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The Mailbag: running the ball, freaking out and special-teams flags

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What’s on the minds of our readers in Week 6? Let’s find out.

Divisional Round - Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Welcome to Dixon’s Arrowhead Pride Mailbag, where I’ll do my best to answer your questions about the Kansas City Chiefs — and anything else that’s on your mind. If you have a question, you can hit my profile page to E-mail me, or ask me on Twitter.

While you’re at it, please follow me on Twitter, too.

What do you make of the offensive play calling — specifically after the McCoy fumble? It seemed like we stopped running the ball and just tried to throw the ball like we were down 14.

— Dakota

Can we start running the ball more? Becoming too predictable.

— Adam

What’s the biggest mistake we made this week?

— Hedgy

Thanks for all these questions — which are essentially some form of “Why didn’t the Chiefs run the damn ball against the Indianapolis Colts?”

I’m with Ethan Douglas on this one. Ethan’s terrific article in these pages about time of possession was spot-on. If you’ve been reading Ethan’s Stacking the Box Score series — and if you haven’t been, you should catch up — you’ve also learned that in the modern NFL, running the ball is the least-effective way to put points on the board.

So why do it?

It’s obviously a sound strategy when it’s late in the game and you have the lead. But elsewhere, it’s necessary to run often (and effectively) enough to keep the defense honest — that is, to improve the efficiency of the passing game.

With a spectacular offense (and a poor defense) in 2018, the Chiefs generally depended on getting an early lead — and then maintaining it throughout the game. So if I had to guess, I would say that Andy Reid is still operating with that mindset: the most important thing at any given moment is to be sure that the Chiefs have a significant lead. That means depending on big plays generated by Patrick Mahomes and his receivers.

But the Chiefs defense is steadily improving. Say what you will about the Chiefs run defense; there’s no doubt that it is bad right now. But as the team showed on Sunday, even when everything was going sideways, the defense still managed to hold a team that held the ball for very nearly a full quarter longer than the Chiefs to just 19 points.

The Chiefs are going to win the vast majority of games where that happens.

Just like we had to get used to the idea that once Patrick Mahomes was the Chiefs’ quarterback, Kansas City always has a chance come back to win, I think Reid needs to get used to the idea that in most games, he can lean on his defense a little more; it isn’t necessary to swing for the fences every single time.

A little more of the running game will give the passing game a better chance to succeed — and perhaps more importantly, help to prevent opposing defenses from pinning their ears back and going after Mahomes on almost every down.

Do you think fans need to relax or freak out when looking the upcoming schedule with all these injuries? I know we may lose a couple of games until starters get healthy, but we own the AFC West. Times yours...

— Troy

That’s a good question, Troy. Appreciate it.

I’m going to go with relax.

It’s certainly true that the team is facing a lot of injuries right now. Could the Chiefs drop a few games during the next 4-6 weeks while injured players recover? They sure could. It could get ugly really fast.

I just don’t see any reason to focus on that — at least not yet. The Colts totally outplayed the Chiefs on Sunday night, perfectly executing an excellent game plan that the Chiefs had clearly not anticipated.

But that’s not going to happen every week. Besides... even in that circumstance — and with everything else that went wrong — the Chiefs were still in a position to win the game right until the end.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Chiefs would have been blown out of the water in such a game.

Yes... the Chiefs could lose some games in the coming weeks while they fight through this adversity; it’s not unreasonable to think they could be something between 8-3 and 6-5 when they hit the bye in Week 12. But from there, it’s not that hard to see a path to the playoffs — and with the right victories along the way, a path to a high seed.

But let’s worry about that when (and if) it happens. Until proven otherwise, the Chiefs are the three-time AFC West champions led by the NFL MVP — not to mention a coach who just a few years ago took his 1-5 team to the playoffs with 10 straight wins.

Is it just me, or do the Chiefs seem to get called for a huge number of illegal block in the back penalties on punts? Do you have any statistics on how often the Chiefs get called for that infraction — compared to other teams in the league?

— Jacob

That’s a great question, Jacob. Thank you.

Here’s the first thing to understand about this particular penalty: across the league, it’s called fairly frequently. In 2018, it was called 0.70 times per game — the sixth-most of any penalty. For comparison, offensive holding was called most frequently at 2.73 calls per game; false start was second at 2.19.

You’re right: it generally happens on kicks and punts. But this is for a simple reason: after the kick, players from both teams (especially on punts) are running downfield in the same direction; it’s just a lot more likely for the penalty to be called in that circumstance.

And yes... the Chiefs are flagged for it frequently. In 2018, the team was hit with the penalty 0.56 times per game — third-most in the league.

But before you get out your pitchfork, you should also know that in 2018, it was called against Chiefs’ opponents almost as frequently: 0.50 times per game, which was fourth-most in the league. That’s 1.06 block-in-the-back penalties in every game, which was the most in the league.

It should be noted, however, that eight teams — a quarter of the league — had a total rate of at least 0.94.

Until I researched this question, I knew the Chiefs were frequently called for the penalty. But I didn’t know that the team’s opponents were called nearly as frequently. (This, by the way, is a terrific example of something I addressed in last week’s mailbag: how easy it is to get the wrong idea about what happens on a football field if you don’t consult the stats).

My own long-held theory is that while blocking downfield, Chiefs special teams players are coached to operate in the gray areas of the rules — which means that sometimes they’ll give up some yards when the refs see them step over the line. Just like a veteran cornerback who will draw a pass interference penalty rather than allowing a long touchdown, giving up those yards is a relatively small price to pay to help ensure the unit has a chance for (or doesn’t give up) a return touchdown.

To me, learning that the flag is thrown almost as often against the Chiefs’ opponents only serves to reinforce the theory. Other special teams coaches look at the film. They have to know the Chiefs will operate in the gray areas. They tell their players that when they play the Chiefs, they need to give as good as they get.

So when the Chiefs are called for an illegal block in the back, remember that since special team coordinator Dave Toub’s arrival, the Chiefs are one of only two teams that has not allowed a single kick or punt return touchdown. Meanwhile, the team has scored 11 of them. That plus-11 differential is best in the league — and it isn’t even close. No other team has a differential greater than six.

For Toub, those penalties are just the cost of doing business.