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How Isiah Pacheco used big hits and strong finishes to jump-start his career

In the second part of a series, we consider how Kansas City’s late-round took advantage of his 2022 opportunities.

Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In 2022, the Kansas City Chiefs found a key contributor in their rookie class: running back Isiah Pacheco. As we showed in the first part of this series, his ability to create explosive plays allowed his role to grow as the season progressed. His speed and big-play capability helped the team rank ninth in rushing yards per rush attempt at 4.7.

With opposing defenses selling out to stop Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the team’s passing attack, Pacheco saw six or fewer defenders in the box on 53.5% of his total carries.

In the second part of the series, let’s see how his downhill running style allowed him to blast through defenses all the way through the team’s Super Bowl victory.

Finishing runs

The Week 10 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars was the first game in which Pacheco served as the feature back — and despite an early fumble, he pounded his way to 82 yards on just 16 carries, averaging 5.1 yards a touch.

Pacheco makes a good read on this zone running play. He cuts outside to avoid a defensive tackle and force a linebacker to hesitate. With the middle linebacker frozen in place, Pacheco takes off. As defenders close in on him, he has a couple of options: continue to cut and weave (and possibly bounce the run to the outside again) or be the aggressor.

Pacheco chooses the latter, lowering his shoulder into Andre Cisco. Although he is brought down, it’s a tone-setting play that could make defenders think twice about making a one-on-one tackle in space.

As the season continued, Pacheco delivered more of these big, run-finishing shots — even opening up the playoff game against the Jaguars by putting another big hit on Cisco.

The play is designed to get Pacheco into space along the sideline. Cisco takes a good angle, getting himself into position to make a play. While Pacheco could just step out — taking what the defense has given him — he chooses to turn back to the field and make contact with Cisco.

Playoff games can come down to the physical battles between players. Pacheco got right down to business by striking the first blow in this one. Throughout a game, powerful finishes like these add up, taking a toll on the morale of opposing defenses.

Running through tackles

While Pacheco can still improve at breaking tackles and picking up yards after contact, he ranked fourth among all rookie running backs at 1.8 yards after contact per rushing attempt.

He showed us what he could do in Week 13’s divisional showdown against the Denver Broncos.

While the offensive line doesn’t block this play cleanly, Pahceco still makes it work. Avoiding the penetration, he cuts to the back side and starts upfield. He is quickly surrounded — but showing off his core strength and lower body power, he uses great contact balance to fight off three defenders and pick up a few extra yards.

On this late-game rep, the Chiefs want to run out the clock; a first down will end the game. There isn’t much movement up front — but Pahceco does see right guard Trey Smith start to wall off his man as center Creed Humphrey secures the left-side A gap. When the only linebacker in the box goes through the right-side B gap, Pacheco blasts through the right-side A gap.

Gaining momentum, he delivers a big shot to one would-be tackler and fights through another. Keeping his feet moving, he drags a defender across the line of gain, moving the pile to pick up a few more yards with an assist from left guard Joe Thuney.

Game over.

The bottom line

As a running back in Kansas City’s pass-reliant offense, Pacheco faced an average of 6.5 defenders in every box, which ranked 35th among running backs. This meant that when the Chiefs’ offensive line took care of business, Pacheco tended to face only a few second-level defenders — and sometimes had a free run to the secondary.

It also means that if Pacheco can continue to develop his skills, he’ll still be able to turn broken tackles into big gains.

But his brutal running style came with a toll. Pacheco reportedly suffered a broken hand and torn labrum in 2022; he’s had corrective surgery but will be off the practice field until he is fully recovered. Seeing him fight through injuries for the good of the team is commendable, but it will not lead to a long career.

There is a time and a place for big finishes — and also for lowering your shoulder to make a tough yard. After a strong start to his NFL career, Pacheco can keep it going by learning how to better choose those spots — and adding more ways to break big runs.

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