The Chiefs’ quarterbacks absolutely lit it up Saturday. There’s zero doubt about that.
From their fifth offensive play of the game, when a newly-aggressive Alex Smith lofted a gorgeous deep completion over the middle to Travis Kelce between three defenders, to the first drive of the third quarter, when No. 2 quarterback Patrick Mahomes — who repeatedly punished the Cincinnati Bengals with a range of absurd throws — it’s easy to look at the collective performances of the Chiefs’ quarterbacks and immediately dub that the story of the game.
But if you paid close attention in the first half, you probably noticed the Chiefs working on another facet of their offense that will have just as much of an impact on their collective success this year as any throw their quarterbacks make — the running game.
And on this day, while there was a ton of good in that aspect of their 30-12 win over the Bengals in front of an announced crowd of 47,714 at Paul Brown Stadium, there was just a little room for growth, too — most notably when it came to their short-yardage offense.
“I told the guys we were going to run the ball a little bit more (tonight) and they take that as a challenge,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
Start with the good. Beginning with the first play of the game, the Chiefs set about establishing the run behind an offensive line that returns all five starters. Spencer Ware, the projected starter at running back, toted the rock on the Chiefs’ first offensive play, then sat for the rest of the 13-play drive as Reid got a close look at how his promising third-round rookie, Kareem Hunt, fared with the starters against the Bengals’ first-string defense.
“I wanted to see him, and I wanted him to see — against a good defense — the speed of the game,” Reid said of Hunt.
Hunt, to be sure, looked great. His first carry went for 5 yards, and he sprinkled in a pair of darting, dashing 8- and 11-yard runs where he showed off the vision, balance and burst that caused the Chiefs to trade up for him in this year’s draft. He kept that up through the second quarter — all the while flashing upside as a receiver, as well — and finished the game with eight carries for 40 yards (a 5.0 average) and three catches for 23 yards before departing because of a tweaked ankle.
“He played physical,” Reid said. “He got an idea, physically, of the demands and the kind of shape you’ve got to be in to tote it like that. That will be a good thing for him down the line. I thought he did a nice job in pass protection and route running. We know he can run the ball, but being able to work that other stuff (is important).”
With Ware seemingly resting — he only registered one carry for 3 yards — the Chiefs turned to veteran C.J. Spiller when Hunt’s night came to a close in the middle of the second quarter. On his first touch, Spiller looked like the fastest player on the field (save for Tyreek Hill) when he rocketed through a crease on an outside run that went for 12 yards.
By the time Spiller finished the game with six rushes for 27 yards — a solid 4.5-yard average — and one catch for 16 yards, it was easy to envision him competing with Charcandrick West for the job as the team’s No. 3 back this year, a tremendous comeback story for a 30-year-old who saw much of his game-changing, 4.37 speed sapped by injuries the last two seasons. Even West flashed quickness and burst, slicing up the Bengals for a game-high 113 yards in seven carries, all in the second half.
“Just keep watching,” said West, who has been battling ankle injuries for the last two years. “Just got to stay healthy. I know what I’m gonna do when I’m healthy.”
By the end of the game, the Chiefs had rushed 33 times for 228 yards, with five different players breaking off at least one run of 10 yards or more. It was an encouraging performance for the league’s 15th-ranked rushing offense in 2016, particularly after they rushed only 14 times for 31 yards in their exhibition opener against San Francisco last week.
“Guys were talking up front — we were all on the same page most of the time,” said center Mitch Morse, who added that the Bengals were giving them legit defensive looks, despite it being the preseason. “So when you’re able to talk and get what you need out to the other guys, everything seems to work smoother.”
But there remains at least one area in which the Chiefs need to keep working. The short-yardage run game was highly hit-and-miss last season; when they needed to get a tough yard in close quarters, the Chiefs hardly converted as often as they liked. And while the Chiefs’ offensive line is a year older and, presumably, a year stronger, the first-string offense netted only 12 yards in seven runs inside the Bengals’ 25 on Saturday. This was highlighted late in the second quarter when, facing first-and-goal at the Bengals’ 2-yard line, Spiller was stuffed on two consecutive plays at the goal line.
“You keep repping it in practice and you keep understanding it’s a mind-set more than anything,” Morse said.
The Chiefs ultimately punched it in, courtesy of a small-window throw-and-catch from Mahomes to tight end Demetrius Harris. But it was reminiscent of some of the run-game problems the Chiefs had in the red zone a year ago, and certainly something to keep an eye on going forward on a night where the offense — as a whole — could do little wrong.
“That’s the toughest area to gear it up — we gave it a couple of cracks in there,” Reid said of their red-zone rushing attempts. “You’ve got to take care of business there, but that’s tough sledding and (the O-line) sure set us up for some nice things.”