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Film review: Jerick McKinnon is heating up at the right time

Needing a spark against the Texans, the Chiefs turned to McKinnon.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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.

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.

Pass catching

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.

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.

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.

Pass protection

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.

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.

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.

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.

Clutch factor

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.

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.

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.

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