by Michael David Smith
The late Bo Schembechler would have loved the Kansas City Chiefs' first drive against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
The drive lasted 11 plays, and the Chiefs ran on 10 of them, marching 76 yards for a touchdown. The Chiefs did nothing fancy, nothing surprising, just a whole lot of handoffs to running back Larry Johnson, who showed again in the Chiefs' 17-13 victory that he's one of the best runners in football. The 11 plays on the drive looked like this:
- First-and-10: Kansas City lined up in a three-receiver formation, with Johnson as the only back behind quarterback Trent Green. Johnson took the handoff around the right end for a gain of four yards.
- Second-and-6: Kansas City lined up with four receivers, a personnel package that prevented the Raiders from keeping eight defenders in the box. Johnson ran to his left for four yards.
- Third-and-2: In a three-receiver formation, Eddie Kennison went in motion to the left and threw the key block on defensive end Lance Johnstone, diving at Johnstone's legs to slow him down just long enough for Johnson to run past him for a gain of three.
- First-and-10: The only pass of the drive. It wasn't much of a pass at all, as Green tossed the ball to receiver Dante Hall behind the line of scrimmage. Hall sidestepped one defender and picked up three yards before Oakland's Stuart Schweigert tackled him.
- Second-and-7: Fullback Kris Wilson lined up in front of Johnson, marking the first time Johnson had a lead blocker. Johnson followed Wilson up the middle for a gain of five.
- Third-and-2: Right tackle Kyle Turley pulled to the left and wham-blocked Oakland defensive tackle Warren Sapp, creating the seal that opened up the middle of the line. Johnson ran through the hole for a gain of nine.
- First-and-10: Johnson went out for a play, and the Chiefs lined up in an unbalanced line, with an extra lineman to the right. Perhaps thinking Kansas City wouldn't run with Johnson on the sidelines, the Raiders didn't adjust their defense to that run-heavy formation, instead keeping the linebackers and defensive backs deep in coverage. With guard Chris Bober getting the key block, Michael Bennett took the simple handoff over the right tackle and gained 20 yards practically untouched.
- First-and-10: Kansas City ran the standard I-formation isolation play. Wilson had a tremendous block on Oakland linebacker Thomas Howard, and Johnson broke Schweigert's tackle for a gain of 18.
- First-and-10: By this point, the Raiders knew the handoff to Johnson was coming, and rookie defensive back Michael Huff lined up close to the line, playing linebacker in a 4-4 defensive alignment. It worked for Oakland; Huff (an outstanding young player) tackled Johnson after a gain of just three.
- Second-and-7: Johnson took a handoff up the middle, and the Chiefs left Raiders defensive end Derrick Burgess unblocked, thinking a defensive end couldn't get to the middle in time to make the play. That was a mistake; Burgess showed that he's one of the quickest defensive linemen in the league, getting into the middle of the line quickly enough to trip Johnson up for a gain of just two.
- Third-and-5: For just about any other team, this would have been a passing down. But the Chiefs knew what they wanted to do and weren't going to be dissuaded. Tight end Jason Dunn lined up on the right and blocked Burgess, Wilson went in motion to the right and destroyed cornerback Fabian Washington, and Johnson ran behind them around the right end for a five-yard touchdown.
As my colleague Mike Tanier recently noted, the average gain on a running play in the NFL is about four yards, but a few very long runs -- 50, 60, 70 yards or more -- skew that average. On Sunday Johnson ran 31 times for 154 yards, averaging five yards a carry, even though his longest run was that 18 yarder on the eighth play of the opening drive. The median carry in the NFL is three yards, and the mode, or most common result, is two yards. On Sunday Johnson's median run was four yards and his mode was five yards. Churning out that kind of yardage consistently is the way to win with a run-oriented offense. (For comparison's sake, consider the game earlier this season in which Chester Taylor of the Minnesota Vikings had 26 carries for 169 yards against the Seattle Seahawks. By conventional stats, that looks like a better game than Johnson had against Oakland, but 22 of Taylor's 26 runs went for four or fewer yards, and not a single one of those 22 runs picked up a first down.)
You might be thinking that Johnson's big day was in large part because he was playing against Oakland. But it's important to remember that the popular perception of Oakland as a terrible team is incorrect. Oakland is a terrible offense, but Oakland's defense is good. You might also be thinking that Johnson runs behind a great offensive line in Kansas City. A few years ago, the Chiefs had the best offensive line in football, but that line doesn't exist anymore. The best player on that line, left tackle Wille Roaf, is retired, and the next-best player, guard Brian Waters, missed Sunday's game. Center Casey Wiegmann is 33 years old and nowhere near the player he was in his 20s. Guard Will Shields is two years older than Wiegmann. There's a reason Priest Holmes couldn't even average four yards a carry last year.
The weaknesses of the Chiefs' offensive line were glaring on a second-and-2 in the second quarter, when Johnson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Three Oakland players -- Huff, Howard, and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly -- converged on Johnson at the line of scrimmage. Johnson can break tackles, but no running back would have picked up any yardage with three players hitting him like that before he could get to the line.
After all that straight-ahead running on the first drive, Kansas City offensive coordinator Mike Solari did get a little bit fancy. On the first play of the second drive, a fake end-around caused Oakland defensive end Tyler Brayton to take a step in the wrong direction, and that one step opened up just enough space for Johnson to take the handoff and get through the line for a gain of five yards. All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez missed Sunday's game, and although Green seemed to miss him in the passing game, Solari made up for his absence by using Wilson and Jason Dunn in two-tight end formations. Both Wilson and Dunn are superior blockers to Gonzalez.
On second-and-5 on the first play of the second quarter, Turley lined up as an eligible receiver as Solari called for the increasingly popular six-lineman formation. However, the six-lineman formation often tells the defense exactly what the offense wants to do, and in this case it caused the Raiders to put eight in the box and sell out to stop the run. Johnson couldn't find much room, but he made the best of the situation, pushing forward in the pile for a gain of three.
Being strong enough to push a pile is important, but Johnson's greatest strength is the way he accelerates through the smallest of holes. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Johnson ran over the left tackle. The hole was tiny -- six Raiders were in the vicinity -- but he managed to make himself skinny enough to squeeze through and pick up 17 yards. Two plays later, Johnson gained 17 yards again. That time he got a nice block from Turley, who lined up at right tackle, pulled all the way across the field and kicked out Howard. After watching Sunday's game, I came away much more impressed with Turley than I had been previously this season. Although he's much smaller than he was in New Orleans and struggles against bigger linemen, he's very quick.
I also liked what I saw of Bennett, who spelled Johnson effectively. Johnson already has 248 carries in 10 games this season, and that kind of workload is almost impossible for a running back to keep up. If the Chiefs run Johnson more than 400 times -- and he's on pace for 397 carries -- they will destroy their best asset for years to come. Bennett can be a nice change of pace for Johnson because in terms of straight line speed, he is probably the fastest running back in the NFL. He has never shown the necessary ability to break tackles to become an elite runner, but if teams keep playing pass when Johnson leaves the field, expect Bennett to break a lot of long runs.
Kansas City has played 19 games since Johnson took over the starting running back job. In those 19 games, Johnson has 2,396 rushing yards. Many people were skeptical of Johnson early in his career (including his first coach, Dick Vermeil, who famously said he needed to "take the diapers off"), but everyone now acknowledges that he's one of the game's elite players. There is, however, one lasting criticism. Last season Johnson missed a block on a blitz pickup, leading to a sack that some felt cost the Chiefs a game.
So a year later, is Johnson any better at blitz pickup? I really can't say because the Chiefs don't call on him to do it much. When they pass, they send Johnson out as a receiver rather than keeping him in to block. That might indicate that he's not a particularly good blocker, but he more than makes up for it by being one of the NFL's best pass-catching running backs.
Also, it must be said that quarterbacks are responsible for seeing the blitz coming, and Green struggled with blitz recognition against Oakland. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Dante Hall was split to the left with Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha lined up in coverage on Hall. At the snap Asomugha blitzed, leaving Hall all alone. If Green had seen the blitz coming, he could have lobbed an easy pass to Hall for a long gain, but he never even looked to his left. Asomugha drilled him, forcing a fumble.
Maybe some people will find a reason to blame that play on Johnson, who has received a lot more criticism in his young career than most elite players do. But watching him on every play against Oakland, I couldn't find much to criticize.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.