Going into this season, the list of the biggest needs on this team almost always started and ended on the defensive side of the ball, namely the cornerback position. There are certainly areas of the roster that need to be shored up, but pinpointing the biggest need for this team leads us directly to the offensive line, specifically the interior line.
At certain points in the year we’ve seen this team have trouble across the offensive line. Whether it be injuries causing a shuffling of the deck, or simply a lack of talent, the offensive line has been a bit of a concern throughout the year. Not only has this had an impact on the run game, but it’s also affected the passing game as well.
If you look only at the sack numbers for this year, you could make the argument that the offensive line has done its job throughout the year. Patrick Mahomes is getting sacked at a rate of once for every 25 pass attempts, according to ESPN’s passing stats, which ranks as one of the best rates in the league. However, a lot of this can be accounted for with Mahomes’ ability to extend the play with his own creativity and make an off schedule play outside of the pocket.
Looking deeper though, we can see that even though the number of sacks have been low, the success rate of the offensive line in pass blocking as a whole is actually right around the middle of the pack in the NFL, managing a “win” rate of 60%, per ESPN. This pressure, while not showing up on the stat sheet, certainly had an impact on the game. There have been numerous times where Mahomes has been unnecessarily hit. This type of pressure can be disastrous for offenses and can lead to stalled drives and inconsistent offense due to lost opportunities.
While it’s hard to measure how much the weakness of the interior line causes a quarterback to not step up in the pocket or how much harder it is to succeed in-spite of them, one thing we can measure is their impact on the run game. This is where the need to improve shows most clearly. The Chiefs running game has been mostly hit and miss all year long, with only flashes of promise like we saw last week out of Damian Williams. There is a point to be made about the lack of a true number one back having an impact on the running game, but an improved interior line would go furthest in unleashing the true potential of the run game, and this offense altogether.
It is easy to point at the running back position as a weakness when analyzing the Chiefs’ ground game, but Football Outsiders provides us with a little more insight as to what could be affecting Kansas City’s ability to run. Football Outsiders and their Adjusted Line Yards statistic gives us the ability to measure to what extent the offensive line contributed to the success or failure of the run game. Using these rankings, we can see that the Chiefs rank 28th out of 32 teams.
To go even further, this set of statistics lets us further identify the offensive line as the likely factor, or one of the major factors, in the struggling run game. In addition to the Adjusted Line Yards statistic, Football Outsiders ranks the Chiefs 7th in the NFL in “Open Field Yards”, which aims to measure a running game’s success beyond the line of scrimmage. According to their description of these statistics, “A team with a high ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a low ranking in Open Field Yards is heavily dependent on its offensive line to make the running game work. A team with a low ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a high ranking in Open Field Yards is heavily dependent on its running back breaking long runs to make the running game work”.
When you combine these statistics with what we’ve watched so far this year it seems clear that at this point the offensive line, guard and center specifically, is the biggest area of need for this Chiefs team and will be an area to watch should the offense have any struggles in the upcoming games.