Whither Chiefs' rushing game? How foes have shut it down
The question is simple and direct, informed by watching and re-watching every Chiefs game as well as conversations with football people both inside and outside of the organization:
Do you notice teams attacking the Chiefs offense differently over the recent 1-3 stretch than they did during the 5-0 start?
The answer that came back is also simple and direct, informed by life on the inside of the Chiefs, but filtered through the Everything Must Remain Secret culture of the NFL.
Chiefs receiver Demarcus Robinson took a deep breath, and a long pause.
“I kind of do,” he said. “But I don’t want to say. So I’d rather not say.”
In other words: Yes. Confirmed. Absolutely. One hundred percent. Teams are playing the Chiefs differently, but Robinson enjoys his job and paycheck too much to give specifics.
That means we have to interpret here, and they don’t let sports columnists in the meeting rooms — at least not yet! — so disclaimers apply to the translation ... but here we go:
Andy Reid, in his fifth year in charge of the Chiefs, finally has a roster transformed from what he inherited (so slow and non-threatening that Donnie Avery was the best they could send on deep routes) to one with dynamic playmakers at every level.
During those first five games, Reid let it eat. His schemes and play calls were gorgeous to watch, and literally changed how many teams played. Kareem Hunt’s 78-yard touchdown catch against the Patriots inspired copycats with the Rams, Patriots and others using running backs in vertical routes.
The Chiefs’ jet sweeps and pitches to attack the edges of the field brought on more followers. Shovel passes and misdirections across the league are looking more and more Chiefsy (in a good way).
But, more than any other sports league, the NFL is about adjustments, and adjustments to adjustments, and adjustments to those adjustments, and so on, forever. Nobody gets by doing the same old stuff.
So as opposing coaches got more tape on what the Chiefs do, they adjusted. Their loss at Dallas was the clearest example yet, with an average defense holding the Chiefs to their worst game of the season. Take away Tyreek Hill’s freakish Short Mary at the end of the half, and the Chiefs managed just 10 points and 267 yards in 54 plays.
The game plan was basically the evolutionary result of half a season’s worth of tendencies.
The Cowboys prioritized stopping the run, and that can sound too obvious to even mention, but their plan continued a general trend of teams focusing more on stopping the run, often by outnumbering the Chiefs’ blockers.
This is apparent watching the games, but told clearly with numbers. Kareem Hunt ran for 609 yards on 97 carries (6.3-yard average) through five games, and 191 yards on 58 carries (3.3) the last four.
“Every defensive coordinator to a man in this league would tell you you have to stop the run, so that’s not really saying a ton,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “But you can see at certain points that’s been a focus.”
It’s more than that, though. Part of the Chiefs’ success early in the season was in being aggressive in every way — with their speed, with attacking downfield, with their use of timing and misdirection.
Defenses have countered by being aggressive right back. Most basically, when extra defenders are brought close to the line of scrimmage for the run, they’ve turned into extra pass rushers on drop-backs. When teams can get to Smith quickly, they can diminish the impact of Hill’s speed and tight end Travis Kelce’s athleticism.
But it’s even more than that, and here is what Robinson may have been thinking about, since he plays on the outside. Teams have emphasized trickery as much as anything. For instance, they may give the appearance of a man defense before the snap, but roll into zone after.
Smith, more than most quarterbacks, is dependent on making the right pre-snap reads. When he does, he is terrifically efficient at getting the ball where he wants. But when defenses confuse him, he can hesitate, his footwork jumbles, and he’s not as strong as an improviser.
This is the weekly dance of the NFL, where the difference between a long touchdown and sack can be less than half a second, the dominoes starting to fall based on a thousand subtleties like where the cornerback is looking as he shows blitz.
Some of this may be too far in the weeds, but if you’ve made it this far, it’s because you care and presumably want to know what it will ultimately mean for the 2017 Chiefs.
And with how the rest of the Chiefs’ schedule and division are lining up, we’re all just guessing until January.
Because unless you take the bold stance that Reid is a fool and burned all his good plays during the first five weeks of the season, we are almost certainly not going to see his best adjustments until the postseason.
The Chiefs have a two-game lead in the division and one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules. The only team they have left to play without a losing record just benched its quarterback for a fifth-round rookie. The Chiefs could play just OK and finish 5-2.
This is Reid’s 19th season as a head coach, and as much as anyone in the league, he keeps track of what he puts on film. The guess here is that he’ll be as careful as possible the rest of the way to best understand how defenses are working him, and to limit how clearly he signals his own adjustments.
That subtle back-and-forth will be critical to how long this team plays and how well it is remembered. Because making the playoffs is a virtual certainty but has never been the goal. And as much as the defense needs to improve, the strength of this group is clearly its offense.
Whether that shows up in the postseason will be decided largely upon how Reid reacts to the way defensive coaches have slowed his team in recent weeks.