The NFL regular season is a long grueling marathon with ups, downs, twists and turns. Although the Kansas City Chiefs would beat the Houston Texans 30-24 in overtime, the mistakes made early in the game set the stage for a thrilling finish.
Two of these critical mistakes were made by rookie Isiah Pacheco: derailing drives and leading to Houston touchdowns when their offense would go back on the field.
The first mistake came in pass protection, resulting in Patrick Mahomes taking a sack.
Half slide right protection for KC. 93 crosses 52's face so 62 picks up the 4i and washes him down. 57 takes the wide man. 10 Whiffs on 58 who came from a slight delay from depth right behind 52. 10 was looking for the wide rusher, and 58 accelerates past. Big hit on 15. pic.twitter.com/DSZ3qTPRtX— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
Pacheco did not see the blitz coming as he approached the B-gap (the gap between the guard and tackle), and Mahomes paid the price. The sack put the Chiefs behind the sticks early, and the drive ended before it even began. The Texans would go down to score on the next possession.
Two drives later, with the game tied, the rookie running back would make another critical error.
Pacheco's fumble. Not very well blocked, but with the Texans' DL pursuing upfield, a little space opens up on the left. 10 doesn't see it and 77 is beaten across his face. The contact is made and the ball comes loose. A big turning point in the game. Ball security is #1. pic.twitter.com/MiHVfaZVIy— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
The blocking on this play was horrendous, but so was the ball security. The Texans would take over at the 22-yard line and punch in a touchdown two plays later.
Last week, the Chiefs called on Pacheco to ice the game; this week, he was relegated to the bench to end the first half.
The Chiefs would go to the veteran back Jerick McKinnon. Picking back up where he left off a week ago, he displayed his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, run with patience, protect Mahomes — and a knack for making clutch plays.
McKinnon has become the Chiefs' defacto third down back in large part because he has shown that he is a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield. For the last two weeks, McKinnon has had a whopping 182 receiving yards with three touchdowns.
Orbit motion from 19 draws attention early. 11 clears space with the vertical route. 83 inserts back into the LOS drawing attention away from the right flat. 1 release's on a delay after the run action but it's all green in front of him. Great effort by 87 to cut off the LB. pic.twitter.com/Rl3PudFPFk— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
The offense is a lot for most secondaries and linebackers to handle. The array of formations and routes on any given play can be a handful to keep track of, and this is where McKinnon has thrived. The defense can take away the rest of the field, but Mahomes has been comfortable enough throwing McKinnon the ball on check-downs and hot routes (short passes near the line of scrimmage designed for an easy completion) that it has been an effective way for the Chiefs to move the ball down the field.
McKinnon also has a natural sense of timing and has been an excellent fit for what Kansas City wants to do in the screen game.
The timing on this play is impeccable. McKinnon catches the ball but waits for Smith to make his block before cutting and accelerating. He lets Thuney set up a block and fights through contact to finish the play. This year has been some of Andy's finest screen work yet. pic.twitter.com/lVlqOpIZ4k— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
McKinnon also helps his case by making good moves and correct cuts in the space. He has a good feeling about when to go and when to look for extra yards.
Another reason why McKinnon became the third down back was his ability to protect the passer. After Pacheco gave up the early sack, it didn’t take the offense long to incorporate McKinnon in the protection scheme.
Full slide right protection for KC. McKinnon is responsible for anyone off the edge on the left. He comes in under control, squares up the rusher, then goes in at hip level to chop him down inside the tackle box. Mahomes comfortably scrambles up the field when no WR's come open. pic.twitter.com/5A7WMj5Y0R— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
Pass blocking for a back requires skill and physicality, but more than anything, it requires an attitude. What McKinnon lacks in size, he makes up for with a mentality that has kept him in the league since 2014.
Sprint out TD. McKinnon is responsible for chopping down the pay-side edge rusher. He comes in under control in the tackle box going in at waist level and sells out to give his QB a window to throw. Mahomes laces one to MVS for an acrobatic grab and a TD. pic.twitter.com/PmW6VPWeEA— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
Playing with a chip on his shoulder, he isn’t afraid to do the dirty work required for his teammates' success.
Patience and burst
While Pacheco has run like a bat out of hell the past few weeks, McKinnon has shown good patience and burst to his game. This combination of vision and acceleration out of his cuts has been a fantastic counterpunch to the bullish running style of the rookie.
Zone right & not much opens up to the play side. 1 cuts back to the opposite C gap. 57 works up to the LB crashing down to create space. 87 gets enough, and 1 stops on a dime accelerating through the hole for a nice gain. Great job reading blocks and letting the play develop. pic.twitter.com/j14MsDwwch— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
The Chiefs offensive line had another solid game run blocking. They moved the line of scrimmage all game and were fantastic at blocking up the second level. McKinnon took advantage of this, following his blocks all game and working in the backfield to help out his maulers up front. There were even some instances where he was able to help make his offensive line look good.
Odd developing zone look leads to some penetration on the play side. McKinnon has to put on the breaks and spins away for a pickup of four. Not much there, but instead of trying to force it up the middle he just waits for 83 to work through his block before working up. pic.twitter.com/m3XYAzTXro— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
McKinnon’s 26-yard burst helped the Chiefs seal a seventh consecutive AFC West division title and cemented his spot as the team's big situation back.
Motion from 24 takes one man out of the box. The LB follows 83 on his backside seal block. This opens a void as 1 avoids traffic in the backfield. 65 with a high-level reach block, 62 digs in creating space, and 1 hits the hole. One cut at the LOS and it's off to the races. Game. pic.twitter.com/OXh8RCsyf7— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 19, 2022
This kind of run has been rare for Kansas City. McKinnon, who had played an intelligent game — picking and choosing his cutback lanes with patience — saw how many Texans were on the line of scrimmage (six) and trusted that the pre-snap motion from Skyy Moore and the movement from Noah Gray to seal the backside would pull the Texans' defenders away from the hole.
One cut off of right guard Trey Smith’s block, and the veteran hit his top speed and showed that he still has some burst despite being 30 years old.
The bottom line
Despite the early mistakes, the Chiefs would return to Pacheco, who did not play a bad game outside of the turnover. A productive 86 yards on 15 carries showed off his straight-line speed and vicious running style, which are valuable to a team that needs explosive plays. He is getting close to breaking a big one, but he must cut down on his mental mistakes and ball security issues.
Unique run look here for KC. Pin and pull principles with 62 back blocking the one tech and 52 leading up. 57 base blocks. 65 is shot out of a cannon to get on the angle to take on the LB. 52 leads up and gets a knockdown. 10 stumbles but stays on his feet for a nice gain. pic.twitter.com/LuztQHtruk— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) December 20, 2022
These rookie mistakes are what make McKinnon so valuable to the Chiefs. He has the experience and attitude that the team needs to win games, and his efforts have been rewarded. Gaining 122 scrimmage yards off of ten rushes and eight receptions, McKinnon averaged 6.7 yards per touch. His two touchdowns were the difference in the game.
Coming into the season as the third running back on the roster, having watched the team pick up Ronald Jones during free agency and Melvin Gordon in the season, he has continued to prove that he belongs on the field. Even with the possibility of Clyde Edwards-Helaire returning from the injured reserve, it is hard to imagine the Chiefs putting McKinnon back on the bench. He has earned the coaches' trust, his offensive line and most importantly, his quarterback.
The Chiefs running back room is full of youthful enthusiasm and veteran savvy. This combination will have a strong presence in the playoffs.