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3 ways the the Chiefs can improve their running game

Kansas City’s rushing attack has had both success and struggles in 2023. How can it be improved?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs' 31-17 win over the Las Vegas Raiders displayed both the best and the worst of the team's rushing attack. Let’s consider some lessons the Chiefs could learn from Sunday’s matchup that will help them continue to move the ball successfully.

1. Continue to trust the short-yardage game

This season, Kansas City’s short-yardage running game has faced criticism — but it’s largely been because the team has been unwilling to run the ball up the middle. Some of these criticisms have been warranted.

But when they have chosen to do it, the Chiefs have been one of the league’s best teams at running the ball in short-yardage situations — especially on third downs.

We had a good example during Sunday’s game, when the Chiefs successfully utilized a trap on a third-and-goal situation.

On the snap, right guard Trey Smith allows the defensive lineman through — and then works up to the linebacker. While the defensive tackle runs free, he is met by pulling left guard Joe Thuney in the backfield. Center Creed Humphrey uses a strong back block on the nose tackle to help open up a crease — and running back Isiah Pachecho hits it hard. While his initial surge wasn’t enough, some competitive spirit from the offensive line helped him drive in for six.

When starting left tackle Donovan Smith missed a series with an injury, rookie Wanya Morris stepped in. Even on a big third down, the Chiefs demonstrated their confidence in the rookie — and he made a key block.

On this snap, the Chiefs are running an inside zone with Pacheco — but the Raiders’ defensive line tries to pinch down to constrict the play. When the defensive end who is lined up on Morris pinches, it becomes a combo block with Thuney on the fly. Thuney leaves to go up to the linebacker — but Morris locks on and drives the defender, allowing Pacheco to simply follow his blocks. Morris’ nasty physical finish is also a plus.

2. Mix it up

Earlier in the season, Kansas City’s rushing attack sometimes seemed stale. It was relying far too much on offset zone and other similar looks. The team has often tried to pound the football by lining up in heavier formations that were packed tight to the line of scrimmage.

But in the last few weeks, the Chiefs have made an effort to mix up their personnel, running more looks in lighter 11 personnel groupings (one back and one tight end) which is also helping expand their play-calls.

On this rep from Sunday, the quick-hitting nature of the trap play was a perfect way to gash the Raiders' loose defensive front. The play is designed to quickly get things rolling downhill — which fits Pacheco’s running style (and the athletic interior offensive linemen) just perfectly.

They were also able to use power out of 11 personnel.

The double-team block between right tackle Jawaan Taylor and Trey Smith sets the stage; they create a whole lot of movement. Thuney pulls — delivering a nice blow to Maxx Crosby — so Pacheco can charge ahead.

While Kansas City’s offset zone look was nice to help create tempo (and keep linebackers on their toes), the Chiefs had been using these plays far too often. But on Sunday — after establishing some different types of running plays — the team could go back to zone.

This variation of zone — unlike the Chiefs’ offset zone look — has Pacheco taking the handoff without a jab step so he can hit the gap quickly. The look involves having Travis Kelce motion back and forth. The light box helps the offensive line overtake the defenders, creating a lane for Pacheco.

3. Find a legitimate second option

Pacheco has been having a good season. With 669 yards, he’s on pace to go over 1,000. He’s now ranked 11th in rushing yards and is tied for ninth with 158 carries. But there is still room for improvement.

Pacheco ranks near the bottom of the league in average yards after contact. He uses his explosiveness and physical nature to hit holes hard — but after that, he’s not getting enough done.

There have also been some occasions where he has demonstrated issues with vision.

Pacheco doesn’t miss open lanes all the time — but it’s happened often enough to make it a concern. Sometimes it has contributed to stalled drives.

There have also been instances where stale and predictable play-calling has put Pacheco (and the offensive line) in bad spots.

When the running game is predictable — and Pacheco is the only available option to carry the football — defenses can key in. So the Chiefs would be well-served to find a good second option who can help carry the load.

While Jerrick McKinnon missed Sunday’s game with an injury, has been fairly unproductive in 2023. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has seen some time since coming back from his injury, but it feels like his best football is behind him.

This leaves La’Mical Perine and Deneric Prince as the only two in-house options. Perine flashed in the preseason — and would therefore seem to be the best candidate — but has only been given one carry this season.

This personnel issue might one for Kansas City to address in the offseason — but in the meantime, Pacheco is the man who is best-qualiified to find success on the ground.

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