As the Kansas City Chiefs begin fine-tuning their approach in their final two regular-season games, they’ll be doing so in hopes of being a complete team come playoff time. The passing game, defense and special teams are undoubtedly important elements of that equation, but running the football has also become a valuable part of the team’s success.
To begin the year, Kansas City opted to give third-year man Clyde Edwards-Helaire the starting role at running back. Behind him, veteran Jerick McKinnon was a trusted option and rookie Isiah Pacheco was more of an intriguing future piece than anything else. Less than halfway through the season, however, Pacheco overtook Edwards-Helaire on the depth chart and McKinnon’s workload continued to be significant. Now, with Edwards-Helaire on the injured reserve list, the Chiefs’ running back room has produced at an impressive level.
For the year, the Chiefs rank 17th in the NFL in team rushing yards per game at 117.1 In their first eight games of the season, they averaged 103.5 yards per outing with a 4.5 yards-per-carry mark. Since then, the team is witnessed those figures climb to 132.6 and 5.0, respectively. Over the course of a full season, that would rank 10th in the league. The emergence of Pacheco as an upgrade over Edwards-Helaire makes the Chiefs more of a threat to play complementary football, and running backs coach Greg Lewis credits everyone involved for their efforts.
“Pop (Isiah Pacheco) has done a tremendous job of leaning on Jerick and Burt (Michael Burton) and Clyde and Melvin (Gordon), RoJo (Ronald Jones),” Lewis said. “Just getting that professionalism and understanding different things about how to be a professional running back and what it’s going to take for you to be successful and then taking all that information in and going out and putting it to work when he gets those opportunities. I think they’ve got a good rhythm with those two guys right now and when everybody else is available and we get opportunities to get other guys in there I think it’ll be a seamless transition with guys as we go.”
In Pacheco, Kansas City has a tough-nosed runner who plays like every snap could be his last. He packs a punch that McKinnon and Edwards-Helaire simply don’t have, and he fights for extra yards in ways they may not be capable of. Pacheco’s youth will sometimes show in pass protection and even when the ball is in his hands, but his vision and patience have improved throughout the season. He’s the best pure runner the Chiefs have right now, and it may not be particularly close.
McKinnon, the elder statesman of the running back room at 30, re-upped with the team on a one-year deal during the offseason after coming on strong late last year. A similar trend is taking place now, as he’s scored six touchdowns in his last four games. McKinnon is one of the better pass-blocking running backs in the league, as well as a dynamic receiving threat out of the backfield and an occasional danger as a runner. He may be the most complete halfback the Chiefs have. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy praised McKinnon this week, referring to him as an extra coach in the lineup.
“Jerick has been very valuable,” Bieniemy said. “Obviously, it’s always good, especially for Pat (Mahomes), when he’s looking downfield to make that big play and if nothing’s there, he has an opportunity to dump it off to Jerick. Jerick’s doing a great job, not only as a receiver, (but) he’s doing a great job in pass protection (and) picking up the necessary blitz when they’re coming. On top of that, he’s doing a heck of a job in the run game. Then something that doesn’t get talked about enough – and I know I keep discussing it – is his leadership. He provides outstanding leadership in that room to those guys. He’s just like having a coach – an additional coach on the field.”
With just a couple of weeks left in the regular season before tougher opponents and tougher conditions arrive in the postseason, Kansas City will need to have the running game in its back pocket. Andy Reid-coached teams are always going to have a clear preference for passing, but that’s been a blessing more than a curse for the Chiefs. Even when — or if — Edwards-Helaire returns from injury, the team clearly isn’t going to shy away from utilizing McKinnon and Pacheco. The dynamic duo is rounding into form just in time for the most important part of the year, and the Chiefs’ coaches are confident in the group they have.