Chiefs coach Andy Reid has long taken pride in his ability to get problems fixed.
Yet, after the Chiefs’ 38-31 loss to the New York Jets on Dec. 3 –– the Chiefs’ fourth straight defeat and sixth in seven games –– one question loomed large. What happened to the running game?
After a terrific start to the year, in which rookie running back Kareem Hunt was averaging 6.3 yards per carry and led the NFL in rushing through the first five weeks, the running lanes had dried up. Hunt was finding increasingly finding little room to run, as his 40-yard performance against the Jets marked the seventh straight game he failed to top 100 yards.
This miserable stretch led to some honest self-evaluation from the Chiefs’ coaching staff, which found itself pondering three questions for the better part of two months: What were they doing before the losing streak? How were they doing it? And why were they doing it?
In short, they needed to find an identity, figure out what they do best and stick with it.
“When you’re losing like we were, in all those weeks, you start searching for things, right?” offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “And sometimes, it’s right in front of you.”
The results of that self-examination paid off in a 26-15 win over the Raiders on Sunday, as Hunt finally topped 100-plus yards, rushing 25 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. It was a performance that prompted Reid to praise the offensive line for the job they did creating holes.
“I thought the offensive line played one of their better games, both in the pass game and the run game,” said Reid, whose praise of offensive line coach Andy Heck after the win also spoke volumes.
Much like every other aspect of football, there’s no exact smoking gun when it comes to what changed in a matter of weeks. Did the Chiefs’ knowledge of the Raiders –– a team they’ve always faced twice a year, as opposed to their previous four opponents (Giants, Jets, Bills, Cowboys) –– help? Absolutely.
But players and coaches say there were multiple factors that led to the improved rushing attack against Oakland. One was the simplification of some of the running schemes, as Heck scrapped some of the more difficult blocks they’d been asking their offensive linemen to make since they had switched things up at the bye week in early November.
“It is hard enough to run the ball in this league, let alone when you are tentative, right?” quarterback Alex Smith said. “Everybody being locked in, knowing what we are doing, how we are doing it and then rolling off the ball (is important).”
Another difference against the Raiders was the Chiefs’ decision to lean on the base zone running plays they’d been running so effectively early in the season, which was spurred by the dual challenge the coaching staff issued to the linemen to not only hone in on the details, but also show more aggressiveness.
“I loved the attitude the last few weeks, just the edge those guys have been playing with, just cutting it loose out there,” Smith said. “I feel like they have set the tone –– they have gone out there with a ton of energy.”
In the NFL, all it takes is one blown assignment to ruin a big gain, and a particularly frustrating part about the Chiefs’ struggles was that it never seemed to be the same guy screwing up –– it was always someone different.
Nevertheless, there would always be a breakdown in technique here, or a man overpowered there. Add that to a general failure to consistently double-team at the point of attack and effectively climb to the next level –– a major tenet of the zone run –– and you understand why the Chiefs felt a need to add some wrinkles to their running game during the bye week (when they’d lost three of their last four games) in the first place.
“We were having good weeks of practice, believe it or not, but they weren’t translating on the field,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said.
So, in an effort to return to normalcy and take advantage of its athleticism up front, the Chiefs decided to lean on outside and inside zone runs against the Raiders.
On outside zones, linemen take lateral steps and attempt to put themselves between the defender and the sideline, while the running back aims for a point outside the nearest lineman or tight end.
The runner has the freedom to cut it upfield at any time, and that’s what makes this type of zone run generally more feared among defenders than inside zones, where offensive linemen execute the same principles but the runners aim for the gap outside the guard.
Inside zones are good for short-yardage situations, but outside zones give the offensive line more opportunities to create cutback opportunities for the running back, who widens the angle of attack upon receiving the handoff but is poised to cutback inside the moment a sliver of space opens.
For instance, it was an outside zone that Hunt cut back inside and took 69 yards for the game-sealing touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 3.
And considering the way the Chiefs ran the ball against the Raiders on Sunday –– Hunt’s longest run of the day, 17 yards, was also on an outside zone –– it’s safe to say the Chiefs hope to get their pet zone running plays going against the Chargers again on Saturday in a game between two 7-6 teams that could easily decide the AFC West crown.
“We took care of the guys at the first level and got to the second level,” left guard Bryan Witzmann said. “That opened stuff up.
“We took some pride in that performance ... but with that short week, you’ve got to move on quick.”