One of the prevailing storylines from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 20-17 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans was how strange the game seemed to be. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes racked up more than 500 yards of offense by himself, but still, the team had to scratch and grab a three-point victory.
But Mahomes had to carry the Chiefs offense on his back because the running game was non-existent. Kansas City running backs got 12 carries and turned them into 14 yards. Three of the backfield’s first four carries were stuffed for no gain, and in the entire game, none of the running backs had a run that gained more than three yards.
In a season that has featured multiple unimpressive performances on the pitch, this might have been the ugliest. So it was that during his Thursday press appearance, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was asked how the team could improve its ground attack.
“We have to execute it,” Bieniemy told reporters. “We have to invest in it, meaning we can’t run it a few times and expect success.”
Sunday’s 12 carries were the fewest for any game this season, barely edging out a few contests with 13 or 14 attempts from behind. Those games produced far more yards than the Titans game, but even so, Bieniemy believes a low-volume offense hurts the overall impact the running game could have.
“It’s like when you’re chipping concrete and you use that hammer,” Bieniemy suggested. “It won’t break the first few times you use it. It will take a while.
“So we’ve got to figure out if we can run it, but also, we’ve got to consistently invest in it. So I’ve got to do a better job — as a staff we’ve got to do a better job. That way, we give to our guys up front (and back) the opportunity to make it happen.”
The Chiefs have tried a lineup change, promoting rookie running back Isiah Pacheco to the starter before the San Francisco 49ers game. While his snaps increased, his effectiveness did not; he has averaged 3.7 yards per carry over the last two games. Before getting the nod, he was averaging 4.8 yards per rush.
Nor could the Chiefs use an absence on the offensive line as an excuse. While the starting five have stuck together, the group has definitely been volatile. Against the Titans, right guard Trey Smith, historically a strong run blocker, lost his mission on several run plays, allowing them to be exploited.
The lack of effectiveness only makes things more difficult in the passing game, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. That’s exactly what wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster pointed out to reporters Thursday.
“For us, it’s being able to get the run game going,” Smith-Schuster said, addressing what the passing attack might need to improve. “When you throw the ball 68 times, it puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line (and Pat) to make those plays. When you have a good run game, it’s there; it opens up those deep passes. You can see [in] 49ers game, we had a couple of big runs that set up deep passes.”
A more impactful running game can absolutely help Kansas City’s passing game, which is the team’s biggest offensive asset. But Bieniemy’s solution, just handing the ball more often, is not the answer.
The Chiefs’ passing game is too efficient to settle for a higher volume of…well…getting nowhere by slamming a running back’s head into a wall. That’s exactly why the team gave up the run against Tennessee: The way the ground game worked, an incompletion, or even a sack, could have been just as valuable as a running play; with these, at least Muhammad would have had one opportunity to make a play.
The running game same he doesn’t need more volume, but he might be an individual player does they need more opportunities. In just three games this season, an individual Kansas City running back has gotten double-digit carries. Each time, it’s been in a burst, where those stats are inflated during garbage time.
It also makes sense for a longer track for a particular back to get going. But that’s different from blindly increasing carries for the entire backfield. Compared to most offenses, the team already gets plenty of favorable looks from opposing defenses simply because of the Chiefs’ dangerous passing attack. The offense is designed so that the running game has limited opportunities, but they are supposed to face light boxes.
Right now, the team isn’t capitalizing on those opportunities. There are members of the backfield, offensive line and coaching staff who can share the blame for this. Execution needs to improve. This, however, will not happen simply because the team is using the ball more often, even if that is what the player on the team tells us.