Last week, I spoke a little about the Chiefs' moves at the Quarterback position. Today, I'm going to focus on the running game. Just as a brief recap, here's how the Chiefs have done so far (out of 4.0):
Chiefs Current Depth - Offense: 3.0
Chiefs 2010 Offseason - Offense: 1.0
I'm a tough grader, I know. Today, we'll focus on the running game, which should hopefully make you smile a little more. More after the jump.
What the Chiefs Needed to Do:
A while ago, I talked about how the Chiefs really needed to complement thunder with lightning. Call me old-fashioned, but I just love the idea of a power back pummeling defenses to set the table for a quick, shifty back who can slide through an exhausted defense. Then again, I also liked the prospect of bringing in Darren Sproles (who ended up becoming unavailable). Although Sproles doesn't strike me as a Jerome Bettis version of a power back, I still liked the idea of having a utility back that will give you quality carries and also serve in a third down role where you'd probably keep Charles off the field in a lot of situations anyway. What I really like about the thunder/lightning combination is that it requires the defense to change their speed, but it also requires them to re-think their personnel packages. You'd obviously want a very different guy tackling Jerome Bettis than you would Jamaal Charles.
This time last year, I would have told you that the Chiefs needed a lot of help with their run blocking. After the way the Chiefs closed last season, maybe it's not as much of an issue as I had previously thought. With John Muir teaching the Zone Blocking Scheme, I don't think you need a whole ton of talent on the offensive line and you'll see this group become a lot more fundamentally sound. We saw the Chiefs' offensive linemen last season improve by leaps and bounds. I'd expect them to continue on that improvement as they become more comfortable with the scheme and learning from each other. That means that you'll probably see marginally improved play from Brian Waters and Ryan O'Callaghan and potentially very improved play from Branden Albert, who was learning a new scheme, learning to play at a new weight, and learning to play the Left Tackle position... period.
A lot of people suggest that Branden Albert holds the key to keeping Matt Cassel upright and how that is what he really needs to bring to the table. I don't agree. Right now, the Chiefs' biggest playmakers live in the backfield and their strength is outside of the tackles rather than between them. When Willie Roaf was in Kansas City, the Running Backs were able to sprint to the outside at will because Roaf was such a dominant player in space. While i don't know if Albert will ever come even close to Roaf's ability to pass protect, I do believe he has the rare athleticism to play a Roaf style of run blocking. That's why I wasn't high on drafting Okung. If Albert plays to his potential in the run blocking game, it is going to be absolutely scary to see what Charles and McCluster can do with the outside run. Because we all know that once those two backs hit the second level, they are a nightmare to tackle in the open field.
What the Chiefs Did:
The Chiefs didn't just do what I had hoped; they completely outdid themselves. They brought in a terrific power back in Thomas Jones for the price of a sandwich and brought in Dexter McCluster to serve in a capacity that may actually outdo what Sproles does in San Diego. First, you never wanted to take away too many carries from Charles. The Chiefs needed a complementary back to keep Charles fresh. Jones and McCluster are perfect complements.
Second, the possibilities for Charlie Weis are endless. Weis isn't what I would call an innovative offensive coordinator, and that's quite possibly what makes him such a great playcaller. His method, really, is to exploit mismatches in every possible way and to use deception to punish defenses that over-commit. What this three-headed running monster allows Weis to do is establish the run in an effective way and force defenses to commit to it. Once established, you'll almost certainly see the Chiefs commit to a lot more playaction than we've seen in many years. Either that, or you have backs like Charles and especially McCluster who can exploit an overcommitment to the run by either setting up a screen or leaving an empty backfield to motion to the slot.
It's also important to consider how the Chiefs have really built their offense around the strengths of their running game. Think about this for a second. Casey Wiegmann and Ryan Lilja are so-so run blockers. Lilja, in particular, is much better in pass protection. Ryan O'Callagahn has struggled at pass protection at times, but he's a pretty good run blocker. Albert, as I mentioned above, has the potential to be a really good run blocker. Interesting that the Chiefs bring in a speed back like McCluster to complement a speed back like Charles and then build an offensive line that is weak at run blocking between the tackles but solid outside of them. In terms of your "intangible" run blockers, you add in Tony Moeaki, who can block much better than any other Tight End on the roster, McCluster, who should be a pretty decent blocker on the outside, and Mike Cox, who started to block pretty well toward the end of the season, and suddenly you see a formula for a pretty decent cast of run blockers in space.
Of course, we also can't lose sight of how much Charlie Weis will improve the Chiefs' Running Backs. Haley had a tendency last season to call a much more predictable game than we expected. While Weis will likely favor the run, the Chiefs' addition of versatile players in the draft is really going to help him add a little mystery to the playcalling. It's incredibly valuable to have a versatile player like Moeaki, who can both block and catch and a weapon like McCluster who can run out of the backfield or catch out of the slot. The Chiefs can now run and pass very effectively with the same personnel group, which will limit a defense's ability to favor a run defense or a pass defense. That means that no matter how well the Chiefs run the ball, defenses can't afford to just stack the box. That also means that defenses will be kept on their toes.
Grade - Chiefs 2010 Offseason - Running Offense: A+ -- It wasn't how I envisioned it, but they well exceeded my expectations.
Grade - Current Running Offense Personnel - While I like what the Chiefs have done, they still have some work to do. They'll need to find eventual replacements for Waters, Wiegmann, and potentially O'Callaghan, and there's no telling how long Ryan Lilja's legs can hold up. They also have to realize that Thomas Jones is a 2-year fix at the absolute longest. So while the Chiefs' run offense is set this season to explode, we have to be mindful of the fact that a lot of these key players are stopgaps that need to be replaced in the next one or two seasons.
But regardless, this is a run offense that exploded in the second half last season behind average blockers, poor blocking tight ends, a so-so offensive scheme, and a 1-man show that featured a limited power back to take carries away from Charles. This season, they have one of the better Running Back rotations in the league, playing behind a solid but unspectacular offensive line, with better space blockers, a lot more depth to run the ball down a team's throat, playing for an Offensive Coordinator that is going to put the Running Backs in a position to be successful. The Chiefs may have the formula to be one of the more dangerous running teams in the league.