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.
(Look at Watson's block first)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2022
I understand the run blocking was at an absurd level Sunday (seriously this OL is amazing), but I love seeing the diet of runs Pacheco gets. Reid dialing up more downhill runs for Pacheco, his burst running straight is such a needed asset pic.twitter.com/hMt1VbtwwF
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.
(Pretending to not see that insane crackback penalty)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2022
Love the counter play all the way backside on the wind back, but again Pacheco's vision here was impressive. Sees DT get free in A gap, able to bounce wide for 10
KC ran way more UC this week, making downhill angles easier pic.twitter.com/RsoouMrHmS
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.
OBJ and Thuney's double on the 4i is legitimately impressive, but I also love seeing Pacheco quickly work back to that gap. CB and S do well to fill space, but Pacheco quickly reads the frontside hole and puts foot down to accelerate— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2022
The angles of this vs OZ is easier for him pic.twitter.com/t7eAFXpNPi
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.
Start of the 2nd half with an explosive run, this play is well-blocked to get outside with G-T Counter, but again the vision to bounce outside, and also love the angles Pacheco takes here. He's not going to make you miss with a juke but the explosive speed is there pic.twitter.com/sT3A2ud0eg— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2022
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.
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.
First things first, watch this run blocking on OZ. Mercy— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2022
But also, when was the last time we had an RB with the speed to hit all the way outside on OZ. CEH and Jerick aren't hitting this. Damien Williams?
The decisiveness and speed at which Pacheco hits this is awesome pic.twitter.com/O1poDdpOzb
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.
Watch these three clips. Tell me what's the difference between the three— Nate Christensen (@natech32) November 22, 2022
Then look at the snap counts (yes, I know CEH got hurt, but look at last week) pic.twitter.com/4GwYTW1B1l
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.