Five minutes through the first quarter on Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs were being shutout at home against the Buffalo Bills in an important game for both teams' AFC playoff ambitions. The defense had already surrendered big plays to Sammy Watkins, while the offense began the game with a short four-play drive, followed by two three-and-outs. Buffalo was out-gaining Kansas City 196 yards to 34, and controlling the ball 15 minutes to Kansas City's five. It looked to be one of those days.
Enter Spencer Ware.
On the Chiefs first touchdown drive of the game, Ware had several tough runs that energized the Arrowhead crowd and the Kansas City offense. Starting with a 16-yard explosion and ending with a three-yard touchdown, Ware punched the Bills in the mouth and simultaneously gave the offense a wake-up slap. Andy Reid's crew went on to score on 6 of their final 7 drives, and were a field goal post away from batting 1,000. Ware later finished the day with a 4-yard run that put Buffalo down for good.
Ware started it. Ware ended it.
Let's take a closer look at how #32 trudged the Chiefs to victory.
Here is the first play of the drive that changed the game for the better. 1st-and-10 from the Kansas City 20.
Jeremy Maclin (lower white box) is against man coverage with a single safety over the top. This proves important a few plays later, as MNchiefsfan outlines in his film review of the Chiefs No. 1 receiver.
Travis Kelce (upper white box) is lined up outside for a potential screen.
The play-call is a great one that takes advantage of the Chiefs' reputation for horizontal passing. It is a read-option with a built-in screen. At the snap, Smith will put the ball in Spencer Ware's gut and either pull it back for the screen to Kelce, or let Ware take it. Because of the read-option, the o-line lets the Bills OLB (blue arrow) enter the back-field unblocked. And because of the screen, the Bills ILB (other blue arrow) compensates outside. Which leaves us with this:
Smith sees that Kelce is outnumbered, so the screen is off. But the read-option and screen threats have frozen the OLB (blue diamond) and forced the ILB (blue arrow) away from the middle of the field, leaving the Chiefs o-line with a 5-on-5 match-up inside. Each of the good guys wins their battle and Ware runs untouched through a big hole into the secondary.
The OLB and ILB are out of the play. Chiefs center Mitch Morse (No. 61) does just enough on LB No. 53 to let Ware develop momentum in open space towards Buffalo safety, No. 30, Bacarri Rambo.
Rambo arrogantly ignores my warning (meant to be read in full Pythonesque glory), and decides to creep in, thinking he can take Spencer Ware one-on-one. Initiate Madden NFL "truck mode".
The CBS announce crew sums it up:
"Wow. This is an impressive run. Watch him finish this... He just runs over the safety Rambo as if he's not even there."
The very next play, Ware again benefits from some fantastic blocking, and again trucks a Buffalo defender. This time, it's rookie defensive back (and Marcus Peters' rival for Defensive Rookie of the Year), Ronald Darby.
The announce crew continues:
"And Darby is down. He got hit by that sledgehammer, otherwise known as Spencer Ware."
"You're not gonna tackle this guy with your arms."
On the last play of the drive, the Chiefs again take advantage of their horizontal disposition to catch Buffalo unprepared for a run between the tackles, and Ware plunges through an arm tackle into the endzone.
Albert Wilson (white), who has been filling in on such plays for the injured De'Anthony Thomas, will appear on screen running a fly sweep. Ware (red) will run a counter.
Wilson's movement takes three defenders out of the play. Two of them, No. 30 and No. 52 (blue arrows), are pictured above. A third one, who was lined up against Wilson outside, appears on screen below, and over-pursues.
There's No. 30, Rambo (blue box), out of the play while the defensive back on Wilson (blue arrow) takes one too many steps in the wrong direction. The counter is executed well and the Kansas City o-line simply has to win its one-on-one battles on the back-side. They do their job and Ware does his. Touchdown Chiefs.
How'd he do that?
Early in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs started a drive at their own 11, and needed to either expand their five point lead, or at the least flip field position. It didn't take long to accomplish both.
On first and 10, the Chiefs turned again to Ware, who took the hand-off from Smith and squeezed and stumbled his way forward for 35 yards.
This run was vision, burst, speed, power, balance, and toughness all combined into one sweet 35-yard rumble. I think Ware managed the last 15 yards running backwards. But it's the first few yards that really make this impressive. Ware chose the correct gap, then anticipated a new gap between his blockers, stayed low enough to avoid a Buffalo clothesline, and maneuvered quickly enough through the maze to take two Bills defenders, who had collapsed the right-side gap, out of the play.
32 of the 35 yards gained were due to the instincts Ware displayed as he crossed the line of scrimmage. Any sprinting fool can outrun a linebacker in space. It's what Ware does when there is no space that makes him so good. Consistently against Buffalo he made quick decisions between the tackles to pick up crucial extra yards.
Contact means nothing to Spencer Ware. Arm tackles are futile. Word will spread fast that this is a man you do not want to meet one-on-one in closed space. If Kansas City can run inside this strong moving forward, Andy Reid's horizontal tendencies will suddenly make more sense. That was evident on the Chiefs' first touchdown drive, where the threat of screens and fly sweeps opened things up inside for Ware. Add in the vertical deep threat that is gaining rhythm each week, and the Chiefs may, at last, be wielding an offense that can attack you at any point on the field.
Call me old school, but some of the best plays in football are three and four yard runs between the tackles. Those will draw linebackers and safeties down and edge rushers inside. It's you dictating to your opponent how the game will be played.
Running between the tackles is not just important for controlling the middle of the field, though. As outlined in the Chiefs first touchdown drive of the day above, it is useful for waking a team up, for getting your guys on the o-line angry, and for establishing physical dominance. When Ware runs, the whole team seems to give that extra effort to pick up one more yard, because they see Ware giving all he can for one more yard. That's how you run, and play football, as a team. That's how you make a measly, ugly, four-yard trudge feel like victory. And victory is contagious.
Because Ware will trudge for those four yards. He is not a back who needs to rely on forward progress. That rule exists to help the opposing defense out. Only one time Sunday did Buffalo manage to stop him from falling forward for the extra yard or two or three. It took four Bills defenders to force Ware horizontal on a late 4th quarter run. "Backwards" is not in Spencer Ware's vocabulary.
Take the last drive of the game as all the evidence you need. The Chiefs needed 10 yards to guarantee victory formation, and they had three downs to do it. So they turned, three more times, to No. 32.
On 1st and 10, Kelce (red) will motion inside during the snap and travel clear across the formation to contain the edge. Ware (white) will follow fullback Anthony Sherman (white) up the middle, while the offensive line each handles the guy directly in front of them.
Ware meets two Bills defenders head on in the hole and plows forward for three more yards:
This is followed by a short, but tough, two yard gain on 2nd down, leading to a 3rd and 3 for the game. On that final play, Buffalo gets bodies on Ware two yards short of the marker, but he stays low, submarines forward -- to borrow another phrase from CBS's Kevin Harlan -- and keeps his feet moving. With a little help from his friends, Ware picks up the first down, and earns the Chiefs their fifth straight victory.
He also provides us this fun image.
Looks like a team win to me.