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How Isiah Pacheco can improve in 2023

In the third part of our series, we examine what Kansas City’s starting running should do this season.

NFL: AFC Championship-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco exceeded expectations during the 2022 season. Outplaying his seventh-round draft slot, he became a key contributor down the stretch of the season — and played a big role in winning Super Bowl LVII.

In the third part of our series on the former Rutgers running back, let’s take a look at the areas where he can improve in 2023.

Greater volume of receptions

While this has more to do with how the coaching staff chooses to use Pacheco, his 13 receptions from 2022 are something to build upon.

Head coach Andy Reid’s screen game requires near-perfect timing from everyone: the offensive line, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the running backs themselves. For a young player, the intricacies of this kind of play can be a challenge.

But as his rookie season progressed, Pacheco was able to take some screen passes — with highly effective results.

On this play — which owes a lot to tremendous downfield blocking by center Creed Humphrey — Pacheco catches the ball, eludes tacklers and shows off his game-breaking speed.

In the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pacheco caught five passes (for 59 yards) that ended up being big factors in Kansas City’s win. It was his best game catching the football; he accumulated 11.9 yards per reception.

Although he wasn’t able to turn in an explosive play during these catches, he was more than ready to lower his shoulder.

We see here that after giving body presence to his tackle, Pacheco leaks out of the backfield. On his bad ankle, Mahomes concedes the downfield routes, dumping it off to Pacheco. As Bengals defenders swarm, the running back stays on his feet, fighting through arm tackles to pick up a crucial first down.

Becoming more involved in the passing game will give Pacheco even more opportunities to let his physical style help create additional explosive plays.

Improvement in pass protection

Pacheco’s low volume of receptions during his rookie season was largely due to his inexperience — but also from his early issues in pass protection. While the correlation between these might not be obvious, the Chiefs need to keep defenses honest; their running backs must be able to pass-block just as well as they can catch passes.

Last season, Jerick McKinnon turned solid his solid pass-protection skills into a career year as a receiver, collecting nine touchdowns and 512 receiving yards. McKinnon is likely to reprise that role in 2023 — but having two backs with both abilities could prove valuable to Kansas City.

Early on in the 2022 season, Pacheco had some chances to do some pass blocking — with mixed results.

On this play, Lavonte David comes on an A-gap blitz to the opposite side of the Chiefs’ slide protection. With Joe Thuney taking on the 3-technique rusher, David can rush up the middle. Pacheco steps up for the block but hesitates before lunging at David — which leaves him susceptible to the inside move David uses to get past him, putting pressure on Mahomes to end the rep.

So as the season went on, Pacheco’s pass-protection reps diminished. In the Super Bowl, he was mostly used for backfield routes — but late in the game, he came up with a nice chip block to set up one of the evening’s biggest plays.

While this rep wasn’t one-on-one protection, Pacheco helps out left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. after the run-action fake. His block prevents the edge rusher from working his way upfield — opening up the big Mahomes scramble that put the Chiefs in field-goal range to win the game.

While Pachco’s effort was rewarded, it’s important for us to focus on what this play shows us: Pacheco is a willing blocker who wants to help his team in any way he can.

Creating on his own

While Pacheco was the benefactor of some tremendous blocking and a running back-friendly scheme in his rookie season, he deserves credit for multiple chunk plays. His physical gifts helped him to pick up the yards — but it sometimes felt like more yards were available.

This buck sweep Kansas City ran in the Super Bowl allowed Pacheco to pick up the first down — which was the goal — but it also got him out in space, setting up a one-on-one matchup against the safety. While the play succeeds, it feels like more yards (or even a touchdown) might have been left on the table.

If Pacheco wants to be a top-10 running back in this league, he must find a way to implement some kind of move — a spin, a juke, a stiff-arm or even a hurdle — to take advantage of these kinds of situations.

But let’s be real: for a second-year, seventh-round running back, this is a pretty good problem to have.

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