
Pederson said it typically takes young running backs a year to get it all down (“You kind of see it that second year, when dust settles and the light bulb comes on and he knows exactly what to do on the play”), but by virtue of Charles’ workload, there’s little doubt the Chiefs would like to accelerate that timetable.
“I just try to get low and know who to block,” Davis said, “and once you know who to block, it’s all about technique.”
The same can be said about Davis’ efforts toward rectifying the fumbling issues that have dogged him throughout his career. After fumbling seven times last season at Arkansas, Davis has shown the same tendency to fumble in the pros — he muffed a kick against Dallas and fumbled after hauling in a swing pass against the Raiders.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they didn’t lose possession on either occasion. But to Davis, the miscues served as a reminder to focus on fundamentals at all times.
“Fumbles happen; it’s the NFL,” Davis said. “Everybody has fumbles. You just have to be aware and keep it high and tight.”
Pederson said the coaching staff hasn’t asked Davis to change his grip when carrying the ball, but they have been stressing to him the importance of remaining aware in traffic.
“You’ve got to know where guys are, whether they’re coming from behind or a guy is coming head-on (so you can) protect the football with both arms and not just one,” Pederson said.
The good news for the Chiefs is Bieniemy will see to it that Davis doesn’t forget these lessons.
“Eric Bieniemy is relentless as a coach, so you want to make sure you hold onto the football because he’s not going to let up,” head coach Andy Reid said with a chuckle.
Davis says he welcomes the tough love, and adds that this isn’t the first time he’s been coached hard.
“Coach (Bobby) Petrino was way worse than E.B.,” Davis said of his former coach at the University of Arkansas. “Way worse. They’re not even close.”
The attention has been paying off, too. Reid said Davis, who logged 11 snaps against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, played one of his best game as a pro, something Davis echoed when he revealed that his weekly grade sheet from the coaches indicated he didn’t make a mistake Sunday for only the second time in his career. The first time was a week before against Houston.
“He’s starting to understand the game more,” said Gray, whose comments were echoed by Opurum. “In college, he didn’t really understand it. But he’s starting to come around.”
This, perhaps more than anything, is what has impressed Pederson about Davis, particularly given the way Bieniemy has been riding Davis in hopes of fast-tracking his progress.
“You could easily go in the tank when a coach is getting on your tail — it’s easy to do,” Pederson said. “And Knile hasn’t done that. He’s responded and he’s responded positively because when you see him in games, he’s doing the right things.
“He’s come so far. He’s picked up on a lot and Eric has done great job teaching him.”
So for Davis, though he hasn’t played much this year, being patient has been easy. He wants to play more, sure, but he can see the progress he’s already made under Bieniemy’s tutelage. Now, he hopes he can make a bigger impact in the Chiefs’ final eight games than he did in the first eight.
“Coach Reid knows what I can do and he does a good job putting different guys in the right position to make the plays,” Davis said. “I’m sure he has a plan for me, too.”