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Film review: Jerick McKinnon proves ready to be Chiefs’ lead running back throughout playoffs

In a surprising development, the veteran running back is becoming a pivotal piece for Kansas City’s offense.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon logged just 61 total rushing yards, 107 receiving yards and a single touchdown in 13 regular-season games. "Jet" McKinnon was set back by injuries and buried low on the depth chart largely because of it — the story of his career, at least lately.

What some Chiefs fans may not yet realize is that the 29-year-old offensive weapon had an excellent beginning to his career as a Minnesota Viking from 2014-17, and it led him to sign a 4-year, $30 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers prior to the 2018 season. McKinnon was poised to become a big-name running back in the NFL. Unfortunately, knee injuries stunted his development tremendously, and he didn't play a regular-season game for the 49ers until the 2020 season as a result.

Signed by the Chiefs this past offseason, it was expected that McKinnon would have a small-yet-helpful role within the offense. However, up until Week 18, it was essentially no role. Late-season and playoff injuries have changed that — and now McKinnon is getting the opportunity to put together quite a redemption story in Kansas City. With 142 all-purpose yards — 61 rushing, 81 receiving — and a touchdown, McKinnon gave Chiefs fans flashbacks of 2018-19 playoff hero Damien Williams on Sunday.

We will now take a look at the film from Sunday night's game to show why McKinnon is officially the player the Chiefs should be letting take the majority of the running back snaps this postseason.

Creating additional yardage

Every time I examine the play of a running back, I look to identify how well they create extra yardage on their own. When the play isn't blocked up perfectly, can they make a positive outcome out of the picture that has been presented? Can they turn a play that was blocked well enough to gain 3 yards into a 5-yard gain consistently?

Chiefs legend Jamaal Charles was the king of doing all this.

McKinnon displays the ability to do this at a level greater than any other running back currently on the roster. I don't think it is particularly close, either. Beyond merely possessing really good foot speed, there's a lateral quickness element to his game — "wiggle," if you will — that sets him apart further.

We are seeing a player who can do a variety of different things, from all kinds of formations, within several running play schemes — and make the most out of the blocking in front of him, which we know has been quite good by this point in the season.

As soon as this coming Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs' offense will continue to see conservative defenses that beg Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes to play it safe, running the football and taking underneath passes. They need the running game to take advantage of those light-box looks that teams such as Buffalo are absolutely going to provide.

This is exactly what happened during the 2020 regular-season game in Buffalo that saw the Chiefs rush for 245 total yards in a 26-17 win. McKinnon shows he can be part of that solution.

As to be expected, it wasn't perfect. But it's incredible that McKinnon didn't commit more errors given his lack of live game action this year.

The passing game

If you were watching the game Sunday night and felt like the Chiefs were executing their running back screen plays much more efficiently, your instincts were right. On designed running back screens alone, McKinnon caught 3 passes for 57 yards — almost 20 yards per screen play.

It's a beautiful thing when an offense can take full advantage of a freaky set of offensive linemen running downfield to block small defenders in space. The Chiefs have the big athletes to dominate this way with Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. They just need their backs to remain patient, allow the blocking angles to set up and then accelerate at the appropriate time with good speed.

We've mentioned the parallels between McKinnon and former Kansas City playoff hero Damien Williams, as even the way they are physically built is strikingly similar. I believe the greatest similarity can be seen in how they elevate the Chiefs' passing game. McKinnon is a little more patient to let blocks develop, and Williams probably had higher top-end speed, but they both are very dangerous out in space.

Again, McKinnon can maximize the scenarios presented to come up with explosive gains as a receiver.

Being a willing, capable pass blocker is also a requirement for Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy to trust a running back to stay on the field for much of a game, and McKinnon checks that box, too.

The running backs might not be relied on as much in pass protection this coming week, as Buffalo does not have a set of edge pass rushers quite like Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. That's clearly a positive for Kansas City.

The bottom line

Despite a returning Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams — both who have been hampered by recent injuries — McKinnon should take the lead role as the Chiefs' primary running back the rest of the way.

Does that mean 100% of the snaps? No.

They still need to rotate other backs, because having McKinnon healthy through the potentially deep playoff run would be a big boost. Players like Williams, Edwards-Helaire and Derrick Gore still hold value to the offense.

Sunday's matchup against the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium just might prove to be the team's toughest game the rest of the way, and Jerick McKinnon has a great opportunity to help push the Chiefs past this significant hurdle.

If he can, he just might "run his way to immortality" alongside Chiefs' legend Damien Williams.

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