Sunday afternoon presented us with what we thought might be an early "game of the year" candidate, as the 4-1 Buffalo Bills visited the 4-1 Kansas City Chiefs. Josh Allen against Patrick Mahomes.
Who is the best team in the NFL? Who is the best quarterback in the NFL?
These were just a couple of the questions that fans and analysts have debated all season long, and they will most likely continue to discuss them despite the Bills outlasting the Chiefs, 20-24.
Allen and Mahomes both had great moments in the game. Allen ended with 329 passing yards and three touchdowns. He added 32 rushing yards and lost a fumble on what looked like a miscommunication. Mahomes finished with 338 yards passing and two touchdowns but had two interceptions — and the second one on the final drive ended the game. He also added 21 yards on the ground.
The amount of pass plays comes as no surprise. We know these offenses sit at the top of the league because of the fantastic arm talent of both quarterbacks. However, watching the game, you could see the vast difference in the rushing attack of both teams. The Bills ended the game with 31 attempts for 125 yards, whereas the Chiefs only attempted 18 runs for only 68 yards.
A lack of a significant run threat is a consistent problem for the Chiefs. We all know that as long as Mahomes is the quarterback, the Chiefs will never be a run-first team, and they shouldn't be, but bringing a little more balance to the offensive could really help Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense and give more rest to the defense.
Since the exit of Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs have mainly used a running back by committee. Most expected that committee to come to an end when the Chiefs drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round back in 2020. But, in his third year, Edwards-Helaire hasn't turned out to be what any of us has expected in either the run game or the passing game.
The Chiefs did little to address the running back position this offseason. They brought back Edwards-Helaire and veteran Jerick McKinnon, signed free agent running back Ronald Jones (who has yet to be active on any gameday) and drafted Isiah Pacheco in the seventh round out of Rutgers.
Coming into this season, I expected the rushing attack to take a step forward — mainly because I feel the Chiefs' offensive line (and especially the interior) is built to run the ball.
Six games in, the Chiefs' run game has actually taken a step backward. In 2021, at this time, the Chiefs had 154 attempts for 750 yards. In 2022, they are sitting at 146 attempts for 639 yards. Each running back on the Chiefs roster has things they do well and things that limit them from being a dominant, every-down back. As a group, Edwards-Helaire, McKinnon and Pacheco average 4.3 yards per attempt. While that is not groundbreaking, it can get the job done.
So have the Chiefs been so inconsistent with the run?
Like most positions in any sport, NFL players like to get into a rhythm. When you have a running back-by-committee approach, it's difficult for any single back to find his stride in a game; a couple of good runs, and the back goes to the sideline to stand for a while. There were a couple of bad runs, and the back wonders if he will get another touch that day.
Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy admitted that he would ride the hot hand last week.
"It's always good when you have a good group of football players that love and respect each other because they understand, 'Hey, he just made a play. Let's keep riding with him and see exactly what unfolds,'" said Bieniemy. "It was fun to watch. But on top of that, we also know [that] next week or this particular week, it could be Clyde, Pacheco, it could be [Michael] Burt(on), it could be Pat making plays with his legs. It could be Mecole [Hardman], so next man up."
The problem with this is that sometimes, it's difficult to determine the "hot hand" when every back is getting limited touches. Rhythm is also important for offensive linemen. Most offensive linemen will tell you they prefer run blocking over pass blocking. It gives them the chance to bring attitude, to attack the man in front of them and to be the aggressor.
With the likes of Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith along the interior, the Chiefs should be looking to establish the run early and call plays that can set the tone of the game and make the defense respect the run against them.
This is a passing league and will continue to be that. But being able to run the ball in the NFL is still important to finding success in this league. With practically an all-new wide receiver room that is noticeably still building chemistry with Mahomes, the thought might be that the coaches would lean more on where they have some pre-built chemistry, and that is the offensive line. Teams are consistently playing light in the box against the Chiefs. Their main focus is stopping the big play.
Despite those light boxes, head coach Andy Reid and Bieniemy still shy away from calling consistent run plays. I get you to want the ball in Mahomes' hands as much as possible but think of the type of game he might have if the defense had to fear the run even a little bit.
If you take away scramble runs from Mahomes and the one or two handoffs to wide receivers per game, the Chiefs have only had two out of the first six games with more than 20 rushing attempts. Those were the games against the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Those two games are the only games in which the Chiefs scored over 40 points. Those games also were the only games in which at least one running back on the Chiefs saw double-digit carries.
No one doubts Mahomes' ability to handle the pressure of the game. He has proven that time and time again. But more runs plays could help lighten that burden and open things up for his passing game.
As stated earlier, each back on the Chiefs is very different.
Do the coaches truly trust what they have in each running back?
Edwards-Helaire is quick in small areas but lacks the speed to often turn the corner on stretch plays and outside zone runs. While praised for his ability to run the full route tree out of the backfield and his vision coming out of college, we have yet to see that come to fruition in the NFL. His low center of gravity sometimes makes him hard to tackle, but that hasn't resulted in many big plays in his career, at least yet. He also has not been the greatest in blitz pickup, which gets him taken off the field on third down.
McKinnon is the veteran out of the group and seems to have a lot of good traits that come with experience. He shows good vision and finds cutback lanes in space. He is a patient runner that has good agility. He catches the ball well and does well in pass protection, leading to a third-down role for the Chiefs. He struggles most in short-yard situations and does not move the pile well. Despite a big, game-changing run against the Raiders, he does consistently get a lot of yards after contact.
Pacheco does many things that make you think he can be a three-down back in the NFL. He has good contact balance, power and physicality. He's mostly a one-cut style runner and quickly gets downhill. In limited snaps, he seems to be a willing pass protector showing the proper awareness to find the blitzer and pick it up. He appears to do a lot of good things but nothing dynamic enough to hand over the keys entirely; it's still early, and given enough touches, he could be the guy.
The bottom line
It's hard to take the ball out of the hands of the best quarterback in the game.
But if the Chiefs want a more consistent Mahomes, I argue they need a more consistent rushing attack. Teams are practically daring the Chiefs to run the ball. I think the coaches need to pick a guy and ride with him so that he can get in the flow of the game.
In my opinion, that guy needs to be Pacheco, with McKinnon replacing him here and there. Call run plays early and often to establish an attitude within the offensive line and call the plays that fit the skill set of Pacheco.
If the Chiefs don't trust Pacheco, McKinnon or Edwards-Helaire has the right skill set to deliver consistently, then it's time for general manager Brett Veach to go and get that guy.