Clyde, Gore, Williams... what to make of the Chiefs' running backs vs the Steelers
Looking at every rush play by Kansas City to see what works in the run game, what doesn't, and how the different players stack up.
There’s an old saying (paraphrased) that the most popular guy on a team is often the backup quarterback.
That’s obviously not the case in Kansas City (with all due respect to Chad Henne), but the general point is an accurate one; The player you know the least about is often the one you have the highest hopes for. Such is the case for rookies, rotational players, and free agents that are brought in during the offseason. With the unknown (or slightly known), we tend to see potential rather than product.
Which brings me to the current conversation surrounding the Chiefs’ running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, and Derrick Gore.
Kansas City has a problem that one could deem both bad and good; The results they’ve gotten with each running back have been relatively consistent in terms of production. The good side of that is that they can be confident in their depth (with CEH being injured against the Steelers, that’s a plus moving forward). The bad side is that, having spent a first round draft pick on CEH with the hope that he would be a difference-maker, him not distancing himself from his backups is a sign that he isn’t one.
I’m not here to discuss the wisdom of drafting a running back in the first round. I’ve stated on more than one occasion I don’t think it’s a good policy given how dependent the position is on everything around it to thrive (unless one is Jamaal Charles, of course), and I’ve also written about CEH’s skillset and how I can understand why the Chiefs might have reasoned taking him was the wise choice. That said, it’s beyond dispute that CEH’s impact on the offense hasn’t been consistently noticeable, which is going to lead to questions regarding whether or not the players behind him might “move the needle” more than he does.
And that’s where they eye tends to drift and narratives might come into play. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked about Williams (and now Gore) being better runners than CEH. The general thought that’s offered is that both of the backups on the roster have either better vision, more decisiveness, or superior burst to CEH in a way that allows them to outperform him.
The first thing I’d note, and we’ll come back to this later, is that analytics may not back up those claims with regards to CEH vs Williams.
This chart, which basically tries to gauge how a running back performs vs how his blocking performs, appears to imply that Williams has received significantly superior run blocking (how could that be? We’ll circle back to it, I promise) but not performed as well in utilizing said blocking.
So the eye test (maybe) tells you one thing, the numbers may say the opposite (note that Gore’s sample size is too small to reliably say one thing or the other about it in terms of numbers). So what do we do? Well, the only thing I know how to do is examine what we see on film.
Against Pittsburgh, we have a unique situation in which all three running backs carried the ball at least 9 times (even if we don’t include the final drive of the game, which might as well have been 3 straight kneels). And so, it made sense to examine each snap to try and figure out what’s going on when each of these runners has the ball.
I looked on every snap for 3 things: Was the play design vertical (going north, between the tackles) or horizontal (blockers moving to the side with reach blocks and the like and the runner starting off moving sideways), was the blocking a plus or a minus on the play, and did the run succeed or fail (I gauge success generally as getting 4 yards or more on a run, though one could argue 4 yards is pretty “meh”).
The reason to look at those things is to try and decipher if Gore/Williams (or one of the two) are in fact doing more with the same as CEH, if Andy Reid is using them all similarly, or whether there’s not much difference at all between the three of them. Let’s take a look at what the snaps showed.