Kansas City Chiefs' ground game is grounded
The Kansas City Chiefs spent last season running over, through and around just about defense they faced, piling up some of the most impressive rush statistics a pass-heavy league has witnessed in recent years.
With an emerging superstar in Jamaal Charles, veteran Thomas Jones, a sparkplug in Dexter McCluster and former All-Pro fullback Le'Ron McClain, Kansas City figured to be even better this year.
Then Charles went down with a season-ending knee injury, throwing everything off.
The Chiefs eked out just 103 yards rushing in a 22-17 victory over Minnesota last Sunday, averaging a mere 3.7 yards on 28 carries. Jones led the way with 37 yards, while slow-footed quarterback Matt Cassel was their most effective option, scrambling four times for 20 yards.
Compare that to last season, when Kansas City averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 164 yards per game, and it's easy to see why the Chiefs have been forced to air it out in the second half of games while getting off to an underwhelming 1-3 start.
''There's a game plan going into every game,'' Cassel said, ''and it just so happens we've had to open it up in the second half.''
McCluster, who primarily played slot receiver as a rookie, was expected to line up in packages that would allow him to use his shiftiness and speed this season. Instead, the 170-pound jitterbug was at times dotting the I-formation and running between the Vikings' stout tackles last weekend.
Jones, now in his 12th season in the league, has another year of wear and tear on his 33-year-old legs. The speed he showed early in his career in Arizona and Chicago has slipped away, and his big-play ability has gone right with it. He's only carried 39 times for 111 yards through the first four games, a career-worst 2.8 yards per carry, and has yet to score a touchdown.
McClain has been perhaps the biggest disappointment, though it's not entirely his fault.
The former All-Pro was brought in to be a lead blocker for Charles and had bulked up to play exclusively as a fullback. Now, he's been pressed into duty as a rushing option, and has a combined 10 touches for 34 yards of total offense.
In search of any sort of offensive spark, Chiefs coach Todd Haley gave longtime special teams standout Jackie Battle a long look late in the game against Minnesota.
''I've seen a lot from Jackie that I really like,'' Haley said. ''I'm actually really feeling good about where Jackie is right now. He's weathered some adversity himself through the first couple of years. He wants to play, he wants to contribute. He's been one of our best special teams players to this point, that's his calling card, but I know he wants to be a running back.''
Battle only survived the final round of cuts after training camp because of his versatility, not only playing special teams but also fullback and catching passes out of the backfield. But as a running threat, he's only carried 55 times for 155 yards in his entire four-plus-year career.
''I'm just ready to contribute on offense. I'm there when they need me,'' he said.
Haley said he's comfortable with the options he has running the football, even though the team clearly misses Charles' big-play potential. He also knows other teams aren't going to take it easy on Kansas City just because its top running back is watching games from the sideline.
''It's tough, but you know what? There's a lot of guys on that roster, and it's no excuse for everything to crumble when one guy's not there,'' said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who will lead a defense trying to shut down the Chiefs' ground game again on Sunday.
After all, a team missing injured quarterback Peyton Manning isn't feeling any sympathy.
''When you look at teams across the league that have had some injuries and things of that nature, some teams are still able to pull out some wins,'' Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. ''That's what we expect, and we expect to be able to go out and compete.''
That's what the Chiefs expect, too.
Even if the ground game is of little help.