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What Isiah Pacheco starting can mean for Chiefs offense

The Chiefs will reportedly give the rookie running back his first career start on Sunday against the 49ers.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

With one game to go before their bye week, the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t wait for the extended break to make a change to their starting lineup.

On Sunday morning, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport broke the news that the Chiefs are planning to start rookie running back Isiah Pacheco on Sunday afternoon against the San Francisco 49ers. Rapoport reports that Pacheco has taken the first-team repetitions in practice all week.

This move may be a way to spark the Chiefs’ running game — which has been too lackluster at times this season. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been the primary back this season, averaging 4.3 yards per rush; the veteran Jerick McKinnon has averaged a flat 4 yards per carry.

In a smaller sample size than Edwards-Helaire, Pacheco has averaged 4.8 yards per carry — but there’s more to it than just the raw numbers.

Outside of garbage time in Week 1, the most opportunity Pacheco has seen this season came in the Week 4 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He turned 11 carries into 63 yards; seven of those attempts gained at least six yards. The unique part about that game was how often it seemed that Kansas City got those chunk runs starting from under center.

61% of Pacheco’s carries have come from an under-center formation for the season. For comparison, 29% of Edwards-Helaire’s carries have come from under center — and a similar rate applies to McKinnon’s attempts.

This would lead me to believe that the Chiefs made this move to run more of these traditional run schemes from under center, power runs that ask the offensive linemen to fire out and drive defenders away from a gap — or pull around to blast a linebacker in space.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Edwards-Helaire is probably at his best when they let him get downhill on these runs, but his explosion and straight-ahead speed still doesn’t match what Pacheco — who ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last offseason — can bring to the table. The gap runs are designed to blow open a specific hole, and Pacheco could maximize the yards gained on that play more than Edwards-Helaire.

Even when they stick to their base runs like inside and outside zone, Pacheco’s ability to make a speed cut and get downhill can take advantage of an over-pursuing defense; Edwards-Helaire simply doesn’t have that same explosion to the cutback lane.

On top of all that, giving Pacheco the starting role can give him the benefits of light boxes that Edwards-Helaire and McKinnon see from opposing defenses. When Pacheco’s been in, defenses have responded with eight-man boxes more often — knowing Kansas City wants to run with him.

If he’s just part of the normal game plan, they either can’t rely on staying in those eight-man boxes — or they will, allowing the Chiefs’ pass offense to take advantage.

The bottom line

Pacheco earning the start doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to play a vast majority of the snaps. In my opinion, it means he’ll be the first one on the field to get a chance to establish a rhythm — but if the game script doesn’t go as planned, they might still have to lean on the receiving abilities of the other two backs.

What the move does indicate is the Chiefs’ offense knowing it needs more from the ground game and trusting that Pacheco’s individual talent is the best way to maximize their run schemes. It’ll be put to a difficult first test with a stout 49ers defense, but the coaches are obviously ready to try something new.

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