An ode to the counter: How the Chiefs bludgeoned the Broncos

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif heard the playcall Sunday and, like the rest of his fellow linemen, gave a silent nod of approval.

It was the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 33-10 win over the Denver Broncos, and on first-and-10 from the Chiefs’ 30, Chiefs coach Andy Reid dialed up a classic, throwback running play that only a lineman like Duvernay-Tardif, the Chiefs’ starting right guard, or an old Big Ten guy – like co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress – could love: The ole’ halfback counter.

Of the Chiefs’ seven running plays to that point, it was the fourth to involve someone – a lineman, a tight end, whoever – pulling and kicking out on a defender, and it unfolded like a thing of beauty. The left side of the line crashed down, Duvernay-Tardif and tight end Travis Kelce pulled and sealed the edge, and Tyreek Hill rocketed to the corner and sprinted, untouched, to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown.

“It’s the best,” Childress said of the play, with a smile.

The Chiefs have always used gap-blocking schemes, like one on the counter play described above, with linemen and tight end pulling and trapping. Defenses can sometimes sit on the Chiefs’ zone-stretch plays – the fundamental bedrock of Andy Reid’s West Coast offense – but gap blocking, which takes advantage of misdirection and angles, keeps those defenses honest.

And in both of the Chiefs’ wins against the Broncos this season, the Chiefs have turned to more gap plays like the one described above, to smashing results. Hill’s 70-yard burst was just one of many effective runs with gap blocking the Chiefs called against the Broncos on Sunday, when they piled up 238 yards on 37 carries – an astounding average of 6.5 yards per carry – against one of the league’s against one of the league’s fastest and most aggressive defenses (which also makes it particularly vulnerable to that style of blocking).

Yet the Chiefs, who rank 16th in the league in rushing at 109 yards per game, have not always shined on the ground this year. While they managed to close out the Raiders on Dec. 8 with their ground game, there have also been plenty of times, like their 19-17 loss against Tennessee, where their running game has come up short. One of the most notable plays in the Titans loss came on a play similar to the one described above, when the Titans stuffed a fourth-and-goal play from the 1 on a play that involved two people pulling yet saw three Chiefs, in all, whiff on their blocks.

Still, the fact the Chiefs came right back the next week and dialed up the same gap-style running plays instilled a sense of confidence in the offensive line, which started its eighth consecutive game together following the season-ending injury to left guard Parker Ehinger and might be jelling as a unit.

“Getting the ball north and south like we did against Denver is something we love,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Yeah there’s technique, but I feel like the more you go vertical at somebody, the more it’s all about who wants it the most ... it just means Coach Reid puts it on our shoulder, and we’ve got to deliver. It gets me fired up because we can set the tempo and show what we’re all about on offense.”

Gap schemes, like the counters they relied upon to gash the Broncos on Sunday, also send a message to safeties cheating up to stop the run. Pick the wrong play, and one of thoe big guys could be looping around to plant you in the dirt.

That’s exactly what happened to Denver’s Darian Stewart, who got planted in the dirt by Kelce right before Hill sprinted around the edge.

“He was pushing hard and pressed him all the way to the ground – he does a good job with that,” Childress said of Kelce. “A lot of that tight end blocking is position. When they’re working in tandem with the tackles they’re removal blocks and he’s half the removal. I’ve seen him grow immensely from when he first started here.”

There is some technique required to block this well, particularly for the pullers, who are often Kelce, Duvernay-Tardif or starting left guard Zach Fulton. It’s one thing to get there with speed; it’s another to time it well. They can’t tip the pull coming out of their stance, so they have to use good technique, sprint to the edge and take the best angles they can.

“It’s a long way to go for the guard,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “It’s not like a power or a trap play where you do like three steps and you’re in the face of the defensive end. For that reason, it’s important to get there as fast as possible, yet under control.”

Back when teams hit more in practice, it used to be a bit easier to get a feel for the tempo of the play. But since the new collective bargaining agreement reduced the intensity of in-season practices, it now falls on the linemen to practice at game speed without the contact in hopes of replicating it adequately.

“It’s not that hard,” Fulton said. “We still try to take the correct angles and stuff like that.”

And, as Kelce showed, wipe-out blocks are still possible.

“Sometimes you’re going to get got,” Fulton said with a laugh.

But while the pullers get the glory, it’s the tackles who deserve credit, too. Both Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz seem to enjoy performing down blocks, in which they crash down on unsuspecting defensive linemen, some of whom are lulled into a false sense of security after defending the Chiefs’ abundance of outside zone plays –in which they can mainly see the man blocking them, for the most part, and are simply charged with defeating the block and not getting reached.

“It makes those guys think on the defensive front,” Childress said.

The Chiefs also called their gap plays Sunday with a nice thunder-and-lightning duo, of sorts, at running back in hard-charging bruiser Spencer Ware and Hill, whose running style sometimes resembles a rocket blasting off. The Chiefs love the change of pace these two – plus shifty pass-catcher Charcandrick West – can give them on such plays, which was evident on some runs where Hill froze star edge rusher Von Miller, despite being left unblocked.

“If you look at it, he’s run past maybe the best outside linebacker in the game, twice, unblocked,” Childress said. “That’s rare to get out of the backfield on him, and being able to get round the edge. That doesn’t happen to that guy very often.”

And while it remains to be seen if the Chiefs can replicate their performance on the ground against the Broncos in their regular-season finale on Sunday at San Diego, one thing’s for sure: if the Chiefs dial up their run plays early, and they have even a modicum of success, Childress can bet he and the Chiefs’ other playcallers, Reid and co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, will be hearing from their offensive linemen.

“They come back to ya’ off to the side like, ‘Let’s run it more, run it again,’ ” Childress said with a laugh.