Breaking Down the Kansas City Chiefs' Quarterback-Run Game
The Chiefs have a firm offensive identity for what seems like the first time since the Dick Vermeil era. Utilization of nouveau concepts like the pistol formation and compression sets, coupled with the throwback sensibilities of the Bill Wash offense that Andy Reid came up in, have transformed a Chiefs offense that had looked stale and disjointed in recent years into an efficient yardage-churning machine.
Traditionally, offenses in the NFL have striven for an overall balance. The prevailing thought is that if a team remains balanced in its play-calling, it'll be less predictable and able to move the football more easily.
In the modern spread-concept-saturated era of football, however, we see teams leaning on the pass more heavily than ever and perhaps rightfully so. Studies have shown passing efficiency to be much more vital to overall success in football than rushing efficiency.
Kansas City has taken this maxim and applied it to the Walsh-concept offense it runs—an offense that is already predicated on shorter, more efficient matriculation of the football. Instead of running the football to set up pass plays, the Chiefs are using the quarterback run to set up the halfback run.
Consider Kansas City's Week 2 game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Chiefs had a mere eight rushing attempts for eight yards by their running backs, heading into the last three minutes of the game. In attempting to salt the game away during those final minutes, the Chiefs matched those eight carries with another eight; however, the final eight running-back carries went for 47 yards and helped Kansas City seal the win.
The Chiefs were led by quarterback Alex Smith's 57 yards on eight carries, all of which came in the first half save one carry of eight yards.
So why were the Chiefs unable to run the ball with their running backs early yet able to do so late when theoretically the Cowboys should have expected it? They did it by setting up the halfback run with the quarterback run.
Early in the game, the Chiefs used several empty sets to give the defense a strong indication that a pass was coming, as illustrated below.
Dallas came out in their nickel package and was lined up in man coverage with the middle (or "Mike") linebacker patrolling a mid-zone, which was a solid call for what looked like an obvious passing play. The Chiefs, however, had no intention of passing the ball.
The tight end faked an engagement with the Sam linebacker, gladly giving up inside leverage, and headed down the field to his real assignment, the strong safety. The middle linebacker now realized from his assigned shallow mid-zone what was happening on the play and attempted to flow to the running quarterback, but he was stopped by the play-side slot receiver, who was assigned backside blocking on the play. Quarterback Alex Smith sprinted out right and then down the field for a 17-yard gain and a Chiefs first down.
Kansas City took advantage of Smith's athleticism by running him on the play and establishing the quarterback as a running threat at the onset of the game.
The reasoning behind this philosophy is simple. It takes a Tampa-2 team, like Dallas' defensive line, out of its base philosophy of attacking the quarterback. It also forces the defensive ends to focus on quarterback-run contain and a linebacker to commit to spying the quarterback.
When defensive ends take a wider loop to the quarterback, as they do in contain, it creates larger gaps between the guards and tackles for the running back to run through. For a team that likes zone running, as the Chiefs do, this gives running backs a larger crease to exploit.
That is how the Kansas City Chiefs run the ball...to set up the run.
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