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Chiefs’ running back position was key part of victory over Chargers

With the starter leading the way, the Chiefs’ backfield played a significant role in the offensive output.

NFL: SEP 15 Chargers at Chiefs

The gutsy, 27-24 win that the Kansas City Chiefs earned over the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday Night Football in Week 2 was not always pretty. Both sides of the ball had their struggles, but the offense had a hard time getting the big names of their receiving corps going.

No player had more than 51 receiving yards. Wide receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling combined for 23 yards on 10 targets. The biggest play of the game came from backup receiver Justin Watson, who scored the receiving corps’ only touchdown.

To squeeze this win out, the Chiefs’ offense was boosted by the playmaking of its running backs. Starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire led the way with 118 total yards, 74 of them coming on the ground. He and Jerick McKinnon had a nearly-identical snap count; McKinnon caught the game’s first touchdown but only earned 16 total yards on six touches.

Edwards-Helaire started by quickly earning 22 yards on the team’s first two possessions, but the offense only gained 18 yards itself, punting twice. On the third drive, rookie running back Isiah Pacheco rotated in — and he helped jumpstart the offense without touching the ball.

Pacheco’s block on the blitzing safety Derwin James allows enough time for quarterback Patrick Mahomes to stand in the pocket and deliver a deep pass to gain 30 yards. It was the first big play of the game, and it set up the Chiefs to score their first touchdown of the night.

Pacheco had very minimal involvement Thursday night — totaling five snaps and six yards for the game — but the effort and execution of this pass-protection repetition can help earn him a larger slice of the backfield pie.

For the second half, the Chiefs’ solely relied on Edwards-Helaire and McKinnon to do everything they needed from a running back. The rushing attack was pretty much abandoned once the Chiefs fell into a 10-point deficit; yet, it was once again a member of the backfield that sparked a scoring drive for Kansas City.

Edwards-Helaire not only executes the angle route perfectly — cutting inside suddenly to create separation from outside linebacker Joey Bosa in coverage — but he also turns an 8-yard completion into a gain of 21 by breaking tackles after the catch.

Edwards-Helaire had three receptions go for 10 or more yards on Thursday; the other two plays came on well-executed screen passes.

The catch and run eventually led to Mahomes’ touchdown pass to Watson — which was made possible by effective pass protection from the running back position.

On third-and-10, McKinnon steps up and seals off a blitzer that comes through the B-gap — because right tackle Andrew Wylie is occupied with the outside rusher. McKinnon’s hit and drive takes him out of Mahomes’ way, allowing the quarterback to step into open space and have the room to fling the 40-yard score.

After the offense sputtered for a few drives, they were suddenly in the lead by way of an interception returned for a touchdown courtesy of rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson. Once the defense made another stop, the Chiefs’ offense needed to seal the deal.

With under four minutes to go, the Chiefs took possession in the 24-17 game — looking to take advantage of a worn-down Los Angeles defense on the ground.

You know who wasn’t worn down? Edwards-Helaire, who benefitted from the team’s healthy rotation of backs by being fresh for his biggest play of the game.

On first down, the handoff to Edwards-Helaire popped for 52 yards — setting the Chiefs up deep into Los Angeles territory. Even with a blown-open hole, Edwards-Helaire executed by emphasizing ball security — he had the ball wrapped with two hands all the way into the secondary — and sliding down in bounds, trying to keep the clock rolling.

Head coach Andy Reid acknowledged the high-IQ play from his starting running back as he spoke with the press after the game.

“Clyde had some real good yards for us,” Reid pointed out. “[He was] smart at the end, he went down there.”

In all, the Chiefs running backs played a pivotal role in getting the offense to do just enough for a victory. The backfield accounted for 46% of the offense’s total yards, while also contributing to pass protection in big moments.

The bottom line

Edwards-Helaire may have had the highlights, but that was made possible by how balanced the rotation is, allowing each player to be fresh for their opportunity. It played a key role in pushing the underwhelming offense past the finish line and getting to 2-0.

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