Chiefs feel primed for offensive rebound in 2012

Posted May 23, 2012

Players optimistic about reviving team’s rushing attack

New city. New teammates. New offense.

Regardless, right tackle Eric Winston felt at home following his first practice with the Chiefs.

When the Chiefs lined up for their first offensive snaps of OTAs (Organized Team Activities), zone rushes were among the most popular plays on Brian Daboll’s script. The calls included blocking techniques that helped Winston become so successful in Houston’s run game over the past few seasons.

“We’re doing some outside zone stuff in the run game, which I’m really familiar with from my days in Houston,” Winston said. “Pass protections are a little different, but you still have to block the guy in front of you. It gets down to that simple level and you get after it.”

The Chiefs’ intention to run a zone blocking scheme surprised Winston on his free agent visit back in March.

Kansas City’s run game had previously been associated with Bill Muir and his longtime expertise in powerful, man-to-man blocking technique. Muir’s roots connected with Bill Parcells’ success utilizing man-to-man blocking schemes and extended to Daboll though former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, a Parcells disciple.

Daboll most recently coordinated the final season of Miami’s four-year run operating a man-to-man blocking scheme. Throw in Romeo Crennel’s ties to Parcells and it’s easy to see why Winston assumed zone blocking wouldn’t be the preference in Kansas City.

A commitment to running a zone blocking scheme was a selling point for Winston and the Chiefs have made good on that promise in practices this week.

“I think we have the right personnel, the right coaches and the right scheme to be successful,” Winston said. “We have to keep pushing and moving towards our end goal.”

That end goal includes returning Kansas City’s run game to an elite level – a level last experienced in 2010 when the Chiefs rolled to an AFC West title behind the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.

A lot of things went right in the Chiefs run game two years ago, from Jamaal Charles’ breakout season to Thomas Jones’ hot start as a change-of-pace running back. But the wheels fell off Kansas City’s run game last season due to injury, age and a number of other factors.

Rushing production slipped by nearly 50 yards per game in 2011. Averaging just 12.3 offensive points per game, the Chiefs also posted their lowest-scoring season since the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.

“With this system, everyone has to be working together and not just working, but communicating and doing the right things,” Winston said. “It’s a big change for everybody and it’s going to be tough. There will be some tough days ahead and you have to prepare for that.”

While the offense is preparing itself for the transition period that goes along with learning a new system, confidence is high among the team’s skill players.

 “I’m excited,” QB Matt Cassel said. “Peyton Hillis is coming in and working tremendously hard while Jamaal Charles has made tremendous progress. Every day Jamaal has been coming into the weight room and he’s doing some amazing things already. I’d expect those guys will be able to step in and have an amazing combination for us in the backfield.”

Hillis, who turned in the most productive season of his NFL career working with Daboll in 2010, is currently serving as the first-team running back while Charles continues rehab on his surgically-repaired left knee.

Charles underwent ACL surgery eight months ago and is expected to return to the backfield rotation by the time Kansas City opens training camp in late July.

“I think this is going to work out magnificently,” Hillis said of pairing with a healthy Charles. “We complement each other really well. He’s a tremendous running back with lots of speed and I think I’m a decent back who brings some power, so I think it will work well.”

A Hillis-Charles pairing mimics the recipe that saw Charles and Jones rush for a combined 2,363 yards in 2010. The only player to outrush Charles that season was Winston’s teammate, Arian Foster.

Though he just wore a Chiefs helmet for the first time this week, Hillis is playing the role of a returning veteran during OTA practice. He and backup QB Brady Quinn own the most experience working under Daboll having served as starters for the new offensive coordinator playing in Cleveland.

“It’s been pretty laid back for me, just helping the guys get to know the playbook and get things going,” Hillis said. “It’s good for me, and it’s good for the other teammates in the room with me because I can help them out.”

In addition to rushing for a career-high 1,177 yards in his one season working with Daboll, Hillis also caught 61 passes for 477 yards.

To put Hillis’ receptions total into perspective, the Chiefs haven’t had a running back catch more than 60 passes since Priest Holmes reeled in 74 receptions for 690 yards in 2003.

 “He (Daboll) knows how to create mismatches for me out of the backfield, and then at the receiver spot,” Hillis said. “He’s really good with the quarterbacks too.”

Charles caught 45 passes in 2010 and Dexter McCluster, who is currently practicing at wide receiver but could still see time at running back, logged 46 catches out of the backfield last season.

After taking a step backwards in 2011, the Chiefs feel primed for an offensive rebound in 2012.

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