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Film Session: Chiefs running backs still need to work in

The Chiefs’ approach could work, but it may take the next few weeks to get it going.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The first game without Kareem Hunt is behind us.

In their first outing without their star running back against the Oakland Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs rushed for 174 yards and 5.8 yards per carry — both tied for second best in the 2018 season. Even against the worst run defense in the NFL, that’s a solid outing that could leave you thinking the Chiefs should be just fine.

The Chiefs played Spencer Ware on 69 percent of their offensive snaps, Damien Williams on 27 percent of them, and Darrell Williams on just 4 percent — the three kneel-downs. These numbers are on the very, very low end of the splits when Hunt was on the team — only with Hunt taking the lead, followed by Ware and Damien Williams.

Moving forward, the expectation is that the Chiefs will appoint a committee to run the ball, rather than depend primarily on a workhorse running back to shoulder most of the load. But with the short notice against Oakland — as late as Friday morning, no one expected Hunt wouldn’t be on the field on Sunday — the team went with the players that had been getting the most work.

The Chiefs running backs combined for 19 carries for 86 yards — 4.5 yards per carry — which while not as impressive as the total numbers, would still rank them as a middle-of-the-pack rushing attack in the NFL. Yet during the game, there were times it appeared the Chiefs had issues running the ball and sustaining success.

Are the stats telling a the right story, or does an eye test give a better representation of what is playing out on the field?

The AP Laboratory is back up and running, and we’re diving deep into the “new” running back play.

Spencer Ware

Best traits: Ware runs with power and through contact very well. He doesn’t have the same body control some other power runners do — to angle his body and force players to slide and bounce off him — but what he does do is drop his pads, get his hips behind them, and run through players. Arm tackles don’t slow him down, and he will take on just about any defender head-up.

Another area in which Ware is phenomenal is his ability to affect either the rush or the coverage on any given passing play. Ware has good hands, runs quality routes and is quick to turn upfield and become a runner. Even when not tasked with going out on a route, Ware is a good blocker that understands his assignments and blitz pickups. He does a great job of punishing speed rushers around the edge who aren’t anticipating a chip, and often knocks much larger pass rushers off their path — if not outright flatten them.

Worst traits: Ware’s lack of flexibility in his hips was noticeable against the Raiders — most notably when running outside-zone plays from the shotgun. He looked labored when he was aiming to the sideline and needed to flip his hips upfield with a one-step cut, and often his momentum in these situations carried him beyond the hole he needed to hit. Once his hips are squared to the end zone, he becomes a more fluid runner that even shows some elusiveness, but the hard cuts that are needed for a major change of direction or lateral cuts through gaps are something he struggles with.

Ware also doesn’t have the most explosive burst for a running back in Andy Reid’s system — even going back to Reid’s years in Philadelphia. It could be that he still working back from last season’s injury — or it could still be about his comfort level with the system — but Ware looked more explosive in 2015 than he did this past week. Even at his best, he’s not an extremely dynamic player, but there were a few runs (and more than a few yards) left on the table as he struggled to accelerate through the gap, sometimes plunging into it as if he was expecting contact rather than just bursting through.

Traits that can improve: Even when the blocking for some of these outside-zone runs was set up well for Ware, he was indecisive at the point of attack and struggled to get through the holes. It’s too early to simply chalk him up as a single gap runner — especially since he looks more comfortable when he does get his hips squared to the line of scrimmage — but the process to make the reads and react aren’t yet fast enough.

With a small sample size, it’s hard to tell if it’s a physical limitation with his burst and acceleration through the gap or a mental limitation that is preventing him from making the reads quickly and correctly — but it’s likely some combination of both. Ware will need to improve his process behind the line of scrimmage to continue to get these outside-zone carries.

It will be worth monitoring how often the Chiefs continue to run the same rushing attack. To start the year, the Chiefs were much more varied in their blocking scheme and running plays, but as they suffered injuries, they fell back into the same rushing attack they used in years past. There is a chance that Ware just isn’t the best fit for the constant read-pass option and outside-zone rushing attack utilized by the Chiefs with Kareem Hunt.

Damien Williams

Best traits: Williams possesses unique burst and acceleration from a standstill, which allows him to shoot through gaps and erase angles that defenders could have on him. Williams is the opposite of Ware in how he attacks the line of scrimmage on these runs. He presses the aiming point (outside of the offensive tackle) and then as soon as he sees a crease, he’s exploding through it. His natural burst and athleticism make him a dynamic player that can take full advantage of open space before the flowing players can close it down.

Similar to Ware, Williams is a very good running back on passing downs. As a blocker, he isn’t a huge hitter, but he understands where has to be and how to get there. The most impressive part of his blocking is his setup preparing for contact. A lot of running backs set up close to the quarterback, so when they get pushed back by a defender’s momentum, they end up forcing the quarterback to move even if they complete the block. Williams gets up as close to the offensive linemen as he can, so if he gives up any ground, he has space to re-anchor. He also caught both of his targets against Oakland — even when one was a little late and behind him — and looks natural as a pass catcher.

Worst traits: Due to the limited sample size, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be found in Williams’ game; it’s a bit more about projecting possible issues we may see in the future. The biggest one is a lack of patience — both behind the line of scrimmage and downfield.

Williams is very quick to attack the defense, and while you have to like the aggression, that might keep him from allowing blocks to develop fully. Over time, this could could ultimately lose yards. He only had five rushes against Oakland, and in all but one of them the hole was quite open — so you can’t blame him for taking it immediately — but there were a couple of times he got through a hole before the blockers could climb and seal.

The weakness that did rear its head was his one-on-one ability in the open field. Williams is a dynamic player — and he plays fast — but when you don’t have an advantageous position, there is more nuance in a one-on-one encounter in the NFL.

There are three main paths to beating a defender in a good position: 1) run through them with power; 2) make a single cut at full speed to improve your angle; or 3) decelerate and fake one direction before going the other. Williams kind of flirts with all three paths without committing to a single one. That allows a defender to become the aggressor and maintain good leverage at the contact point.

Trait that can improve: Reiterating that the small sample size makes this more of a projection, all of Williams’ runs were easy reads. All but one had a clear choice for which gap to take — and they presented early — so we need to see more to believe in his vision.

On the one run where his first two reads were close, he did a good job of decelerating to make the cut back to the middle of the field, and then pick his way through defenders. The issue with calling this good vision is that the first two reads were completely taken away, so there was no other option other than to try and bend the ball inside. Still, it was good to see, and gives hope that he does have acceptable (or even good) vision as a runner; we just need to see more examples to get an accurate read.

Darrel Williams

Darrel “Rel” Williams only played three snaps — all three of which were kneel-downs — but I want to touch on him real quickly because of the return of Charcandrick West to the Chiefs roster.

West was a pure third-down running back for the Chiefs last season, and he’s likely the third best on on this roster in that role. So he probably wasn’t brought in to take carries from Williams, but instead to play special teams and be a locker room presence — and of course, to be called upon in case of an emergency.

The Chiefs — and Andy Reid — have tripled down on Williams as being a player they like, and one they believe can contribute. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have kept him on the 53-man roster. The running back position doesn’t have a steep learning curve — and unlike Kahlil McKenzie, he’s not undergoing a position change. If the Chiefs thought he couldn’t play this year, they could have put him on the practice squad — and if another team claimed him, no big deal.

The fact that he’s been on the roster — and is still listed as the third running back — should lead us to think he’s going to play sooner rather than later. The most likely reason he didn’t see snaps against the Raiders is simply that he probably hasn’t yet had many snaps with the first team. All of this week’s practices were in the books by the time he could promoted to the active roster, and both Damien Williams and Spencer Ware have been getting first team snaps. So the next two games will give a much better indication of Williams’ skillset — and how the Chiefs will use him.

What’s happening next?

The running game was more productive than average against the Raiders, but seemed to lack some dynamic ability and sustainability. This season, the rushing attack has slowly transitioned from a combination of approaches — inside (and outside) zone, counter, and power — to almost pure outside zone. But Kareem Hunt was executing that rushing attack at an extremely high level. The current stable of running backs may not be best-suited to execute a predictable scheme at a high-enough level that it remains effective week in and week out.

But there are plenty of things for which we can be hopeful with this rushing attack. Perhaps the Chiefs can help alleviate some of our concerns — and give us more reason to be optimistic — this Sunday against the top-three defense of the Baltimore Ravens.

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