There has been some outcry about the Kansas City Chiefs’ running game. Through eight games, the team has gained just 664 yards on the ground — 25th in the league — on 170 attempts. That’s an average of just 3.9 yards per attempt, which ranks 20th in the league.
While the most common explanation for this lack of production is the multiple injuries along the Chiefs offensive line, some blame has been placed the team’s running backs.
Currently, the Chiefs rotate LeSean McCoy, Damien Williams and Darrel Williams at the position. Their success has been hit or miss. Individually, none of them are true feature running backs, but they all have specific strengths — strengths, that if used properly, should help them succeed.
Let’s look at the running back group to see how each player is succeeding — and if that aligns with the way they are being used. We’ll always be able to find specific plays in which another back might have been preferred, but the bigger picture is making sure all three are consistently being put into situations where their skill sets can shine.
McCoy has become the lead running back on early downs simply because he’s the best runner on the roster. He has the best combination of vision and patience — which allows him to maximize each run attempt.
McCoy also has excellent vision that allows him to maximize every run far more consistently than the other RBs. It helps that he has the feet to reach any hole and the patience to allow them to open up.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 31, 2019
His ability to press the LoS then find a lane to cut into is still top tier. pic.twitter.com/caZ2Y1mX14
Every zone run has an aiming point for the running back. The goal is to press into that specific gap, and then to read the gaps and defenders as the play progresses.
McCoy does an excellent job of pressing the line of scrimmage at the aiming point for as long as possible before committing — and then finding the best possible rushing lane. His feet and ability to change direction make it possible for him to hit any gap that opens.
Despite being the smallest of the group, McCoy does the best job of churning out positive yardage by finding the correct gap — and knowing when to simply follow a blocker or jump into a new gap.
Chiefs RB room is crowded and trying to split up the usage. Each seems to have their strengths and weaknesses.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 31, 2019
LeSean McCoy is the best natural runner and has the elusiveness and quick feet to navigate behind an OL that doesn't always generate a huge push. pic.twitter.com/gSzxn6Jfu7
McCoy’s body control and balance also allow him to excel as a runner.
Here, he doesn’t pass up a good gap to see if a better one opens. Instead, he makes the decision to shoot through it immediately. Unfortunately, the gap begins to close quickly, but his burst and quick feet allow him to skip over the trash and keep his speed.
Whether a play develops quickly or slowly — or whether the blocking is good or bad — McCoy gives the Chiefs the best option to execute a run, while also bringing in the most consistent chunk plays.
But McCoy has downsides, too.
The most obvious one is the fumbling. Two McCoy fumbles have resulted in major momentum swings in games that eventually became losses. Before arriving in Kansas City, McCoy fumbled once every 128 touches — which isn’t great. But this season, he’s had a fumble once every 44 touches — nearly three times more often.
His other big weaknesses have been playbook retention and protection calls. In two-minute drills and third downs early in the year, he was often pulled off the field — despite the fact he is a dangerous receiver.
Williams was supposed to be the featured back this season, but injuries set him back early in the year. As he’s returned to full health, he has earned a major role with the team, providing the dynamic, home-run threat the team had needed.
Damien Williams has the biggest homerun threat with his top end speed and explosion. His ability to turn upfield and explode through space is great and he does a good job of transferring that speed into power.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 31, 2019
Williams isn't a power back but does a good job falling forward often pic.twitter.com/dofA6tb44G
Everyone knows that Williams has good explosiveness and top-end speed. But he doesn’t get enough credit for how he can turn that into power. Once he gets his hips flipped and gets going, he brings some pop to the point of contact that allows him to run through arm tackles.
A good blocker, he’s also proven to be an excellent receiving back who can operate as a pseudo-wide receiver when split out wide — and has the ability to turn short throws into big gains.
Williams vision and lateral agility aren't his strength and likely what's stopped him from taking a full time starting job. His homerun ability and prowess in the passing game are highly coveted but the inconsistencies as a runner at the LoS may keep him as a rotational piece. pic.twitter.com/V5z5bWQGbl— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 31, 2019
The biggest concern with Williams as a feature back is how often he leaves running plays on the field. Inconsistent vision — combined with a lack of patience — too often get him running into a lot of bodies. He’s at his best when planting his foot in the ground and making one precise cut upfield — but doesn’t always see the best hole in which to do it. He’s also a very linear athlete with stiff hips that help keep him from consistently excelling on slower-developing runs.
The other Williams has become almost exclusively a third-down back; the Chiefs trust him not only as a receiver but also for his ability as a pass protector. As McCoy has caught on to the playbook — and Damien Williams returned from injury — Darrel Williams has seen almost all of his snaps in passing situations.
The third RB to get significant snaps is Darrel Williams and strangely enough, the biggest, most powerful RB has been the most effective downfield receiver. Williams has always been extremely natural hands and looks comfortable tracking the ball in space. pic.twitter.com/nJBqmUJdva— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 31, 2019
The thing about Williams — a big, powerful back — is that he’s good in those situations. He’s always had natural hands, but since joining the Chiefs, we have him improve in tracking the football vertically. He’s made plays up the seam, up the sideline and underneath — where he becomes a tall task to tackle in the open field.
Since Damien Williams has returned from injury, Darrel Williams hasn't gotten much work as a runner but I wouldn't be surprised if that changes soon.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 31, 2019
Williams, along with being the best power runner, has quality vision and good body control for a bigger back. pic.twitter.com/sAaet1IO07
As a runner, Williams has quality vision and body control that allows him to angle his way through some gaps power runners don’t usually try to use. He isn’t the cleanest or quickest through them, but his feet are quick enough — and he has the flexibility to make all necessary cuts to the back side of a running play.
Where Williams has the most trouble is simply his lack of pure acceleration; his start and stop speed isn’t near the level of either McCoy or Damien Williams. Some of the runs the Chiefs like to use — especially their RPO looks — don’t allow the back to get any momentum at the hand-off point. It’s evident that Williams is playing catch-up from there.
Williams could also benefit from learning to alter his pad level at contact — something at which Kareem Hunt is excellent. Hunt can lower his shoulders and angle his body, forcing tacklers to slide off when they attack his legs. Williams needs to do better at reducing his contact area so he isn’t chopped down so often.
The bottom line
Do the Chiefs need a feature running back? Are they missing out on some level of production with their running-back-by-committee approach? Are the running backs now on the roster good enough, or does the team need improvement at the position?
It seems pretty clear that this group of players is talented — and capable of excelling in their roles — but none of them are complete backs. So the biggest issue is how to use each one — without feeling like another player could have executed a particular play better.
McCoy is clearly the best runner — competent in all three phases — but can the Chiefs afford to deal with his questionable ball security issues to get the extra production?
Darrel Williams seems to be the second-best pure runner and is excellent on third downs, but his running style (combined with the Chiefs below-average run blocking) tends to lead to a lot of short runs.
Damien Williams provides the biggest home-run threat — but leaves so many plays on the field that at some point, it’s going to be hard to justify giving him too many snaps.
At the end of the day, the Chiefs are in a hard position: trusting their best and most complete running back despite ball security issues, or instead, getting less consistency in production — but better ball security.
The hope has to be that McCoy returns to his career average in fumble rate. Then the Chiefs can likely live with his less-than-ideal habits as a runner. But if the ball continues to pop out as frequently as it has, the best of the bunch may find himself riding the pine.