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Film review: How Isiah Pacheco has helped unlock the Chiefs’ running game

The film from Kansas City’s game against Los Angeles reveals how the rookie is shaking things up.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

For the first eight games of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs weren’t running the ball with consistent success.

The team ranked 14th in EPA (expected points added) per run, but 25th in success rate per run and 18th in yards per carry. Kansas City was employing a running-back-by-committee approach, rotating Isiah Pacheco, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon on a series-by-series basis.

While McKinnon was exclusively the team’s third-down running back, early-down snaps tended to be split between the three. Pacheco was averaging 4.5 yards per carry, Edwards-Helaire 4.4 and McKinnon 3.8. None of the three were succeeding on high volume, leaving the Chiefs without real answers at the position.

But over the last two games, things have changed. While McKinnon is still the main third-down back, Edwards-Helaire’s snaps have dropped to almost zero. He did get hurt on Sunday during the Chiefs’ 30-27 win over the Los Angeles Chargers — but the Week 10 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars was also a game where Edwards-Helaire’s snaps fell. His use has been trending downward ever since the Week 6 loss to the Buffalo Bills

On the other hand, Pacheco’s snaps have seen a substantial increase.

With that increase has come a heavier workload. Pacheco has run the ball 31 times over the past two games. That’s 41% of his carries this season. With this increased volume has come increased efficiency, with Pacheco increasing to 6.1 years per carry — a full 1.6 yards more than his first eight games.

What has led to these improvements? Let’s dive into the film.

Changing the angle on running plays

Since Pacheco has been in the lineup, the ways in which Kansas City runs the ball have changed. There have been fewer perimeter runs from shotgun — an approach that hasn’t been super successful. But that hasn;t been due to the run blocking. It’s just that the Chiefs’ running backs have lacked the vision, agility and speed to win on perimeter runs from shotgun.

So head coach Andy Reid has made some adjustments. While there are still plenty of zone runs, a lot more have come from under center. They’ve also deployed more Gap or Insert runs, which use more pulling blockers to get downhill.

Against Los Angeles on Sunday, Kansas City turned up the dial on under-center runs — and this helped Pacheco. For a running back, it’s easier to get downhill when the quarterback starts under center. You don’t have to run laterally as much and your angle is towards the line of scrimmage — rather than to the sideline.

This first play is a good example of that. The Chiefs are in shotgun, but they run a power play going right with Joe Thuney. The left guard pulls into the MIKE linebacker while Pacheco hits the A-gap directly after taking a delayed handoff. His footwork helps him get downhill. Instead of taking the handoff in a set position, he shifts one foot forward, which allows him more burst to get downhill.

Pacheco doesn’t have great agility — but this footwork lets him get downhill more quickly.

The Chiefs don’t run a lot of downhill runs out of shotgun — but since Pacheco has been in, they’ve increased these runs, which puts Pacheco in a much better position to succeed with his particular gifts.

Here, the Chiefs get under center, running a counter windback. Right guard Trey Smith and tight end Travis Kelce are both pulling, while the rest of the linemen set a wall against the back side defenders. While Pacheco flashes good vision to bounce outside, this angle makes it easier for him to do. Instead of running laterally, he’s attacking outside from a downhill angle, which helps him miss more tackles and have better vision.

You don’t want Pacheco to stop his feet — so keeping him reading players while running toward the line of scrimmage helps him succeed. Reid deserves a lot of credit for adapting his run scheme on the fly, helping his offensive line — and Pacheco — to succeed.

Quick decisiveness and vision

It’s not all scheme, though. Over the past two games, Pacheco’s vision is significantly better than it was at the start of the year. While changing the angle has helped, Pacheco is also reading things better.

On this play, the Chiefs are running G-T Counter Left. The Chargers fit the run well on the front side, but left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and Thuney dominate their combo block on the Chargers’ 4i-technique lineman. Pacheco sees this, so he turns upfield to attack the front side A-gap for a 28-yard run.

Earlier in the year, Pacheco would’ve run right into traffic. But now, he’s doing a better job reading plays on the back side of runs — which has helped him earn more yards.

This is another G-T Counter run — but this time, Pacheco bounces it outside. Los Angeles again fits the run well, with the MIKE linebacker blowing up the hole by inserting as the lever in the run fit — that is, as the front side linebacker into the hole. The defensive end also crashes inside to eliminate the hole. But Pacheco sees all this traffic and bounces to the perimeter. It’s an easy read for him, but the speed and decisiveness he displays to get outside helps spring the play open.

Perimeter speed

The main difference between Pacheco and other running backs is his speed. He ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at Rutgers — compared to Edwards-Helaire’s 4.60 40 time. McKinnon did run a 4.41 — but that was nine years ago; his speed has declined some.

When the Chiefs call these perimeter running plays, the main difference isn’t the run blocking — which has actually been terrific all season. Instead, it’s that Pacheco now has the juice to hit these runs all the way to the front side.

This outside zone play is a microcosm of it. Going under center more has helped give Pacheco better angles to get downhill — but on this play, he strings his run all the way to the sideline. Brown and Kelce’s blocks don’t let the Chargers set the edge, but Pacheco’s acceleration into space allows him to attack the angle aggressively.

Since Damien Williams left, Kansas City hasn’t had a running back who could hit outside the tackle on these kinds of plays — and while Reid has deployed a lot more gap and insert runs this year, he still likes to emphasize zone blocking. While some fans have complained about that, the blocking on zone runs has nonetheless been good. The problem has been that the team’s running backs couldn't hit the outside — but with Pacheco on the field, zone runs are back in style.

The bottom line

After the Week 9 game against the Tennessee Titans game, I was pretty low on Pacheco. While I appreciated his value as a seventh-round pick, I wasn’t sold on him as a starting running back in the Kansas City offense. If the last two weeks are any indication, I was wrong.

Some of the difference is an improved scheme; Reid changing his run calls to use more pullers to get downhill has definitely helped. We have also seen fewer outside zone runs out of shotgun, instead opting for more under-center and gap runs.

For two years, we’ve all been complaining about the Chiefs’ run calls. Reid seems to have finally adapted to what his players do best — and that’s showing up on the field.

But there’s also part of it that’s about Pacheco. Now that Reid has a running back with both juice and vision, the runs are simply starting to work more often. Edwards-Helaire and McKinnon struggle while trying to bounce something outside, so it’s difficult for them to hit outside lanes. Thanks to his speed, Pacheco doesn’t have those issues — but he also displays better vision than either of them.

Over the first eight games, Reid seemed to be giving each running back an opportunity to stand out — and while it took a long time, it seems that Pacheco is finally the answer the Chiefs have been seeking. In January, establishing the run game will be essential to the team’s postseason success — and if Pacheco (and Reid) keep it up, it will be very difficult to stop the Kansas City offense.

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