Jamaal Charles received the handoff, took a few steps to his left and planted his foot at almost exactly the same time his right guard, Jon Asamoah, began to drive a sitting linebacker right out of the play
This was Sept. 29, the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 31-7 win over the Giants, and what followed — a 24-yard gain up the middle — didn’t seem to be terribly noteworthy at the time. There was no vintage Charles magic, no whirling dervish moves. Just good, solid football, complete with textbook blocking at the second level.
But nearly two months later, that singular, unspectacular run remains the only one Charles has broken for 20-plus yards this season, which puts him far off the standard he set in the previous three seasons he was a healthy starter. In those seasons, he averaged 10 runs of 20-plus yards with the longest being 76, 80 and 91 yards.
While Charles has in many ways been his typical, steady self — only four players (LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris and Adrian Peterson) have more rushing yards than Charles’ 725 this season — all four have at least five 20-plus runs this year.
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The Chiefs, of course, remain undaunted.
“We had a bye week, and he’s still fifth in the NFL in rushing,” veteran left tackle Branden Albert said. “I’m not trying to be cocky, but hey, we’re winning games and Jamaal will eventually get his. It’s just taking more time than it usually does.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson doesn’t appear to be sweating too much either. But after spending much of the bye week deep in the throes of self-evaluation — and with a match-up against a high-powered Denver team looming Sunday — it’s clear the Chiefs’ offense, which ranks 24th in the NFL in yards per game, would certainly welcome a return to normalcy, of sorts, for Charles on Sunday.
“No. 1, (it’s) the offensive line, fullback, tight ends at the line of scrimmage and second-level defenders taking care of those blocks,” Pederson said. “A lot of your longer runs come from the receivers blocking down the field. Our guys have done an excellent job down there; sometimes it’s the backside cutoff safety or corner that makes the play. We emphasize those backside blocks a lot.”
That would seem to be as good an explanation as any. Albert said the blocking schemes up front aren’t much different than last year’s and teams have long played eight defenders in the box to stop Charles. Also, Charles is only 26 years old and still has plenty of juice left, despite the fact he’s been dealing with a rash of nagging injuries this season ranging from his knee to his toes.
From there, one might be tempted to look at the offensive line, where two new starters — third-year center Rodney Hudson and rookie right tackle Eric Fisher — replaced veterans Ryan Lilja and Eric Winston, who were the Chiefs’ highest-graded run blockers last season with a combined grade of plus-24.2 (according to Pro Football Focus).
This season, only right guard Jon Asamoah (plus-1.8) has a positive run-blocking grade among the starters, while the rest have a combined grade of minus-19.2. But left guard Jeff Allen says the unit is still meshing, and insists they have watched multiple plays where Charles was only one block away from breaking a long one.
“We see it on film; that’s how we know it’s coming, soon,” Allen said. “We’ve been doing all right (at the second-level). The biggest thing is just being able to sustain those blocks and not just get there. Fit a guy up and finish him.”
Allen, like Albert, also defended his group’s work as a whole, and he has a point. Long runs or not, the Chiefs rank 13th in the league with a 4.2 yards-per-carry average, and have repeatedly shown the ability to run and chew up clock late in games despite the fact teams know they plan on running.
“Usually when we’re running the ball, we’re in a four-minute situation and they’re trying to stop the run and they’ll have an eighth or even ninth man in the box and they know it’s coming,” Allen said.
Take Buffalo, for instance. Once the Chiefs took a 20-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, Charles ran on nine of the next 11 plays for 47 yards. On the Chiefs’ game-clinching drive, which began on their 47, he accounted for 21 of their 31 yards and helped them get close enough for Ryan Succop to kick a field goal before the two-minute warning.
“Towards the end of the game, both sides of the ball are wearing down,” Albert said. “But how we practice, we’re in better shape than most teams and the game starts opening up for us and we start to be able to pound guys.”
Even Denver interim coach Jack Del Rio has noticed the Chiefs’ ability to run when it matters, though he adds Andy Reid shows some creativity when teams load up to stop Charles.
“I think they do a pretty good job with a little bubble slant thing they do when the box is loaded,” Del Rio said. “They have different things. They’re not always just coming in there against a loaded box. Obviously being able to (run) when you want to is a good thing, and we’re getting prepared.”
But while the Broncos are clearly preparing to stop Charles, the Chiefs are also hoping it won’t matter come Sunday, when their big-play back figures to get plenty of chances to break the big one that has eluded him far too long this season.
“There will come a time when Jamaal or one of the backs will spring loose,” Pederson said. “Hopefully this is the week.”