clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The hidden long-term concern about the Chiefs’ offense

Travis Kelce’s absence did not just hurt the passing game; it also hurt the run game.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Kansas City Chiefs offense was a mess on Thursday night against the Detroit Lions.

The most obvious issue was the agonizing drops from wide receiver Kadarius Toney, but blaming the entire offensive showing on Toney would be unfair. I agree that his performance was the most costly in the loss, but it is possible that was more of a fluke game than something Toney will do over the course of the season. Even if it’s irritating right now, Toney should still continue to have a positive role for the team.

However, when I was watching the game, one issue stood out to me just as much as the drops, the run game. The Chiefs ran the ball 17 times for 45 yards, compiling only four successful runs all game. In a game where Travis Kelce wasn’t playing, the Chiefs couldn’t find a way to run the football.

Why did this occur? What were the biggest issues with the run plan on Thursday? Did the Lions do anything to affect the Chiefs’ run game? Let’s start by talking about a niche aspect of the run game: wide receiver blocking.

Wide receiver blocking

One issue the Chiefs had all night was their run-blocking from the wide receivers — particularly from Rashee Rice. With the Chiefs lacking good options at tight ends, they tried to replace their under-center run game by replacing tight ends with more wide receivers but running the same concepts. Teams like the Sean McVay Los Angeles Rams have been successful with this, but it wasn’t working for the Chiefs.

Here, the Chiefs are running a Counter run to the left, motioning tight ends Blake Bell and Noah Gray as the lead blockers away from the offensive linemen. Rice is isolated as the lone receiver to the weak side, and his blocking assignment is set after the snap. If the cornerback bails to a deep zone, he works downfield to block the down safety. However, if the cornerback stays in the flat in Cover 2, Rice has to block the cornerback. On this rep, the cornerback stays in the flat, but Rice works to the safety, which destroys any chance of this run play working.

On this play, the Chiefs were running another Counter run. The entire offensive line is blocking to the right, but Rice “sifts” — working across the formation — to the back-side cornerback as the lead blocker on this play. If Rice hits this block, Pacheco has a chance to potentially hit the edge, but his whiffing forces Pacheco inside into traffic. It wasn’t only Rice who had some issues with run blocking, but the Chiefs tasked him with being a quasi-tight end, and he struggled to execute the blocks needed. He wasn’t able to execute. If the Chiefs continue to ask him to do that moving forward, his run blocking will need to improve.

Running to the short side of the field

I’m nowhere close to a run design expert, but one issue I had with the run calls was calling perimeter runs to the short side of the field, particularly to the strong side of the formation. Combine this with heavier personnel on the field, and I’m curious as to why these run calls were made.

The Chiefs are running outside the zone on this play. The Lions were in an Odd front, which can make angles for zone blocking more difficult. It’s harder to get good double teams with extra interior defensive linemen and the gaps they occupy. This limits the cutback potential for the running back, forcing him to run to the sideline, but this is where the shorter field comes in. There’s not as much space on the sideline, so it’s difficult for the running back to turn upfield and run along the sidelines.

This play might make fans furious. The Chiefs are in 13 personnel, leaving one wide receiver on the field. They motion Toney across the formation, giving him the ball on a jet sweep. However, the Lions are entirely ready for it, and the Chiefs lack the numbers to block this up nor the space for Toney to make a play.

My issue with this play is how obvious this is for the defense.

Why wouldn’t they play the motion hard? With Toney gone, there’s only one pass threat to the other side of the field — where a cornerback sits on the tight end. You can run a weak-side run opposite the motion, but you didn’t create a numbers advantage with the motion. To me, the counters off the motion seem difficult, which means, if I’m a defender, the motion gives a bigger tell that this is a jet sweep.

Making angles tough in the run game

To the Lions' credit, they did some creative things with their front. Instead of staying in one front, they varied their fronts to make it hard for the Chiefs to find a good run call.

On this play, the Lions are running a “Mint” front. With the nose tackle over the center and two defensive ends playing head-up on the tackle, this makes outside zone runs difficult. The frontside guard has to try and cut off the first defensive end, but since he’s wider than normal 3-technique, it’s easier for that defensive end to set the edge. With the edge set and the cornerback coming in to tackle, this run play goes nowhere.

The Lions presented problems upfront both pre-and-post snap. At the time of this snap, the Lions have their nose tackle and strong-side defensive end slant inside one gap, making this zone block much more difficult for the offensive line. In particular, the nose tackle slanting to the backside A-gap makes this block incredibly difficult for left guard Joe Thuney. Thuney has to try and wrap his hips around the nose tackle — an impossible block for most players. The defensive end slanting inside also does an excellent job setting the edge, constricting the space for this zone run to go.

The bottom line

Overall, Kelce’s injury hurt the Chiefs the most in the passing game, but I’d argue his absence also hurt the run game. It’s not that Kelce’s an elite run blocker, but his versatility as a receiver makes the run look easier, especially from heavier personnel. The Chiefs shredded teams from heavier personnel last year, particularly passing the football. Without, Kelce that wasn’t an option.

So, in order to try and run the ball, they had to try and run from 11 personnel, but that wasn’t working. Between the run blocking, playcalls — and Lions' adjustments to their fronts, the Chiefs struggled to execute a zone-blocking scheme well enough to get favorable run looks for their running backs.

Kelce’s return should help the offense get better run looks, but it needs to do a better job running the ball, period. If the wide receivers are going to have growing pains in larger roles, then you have to lean on the run game more. Having a 24% success rate on the ground is inexcusable, and that needs to be fixed fast.

With 10 days to prepare for the Jaguars, hopefully the Chiefs can get the run game fixed.

NEW: Join Arrowhead Pride Premier

If you love Arrowhead Pride, you won’t want to miss Pete Sweeney in your inbox each week as he delivers deep analysis and insights on the Chiefs' path to the Super Bowl.