Around this time a year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs’ running backs group featured veteran Jerrick McKinnon, who had become a clutch playoff performer. Meanwhile, Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s future was up in the air, Ronald Jones was drawing Barry Sanders comparisons and a rookie seventh-round draft pick from Rutgers was starting to garner some attention.
A year later, McKinnon is coming off another impressive season, Edwards-Helaire still hasn’t fulfilled expectations for a first-round pick and Jones is now the third running back for the Dallas Cowboys.
But Isiah Pacheco is coming off a memorable rookie year.
After getting limited playing time during the early portion of the season, Pacheco burst onto the scene — literally — with big games Weeks 10’s 27-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Week 11’s 30-27 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Providing explosion out of the backfield that neither Edwards-Helaire nor McKinnon possesses, he added another dimension to Kansas City’s already dynamic offense — making it even more challenging to stop.
In the first installment of a two-part series, let’s examine his big-run capability.
The deep coverages that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes faced in 2021 — combined with the team’s decision to trade wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins — led to the team's explosive plays taking a bit of a dip as 2022 began. But taking a more deliberate offensive approach eventually allowed Mahomes to spread the ball among his wideouts to pick defenses apart.
So when Pachecho’s playing time began to increase, this more balanced passing attack — with Kansas City’s offensive line doing a fantastic job — allowed him to immediately generate big plays in the running game.
Pacheco does a nice job to hit this counter in the A gap as opposed to trying to follow the blockers. 52 get the back block and the double team and creates the movement. Pacheco accelerates breaking one tackle and refuses to go down even with Derwin James all over him late. pic.twitter.com/2qAzWTNL7k— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) May 19, 2023
Running this classic counter play (with the back-side guard and tackle pulling), Pacheco demonstrates good vision as he locates the hole and explodes into the second level. As he gains speed, he cuts to avoid a tackle — and is close to his maximum speed before the Chargers’ Derwin James is finally able to get a hand on him.
The play gained close to 30 yards — and Pacheco was untouched more than half of that distance.
Pacheco brought back explosive plays out of the Chiefs backfield. One cut and he is flying downhill, turning Humphrey into a lead blocker. Making the 20-yard burst look effortless he plows ahead to finish the play, falling forward for an extra yard. pic.twitter.com/rmyBgYwrVp— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) May 24, 2023
Here, the motion man draws the linebackers’ attention as the Chiefs try a zone run to the weak side. Pacheco reads a couple of big-on-big blocks on the play side, cuts to the outside and dashes to the second level. Following Creed Humphrey — and then turning back inside after Marquez Valdes-Scantling makes a block — Pacheco makes a 17-yard gain look easy.
Breaking the big one
During his time at Rutgers, Pacheco was a big-play threat who was mostly used as an outside zone back. During most of his first NFL season, he showed that he was a tough runner — but one who could only rip off gains of 15-25 yards.
Late in the season, however, he showed off his game-breaking ability.
Part of Pacheco's rookie success should be credited to his OL. They were great run-blocking all year long. As his vision improved to get through the line, he was really able to show off his speed at the second level. Very hard to account for with light boxes & wide LB alignment. pic.twitter.com/9f3x3MBjyf— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) May 25, 2023
Here we see the Las Vegas Raiders set up with five defensive linemen, one linebacker in the box, two deep safeties and three cornerbacks. The Chiefs run their basic mid-zone play — a staple of the offense — to open up a hole on the right side.
With such a big runway, Pacheco makes his cut, slipping would-be arm tacklers as he comes very close to going all the way.
Like most teams do against the Chiefs, the Raiders emphasize defensive linemen and secondary players to rush the passer and provide downfield coverage. But they fail to defend the middle of the field. This allows Pacheco to run untouched until a safety is able to stop him.
In a moment when his team needed it the most. Pacheco came up with the season’s biggest run.
Pacheco's big run vs Jacksonville was critical in the outcome of the game. Eased pressure off of Henne to go the distance of the field, and set them up on the goal line to go up two scores. After a year of close calls, Pacheco finally got one when it was needed the most. pic.twitter.com/ZXJFliIxPJ— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) May 25, 2023
With Mahomes on the sidelines — and the offensive line failing to create push off the line of scrimmage — Pacheco gets bottled up. Instead of trying to push the pile forward (like he had tended to do earlier on in the year), Pacheco continues to work — and when the left side of the line caves in, he turns on the burners.
Two defenders who are coming from the opposite side of the field nearly get to Pacheco, but he leaves them in the dust. On an angle to the end zone, he tries to fight his way in — but is knocked out just short.
This run changed field position, setting up Kansas City (and its backup quarterback) for a touchdown. It altered the momentum of the game.
The bottom line
When teams face the Chiefs, they will always prioritize stopping Mahomes, choosing to live with the consequences of whatever else might happen. This is exactly where we saw Pacheco thrive in 2022.
His electrifying speed allowed him to generate four runs of 20-plus yards — two of which came in the playoffs — and let him gain 4.9 yards per attempt on the season and 5.3 yards per attempt in the playoffs.
Pacheco’s next-level speed, the physicality of Kansas City’s offensive line — and the team’s running scheme — turned into a perfect storm as the season progressed.
While Mahomes was having an MVP season that was drawing the full attention of defenses, Pacheco slowly worked his way to becoming a different kind of big-play threat — one that played a big role in the team’s championship season.
In part two, we will examine Pacheco’s downhill running style.