KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs recently went looking for a way to get rookie running back Isiah Pacheco more involved on offense after he got in for just 11 plays over a two-game stretch.
They settled on making Pacheco a starter.
Pacheco went on to have his busiest three games of the season. He was at his most active in last week’s 27-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he got in for a season-high 35 plays and led the Chiefs in rushing with 82 yards.
Coach Andy Reid won’t go so far as to say the Chiefs have a permanent new order at running back, with Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon dividing the snaps and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the former starter, left with little work.
But a clear pattern has emerged since the Chiefs decided they needed to play Pacheco more. Edwards-Helaire had his three lowest snap counts of the season over the last three games, and played just four snaps and didn’t touch the ball against the Jaguars.
“We know Clyde is good and [McKinnon] can play,” Reid said. “These guys, they’re all good, they’re all talented. [Running backs coach Greg Lewis] does a good job of trying to work them in in certain spots. But it’s more of a learning experience with [Pacheco]and the more you see, the more you utilize him.
“It’s a crazy thing because we don’t go in thinking that [Edwards-Helaire won’t play much]. But because of the way the series worked [against the Jaguars], short series here and he gets in for three plays and he’s out — we don’t have that many three-and-outs as an offense — and he happened to be in one of them. The numbers got skewed and it’s kind of what happened with Pacheco before that. We’re working through it and it’s not because of his ability.”
Reid suggested that Edwards-Helaire would be back in the playing rotation soon, perhaps in Sunday night’s game against the Chargers in Los Angeles.
The Chiefs have mixed their usage of backs in ways that are unusual for Reid. Since he joined the Chiefs in 2013, they’ve tended to have a consistent lead back, whether it’s been Jamaal Charles, Kareem Hunt or Edwards-Helaire, when he’s been healthy the last couple of seasons.
McKinnon, the Chiefs’ favorite back for passing downs, has played the most snaps with 262. Edwards-Helaire has 207 and Pacheco 127.
“He was going [well], so we tried to get him into the flow,” Reid said of Pacheco’s increased playing time against Jacksonville. “He did a nice job with it. We’re lucky that we have three guys we feel that comfortable with putting them in.”
Pacheco has been the most productive of the backs when the Chiefs run the ball. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry, compared to 4.2 for Edwards-Helaire and 3.8 for McKinnon.
The Chiefs were looking for a boost from their running game against the Jaguars, a week after their backs combined to rush for 14 yards in a game against the Tennessee Titans. Pacheco lost an early fumble but rushed for 13 yards on his first carry after and was on his way to a career high in rushing.
“I just told you [offensive line], ‘Let’s go, man. We’ve got to get rolling [and] let the guys feel us early so we can get Pat [Mahomes] some throws and kind of mix it up,” Pacheco said.
“It opens up the offense a lot. For the defense, it keeps them on their toes, not knowing if they’re going to run or pass. That’s something we worked out in practice, just to keep hitting it. When we get out there on the field, it just comes second nature.”
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Early in the season, Pacheco played mostly in games where the Chiefs had a comfortable lead. More recently, they’ve used him in close games.
“This offense is hard, especially on the running back position, to learn because you have to do all the protections, you have to do all the routes and run the ball and we have different types of run schemes,” Mahomes said. “For him, he has all the talent in the world, so now he’s going to continue to get better and better as he learns those little tricks of the trade to kind of go out there and make stuff happen.”
As the Chiefs transitioned from Edwards-Helaire to Pacheco, McKinnon’s playing time has largely been unaffected.
McKinnon played 57 offensive snaps, a season high for a Chiefs’ back, in the win two weeks ago against the Titans. The Chiefs seem to think they’re a better team when they pass the ball with McKinnon in the game. He plays a lot on third and other passing downs because of his ability as a receiver and blocker.
McKinnon had a team-high six catches against the Jaguars. He has 25 receptions this season, best among Chiefs’ running backs, and 33 carries, about half of what Edwards-Helaire and Pacheco have.
McKinnon was an option quarterback in college. He didn’t throw the ball much, but the experience still gave him an understanding of how the passing game works.
He has similarly been valued as a receiving back at his previous NFL stops with the Vikings and 49ers.
“Since I’ve come into the league that’s kind of been how I’ve kind of been used,” McKinnon said. “If you’ve been used in a certain role, you get comfortable and develop … in that role. I’ll just say it’s a credit to the coaches that I’ve had and being in those systems and learning the playbook and being able to fill space and become available for the quarterback.”