One of the prevailing storylines from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 20-17 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans was how weird the game seemed to be. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes racked up over 500 yards of offense by himself — but even so, the team had to scratch and claw to a three-point victory.
But Mahomes had to carry the Chiefs’ offense on his back because the running game was nonexistent. Kansas City’s running backs were given 12 carries and turned them into 14 yards. Three of the backfield’s first four carries were stuffed for no gain — and in the entire game, none of the backs had a rush that earned more than three yards.
In a season that has featured multiple unimpressive performances on the ground, this one might have been the ugliest. So it came to be that during his Thursday press appearance, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was asked how the team could improve its sputtering ground attack.
“We have to run it,” Bieniemy asserted to reporters. “We have to invest in it — meaning that we can’t just run it a few times and expect success.”
Sunday’s 12 carries were the fewest for any game this season — barely edging out a few contests with 13 or 14 attempts from the backfield. Those games produced much more yardage than the Titans’ game did — but still, Bieniemy believes a low-volume attack hurts the overall impact the running game could have.
“It’s just like when you’re pounding concrete and you’re using that hammer,” suggested Bieniemy. “It’s not going to break the first few times you utilize it. It’s going to take a while.
“So we need to find out if we can run it — but on top of that, we have to consistently invest in it. So I have to do a better job — as a staff we have to do a better job. That way, we’re giving our guys up front (and those backs) an opportunity to make it happen.”
The Chiefs have tried a lineup change, promoting rookie running back Isiah Pacheco to be a starter prior to the San Francisco 49ers game. While his snaps went up, his effectiveness didn’t; he’s averaged 3.7 yards per carry over the last two games. Before getting the starting nod, he was averaging 4.8 yards per rush.
Nor could the Chiefs use an absence along the offensive line as an excuse. While the starting five have remained together, the group has definitely been volatile. Against the Titans, right guard Trey Smith — historically a strong run blocker — missed his assignment on multiple running plays, allowing them to be blown up.
The lack of effectiveness is only making things harder on the passing game — and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. That’s just what wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster pointed out to reporters on Thursday.
“For us, it’s being able to get the run game going,” said Smith-Schuster, addressing what it might take to improve the passing attack. “When you throw the ball 68 times, it puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line (and Pat) to make those plays. Once you get a nice run game going, it’s hand in hand; it opens up those deep passes. You can see [in] the 49ers game, we had a couple of big runs that set up deep passes.”
A more impactful running game can absolutely help Kansas City’s passing game, which is the team’s most important offensive asset. But Bieniemy’s solution — to just hand off the ball more often — isn’t the answer.
The Chiefs’ passing game is far too efficient to settle for a higher volume of... well... getting nowhere by ramming a running back’s head into a wall. That’s exactly why the team abandoned the run against Tennessee: the way it ground game was operating, an incompletion — or even a sack — might have been as valuable as a running play; with those, at least Mahomes would have had a chance to make a play.
The running game itself doesn’t need more volume — but it might be that an individual player does need more opportunities. In only three games this season has an individual Kansas City running back earned double-digit carries. Each time, it’s been in a blowout — where those statistics are inflated during garbage time.
A longer runway for one particular back to get going makes sense, too. But that’s different from blindly increasing the carries for the entire backfield. Compared to most offenses, the team already gets plenty of favorable run looks from opposing defense — simply because of the Chiefs’ dangerous passing attack. The offense is designed for the running game to have limited opportunities — but those are supposed to come against light boxes.
Right now, the team is not taking those opportunities. There are members of the backfield, offensive line and coaching staff who can share the blame for that. The execution must improve. That, however, is not going to happen simply because the team is running the ball more often — even if that’s what the team’s play-caller tells us.