Somewhat lost in the Chiefs’ inability to slow down running back Le’Veon Bell in their 19-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was their equally distressing inability to get any semblance of a ground game going.
The Chiefs ranked second in the NFL in rushing entering the contest at 156 yards per game, and boasted the NFL’s leading rusher in rookie sensation Kareem Hunt. Yet the Steelers’ 28th-ranked run defense limited the Chiefs to a mere 28 yards on 15 carries, easily one of the worst rushing outputs of coach Andy Reid’s five-year tenure in Kansas City.
“Honestly, we were just hurting ourselves,” said Hunt, who rushed nine times for 21 yards Sunday after averaging more than 100 yards in his first five contests. “We just have to come out and play fast and play harder.”
Much of the Chiefs’ struggles in this area had to do with Pittsburgh, however. The Steelers appeared to focus heavily on taking away the run, as linebackers consistently crashed gaps while defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave took turns defeating their blockers.
“They’re gonna be aware of Kareem, just because of the success he’s been having, early on, running the football,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said.
The Chiefs had a little success when they ran their power-based plays with pulling linemen, but they only dialed those up a few times, instead eschewing those concepts for zone running plays — where linemen all flow to one side, simultaneously creating cutback lanes — that have been so good to them this season.
The Steelers were all over those, however, as the Chiefs’ starting offensive line — which was down a pair of starters in center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — consistently broke down.
And while you could argue the Chiefs simply got impatient with the running game, it’s worth noting that the Chiefs’ lack of success on the ground came despite the fact that the Chiefs often had an “even” box count (the same number of blockers vs. defenders) or even a one-blocker advantage.
Perhaps that’s why the Chiefs threw it 19 more times than they ran it Sunday, despite the fact they’ve generally done a nice job this season mixing the run and pass.
“It’s important to be a balanced football team on offense — you can’t be one-dimensional,” Nagy said. “Being balanced is one of the things I think we’ve done a good job at this year, and depending on the tempo of the game or score of the game, that may swing a little bit one way or another.
“But again … unfortunately for us offensively, it just was a weird day. Things weren’t clicking.”
It speaks to Hunt’s talent that he still finished with 110 yards from scrimmage. It marked his sixth straight game with at least 100 total yards from scrimmage, making him the first NFL rookie to do that. Future Hall-of-Famer Adrian Peterson is the only other player to do so for the first five games of his career.
“For a running back, there’s all different types of phases, so yeah, OK, his numbers weren’t real great running the ball, but he did some great things catching the ball,” Nagy said. “He made some big-time plays when the ball was in his hands, receiving.”
“I have all the confidence in the world that he’s gonna step up this week again, and when we hand the ball off to him, he’ll making positive things happen.”
The Chiefs won’t have much time this week to fix their issues; they head to Oakland to face the Raiders on Thursday night. The Raiders rank 21st in the league vs. the run and surrendered 90 yards on 20 carries in their 17-16 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
The Chiefs might see a new face in the backfield Thursday, too, as they signed veteran C.J. Spiller for the fourth time in a year on Monday. Spiller offers insurance in case third-down back Charcandrick West, who entered concussion protocol in Sunday's loss to the Steelers, is not able to play vs. the Raiders.
Either way, the Chiefs hope to respond to the disappointing defeat like the Steelers did Sunday following their 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars a week prior.
“Teams bounce back — we can go there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They were getting beat by the Jags and they bounced back, so you do the same thing. That’s this league.”