Losing their Balance, But Not the Game

The kick, of course, never really had a chance.

With 2 seconds left in Carolina’s contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, placekicker Joey Slye lined up a 67-yard field goal.  If successful, the kick would bring the ten point underdog Panthers an improbable 34-33 victory over the reigning world champions.

As a rookie in 2019, Slye had made 8 of 11 over 50 yards, but none longer than 55.  So far this season, including an attempted 51-yarder that had hit the left upright earlier in the game, Joey was 0-for-3 over 50 yards.  That, of course, was just chatter.  A field goal of 67 yards had never been achieved – and it wouldn’t be on this night.  Joey’s kick was way off to the right.  It was never close.

And the defending champions escaped again, 33-31 (gamebook) (summary).  That the game was as close as it was was due in part because of the desperate play of the Panthers, trying to stem their then-three-game losing streak and stay relevant in the playoff race; in part because of the return of running back Christian McCaffrey; and, significantly, in part because the Chiefs strayed from their game plan – again.

For his entire career, head coach Andy Reid has had an uncomfortable relationship with the running game.  It cost him profoundly in Philadelphia.  The 2004 season – the first time Andy went to the Super Bowl – is a ready example.

The Eagles were 13-3 that season and their offense featured Pro Bowlers Donovan McNabb (the quarterback), Terrell Owens (the featured wide out) and running back Brian Westbrook.  In the 15 games that he started, McNabb threw the ball 469 times.  As a team, the Eagles attempted 547 passes (the ninth most in the NFL).  Owens caught 77 passes for 1200 yards and 14 touchdowns (and he missed a couple of games with an injury).  But Westbrook finished with only 812 rushing yards, getting just 13.6 carries per game.  He had almost as many receiving yards (703) as he did rushing yards.

When they ran the ball, Philadelphia averaged 4.4 yards a rush – the tenth best total in football.  They just didn’t do it.  They finished thirty-first in rushing attempts and twenty-fourth in rushing yards.

They had moments where they loved the running game.  They had four separate regular season games in which they ran for more than 140 yards, and then dominated Atlanta in the Championship Game with 156 rushing yards on 33 attempts.

But that run commitment was gone by the time they reached the Super Bowl.  In their 24-21 loss to New England they ran just 17 times for 45 yards as McNabb tried, unsuccessfully, to pass them to a victory.  Donovan threw the ball 51 times in that game, throwing 3 interceptions and finishing with a 75.4 rating.

Something in Andy Reid chafes when a running play gains only a yard or two.  Usually, the running game works early or it’s set aside.

During last year’s Super Bowl run, Reid seemed to embrace the running game as never before.  One could almost argue that it was the difference in the Super Bowl.  After running for 118 and 112 yards against Houston and Tennessee, the Chiefs added 129 rushing yards on 29 carries against San Francisco, on a day when the 49ers were making life difficult for Mahomes.

When Kansas City expended their first-round draft choice on running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the football world wondered if this meant the re-birth of the running game in Kansas City.  It did.  For about three games.

In victories over Houston, the Chargers and Baltimore, Kansas City ran an average of 29 times a game for an average of 141 rushing yards.  The balance also lifted the passing game, with Patrick throwing for 9 touchdowns in those games and holding a 114.3 rating.  With the exception of a surprising 245 yard rushing day against Buffalo in Week Six, Kansas City has mostly gotten away from the running attack.  In their Week Five loss to the Raiders, they ran just 20 times for 80 yards while attempting 46 passes.

Against Carolina, Kansas City ran on their first two offensive plays.  It’s very likely that the game plan against the Panthers would have been run-heavy.  Through their first eight games, Carolina had been fairly tough against the pass.  They came in allowing just 6.64 yard per pass attempt (fifth in the league) including just 9.6 yards per completed pass – the NFL’s lowest figure.  They had also allowed just 9 touchdown passes.

But run defense had been as enduring issue.  Seven of their first eight opponents had run for at least 117 yards against them, and they were yielding 124.9 rushing yards per game – at 4.7 yards per rush attempt.  The 12 rushing touchdowns they had allowed already in 2020 ranked them thirtieth in that department.  By any measure, Carolina presented themselves as an inviting target for Kansas City’s running attack.

But, the Panthers had scored a touchdown on their opening drive, and the first two running plays had netted just 2 yards, so that was enough of that.  Mahomes threw on 8 of the next 9 plays, leading the Chiefs to a field goal.

Once the Panthers answered that field goal with another touchdown, there was obviously no time to fool around with the running game.  Mahomes led them to another field goal with a six-play drive that was all passing.  This was part of a sequence of ten straight passing plays for Kansas City until Edwards-Helaire would pick up a first down with a 7-yard run on second-and-three with a little more than 6 minutes left in the half.  It was the fourth and final Kansas City run of the half – a half which ended with them trailing 17-13.

Getting the ball first in the third quarter, KC ran on two of their first three plays (possibly having reminded themselves of the game plan?).  Those runs garnered 4 yards each.  Not enough.  That drive ended with four consecutive pass plays.

The next time they possessed the ball, they scored on a 59-yard, 5-play touchdown drive.  The drive was 4 passes and a gadget running play (Tyreek Hill sprinted around left end on the jet sweep for 8 yards).

Once they finally got the lead back (20-17) their next offensive play was a run – for no gain.  And so it was back to the pass.  And so it went.

With 1:52 left in the game, Kansas City took over on the Carolina 42 after a failed onside kick attempt.  The Chiefs were clinging to their 33-31 lead, and Carolina still had all of their time outs.  Surely, you would think, the Chiefs would take the air out of the ball here and try to at least burn through the Panther time outs.  And they did.  For one play.

On a day when the Chiefs ran only 11 times (and one of those a Mahomes scramble), and never called back-to-back running plays after the first two plays of the game, Kansas City ran once, for no yards, and turned back to the pass.

It worked out about the same, in this instance.  Mahomes was sacked, causing the Panthers to call their second time out, and then a short completion brought the third before KC punted away.

By game’s end, the Panthers had controlled the ball for 38:01, finally possessing the ball on their own 9 with 1:26 left, needing only a field goal to win.

The Chiefs are one of the few teams that can get away with this.  Even with no run game for support, and an exhausted defense that surrendered more yards and points than usual (the Chiefs were yet another team that lost the yardage war but won the game last Sunday), Patrick Mahomes and that passing game was still equal to the moment.  Patrick finished 30 of 45 for 372 yards and 4 touchdowns without an interception – a 121.7 rating.

For most teams, this is not a formula for success.  The Rams (another team that sometimes forgets that they are a running team first) have lost a few games this year when they have lost their balance.  On Sunday night, Tampa Bay set an All-Time record when they ran the ball only 5 times all game (one of those a kneel-down).  They got their lunch handed to them.

But Kansas City can do this and get away with it.  Sometimes.

Still, it’s a tendency to keep an eye on.

Derrick Brown

While never thoroughly challenged, the few time that KC did run the ball, the Panther’s run defense did respond well.  KC’s 11 runs included a scramble and the jet sweep from Hill.  Of the nine (yes, there were only nine) actual running attempts by running backs, the Chiefs gained just 22 yards.  Six of the nine runs managed less than four yards.

In the middle of what action there was, was Carolina’s first-round draft choice, defensive lineman Derrick Brown.  He was mostly unmovable – especially holding his ground well against Kansas City’s attempted double-teams.  The principle beneficiary here was linebacker Shaq Thompson, who had to deal with little traffic from offensive linemen and had ample opportunity to fill the holes as they opened.

Whether Carolina could have sustained this over the course of the game is something that we can’t know.  The Chiefs made no real effort to wear them down.  But to the extent that he was challenged, Carolina’s first-round draft choice acquitted himself well.

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