Five linemen, two tight ends and a fullback dressed in red walked to the line of scrimmage and settled into their stances. For all of Andy Reid’s clever play-calling, this game — this moment — was going to come down to old-school football.
It was Thursday, late in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 21-13 win over Oakland, and the Chiefs, facing a first-and-10 at their own 19, needed a first down to run out the clock and put the Raiders away.
To that point, they had rushed for a measly 55 yards in 24 attempts, an anemic 2.3 yards per carry. But that did not stop the Chiefs’ coach from dialing up three straight running plays, all in “23” personnel, to prove a point: If the Chiefs need to run the ball … they can do it.
Three running plays — and 10 yards — later, the point was made, and the game was won.
“(We were) real confident,” running back Spencer Ware said. “Toward the end of the second half, we started to move the front a little bit. That’s a credit to our offensive line for making some space for us running backs.”
The Chiefs’ final rushing tally against the league’s 27th-ranked run defense was not pretty; only 65 yards in 27 attempts, a stat line that has been loosely replicated too often this year as the Chiefs have cobbled together the league’s 26th-ranked run offense at 96.2 yards per game.
Some of that has to do with play calling, obviously; the Chiefs are throwing the ball at a 60 percent clip, up from about 50 percent last season, when they were more balanced.
But interestingly enough, it’s not like the Chiefs have given up on the run. They currently rank 12th in the league in rushing attempts, and they’re on pace to run the ball 388 times — only 48 fewer than in 2015.
What’s more, the Chiefs’ running backs and receivers are basically averaging the same yards per carry average – 4.4 – that they did a year ago (4.3), and while the Chiefs miss starting left guard Parker Ehinger, who is out for the season because of a knee injury, their yards-per-carry average with him in his four starts — 4.1 — is virtually identical to their yards-per-carry average for the entire season (4.0).
So what gives? The answer, at least statistically, seems to lie in quarterback Alex Smith’s inability to make teams pay with his legs this year, a topic that isn’t a secret. Last season, he rushed 84 times for 498 yards — 5.9 yards per carry — and two touchdowns. This season, he’s rushed 34 times for 56 yards — an average of only 1.6 yards per carry, numbers that have had an adverse effect on the Chiefs’ overall running totals.
But if this doesn’t sort itself out — and while Smith did rush for a rare first down on Thursday, the Chiefs should prepare themselves for that reality — it will be up to the Chiefs’ offensive line to be more physical, technically sound and consistent in the running game, especially since everyone on the line (except Mitchell Schwartz) has been on the team for at least two years now.
“We have the right plays called, we have the right people to do the job,” center Mitch Morse said. “Sometimes we just fail in executing with our fundamentals. It’s nothing astronomical, it’s nothing big, it just happens sometimes, where sometimes we can’t get the run game going. But when we do, we can see that it helps the offense tremendously; we get some drives going and get our quarterback out of the tough position of just throwing the ball the whole time.”
The good news is that there is some internal optimism about the running game going forward. The current line of Eric Fisher, Zach Fulton, Morse, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Schwartz has started six straight games together, which is crucial for developing on-field chemistry on the type of running plays the Chiefs will likely call down the stretch.
“There’s a certain chemistry you need in order to do good double teams, where it’s on mid-zone, outside zone, inside zone,” Duvernay-Tardif explained. “And I think playing with the same guys really helps you take the right step, knowing exactly where he’s going to be, what technique he’s gonna use and what impact that’s gonna have on the defender, so that when you get there, you’re in the right position of leverage to move him out more.”
And while Reid said opposing teams — apparently wary of Ware’s hard-charging style — have been working to take away the run a little more this year, that will only give the Chiefs a greater opportunity to make them pay through the air.
Take Tyreek Hill’s 36-yard touchdown catch on Thursday, during which he split a Cover 4 look on a deep post, for instance.
“I think they know Spencer now, so they know about him and you saw (Thursday), they were playing those two safeties down in the box,” Reid said. “That’s how we got Tyreek (Hill) up and over the top; they want to cheat those guys and play that Cover 4 look, and it gives you the opportunity to chuck it down the field.”
Reid was reticent to say the ground game had to improve if the Chiefs want to make a Super Bowl run, noting that the 2014 New England Patriots won the Super Bowl with the league’s 18th-ranked ground game and also toppled the Chiefs in the divisional round last year with the league’s 30th-ranked rushing attack.
“You’ve seen the Patriots, they’ve done pretty good without much of a run game,” Reid said. “You can take it for whatever you want to take it, there are all kinds of ways. The main thing is that you win. I don’t really care how it gets done and that’s what you need to do.”
But a better running game certainly wouldn’t hurt, and the Chiefs’ offensive linemen are putting it on themselves to get the job done.
“We’re not too worried about it — we understand that we need to get it rolling,” Morse said. “But we have the right people to do it, and the right game plan to do it.”