The Chiefs have shuffled their offensive line several times this season. That’s not unusual. Fortunate are the teams that emerge from training camp with absolute certainty at the five spots and progress through a season injury-free.
But the Chiefs have not only had their depth tested but also their versatility.
In last week’s victory over the Buffalo Bills, guard Zach Fulton finished the game at center after Mitch Morse left with a concussion, and Fulton is the likely starter on Sunday when the Chiefs meet the Oakland Raiders.
Also this season, Jeff Allen has started at left guard and right tackle. Eric Fisher has started at right tackle and left tackle.
“When you get to this level of competition, on the offensive like, you have to know what everybody is doing,” Fulton said. “Especially in the middle spot, you have to be on the same page as everybody around you, every concept and who’s blocking who.”
Last week, the Chiefs used all seven offensive linemen who dress each game. Morse and Fisher, with a neck injury, didn’t finish the game. Donald Stephenson stepped in at left tackle, although Fisher is expected to play against the Raiders.
Allen left the game before halftime with an ankle injury and his return was announced as questionable. But he was back on the field on a field-goal attempt on the final play of the half and played the second half.
Fulton’s first game action at center in any game occurred in the first half of the final preseason contest in August against the Rams. For the first time, Fulton had to make snaps, mostly in the shotgun and make the offensive-line calls.
“I hadn’t played a game at center before that, it really helped,” Fulton said.
Allen got his first start of the season at right tackle. That occurred against the Steelers. The Chiefs moved Fisher to left tackle and started him in place of Donald Stephenson.
A week later, a neck injury to Ben Grubbs brought Allen over to left guard. He was switching sides and positions.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy,” Allen said of the move to guard. “I definitely started to have a comfort level with it, and I feel like I’ve gotten better over time.”
The Chiefs had gotten better since Allen became part of the starting lineup, winning five straight. Coach Andy Reid and offensive-line coach Andy Heck have mentioned not only Allen’s leadership qualities but an edge he brings to the unit.
Earlier this month, Heck said Allen is a player “who finishes to the echo of the whistle, and we’re trying to make sure the guys on defense feel our presence every play and he’s a guy who really brings that.”
When he got the starting call, Allen’s note-to-self was to inspire the group.
“I told myself I wanted to bring a mentality that we were going to be a dominant group, that instead of taking a whippin’ we were going to be giving it,” Allen said.
That’s what’s happened, with the Chiefs averaging 32 points during their winning streak.
Last week, no matter who was playing, the Chiefs didn’t miss a step — or a running back a yard —through the shuffling. Spencer Ware became the team’s third running back this season to surpass 100 rushing yards in a game, and he picked up 70 of his 114 in the second half behind a make-shift line.
“I think that speaks volumes for the offensive line,” Chiefs offensive line coach Doug Pederson said.
Just as the uncertainty early in the season spoke loudly about the team’s inconsistent play. The Chiefs started three different lines in the first four games. They started the season 1-5.
“I really feel like all the juggling we’ve done … different guys playing, moving guys around, maybe early in the year it was hard on us,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “But I think at this point it starts to become a strength.
“We’ve had a lot of guys play at high level and I think (last) Sunday’s game was a great example of that. Zach and Donald came in, and I don’t think anybody blinked twice. We feel good about those guys.”
New to the mix this week is Daniel Munyer, who had been cut from the Chiefs practice squad in mid-October. He’s on the roster to add depth at center. The faces and places may continue to change, but Reid expects the offensive line to continue its progress.
“I think the offensive line has taken a certain attitude and it starts with them,” Reid said. “I give credit to those guys who have stepped in a battled. And they have to keep it up. That’s how it rolls. You’re as good as when you presented last week and now you have to bring it again this week.”