Perhaps it’s only fitting that in a season in which the NFL reset the single-season yards-per-carry mark and in which game scores went under the projected betting total 55 percent of the time, I find myself fixated on the running game as the Super Bowl approaches.
Specifically, there are certain elements intrinsic to what the Eagles do offensively that could put some torque and strain on a Chiefs defense that struggled much of the season. And even during Kansas City’s current seven-game winning streak, with its defense ranking first in yards per play and second in yards per pass in that span, the Chiefs haven’t faced an offense as balanced as Philadelphia’s. In fact, they feasted on some limited operations over their final five games before the playoffs: the Broncos (twice), Texans, Seahawks and Raiders.
If you’re inclined to like the Eagles’ chances in this contest — despite the heavy imbalance in experience between the coaches (Andy Reid was hired as coach of the Eagles in 1999, when Nick Sirianni had just completed his senior season of high school) — these trends might reinforce your thinking.
The Eagles can play keep away
At their core, the Eagles want to beat you up with arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, bully their way to a commanding lead at halftime and grind down your defense over the course of four quarters. The Eagles’ first-half scoring margin, including the playoffs, is plus-163, 72 points better than anyone else. The Chiefs were below average against the run (ranking 20th in run defense expected points added, per the website TruMedia), and they have not seen an opponent with this much intent, proficiency and multiplicity in the way it runs the ball, with Hurts and three diverse running backs (Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott).
The Eagles ran the ball exactly 50 percent of the time in the regular season and playoffs, fourth most in the NFL, and they are eighth in the NFL in time of possession. The Eagles also have run more plays than any other team in 2022 (playoffs included), and 30.1 percent of their rushes went for first downs, the second-best rate in the league. The only other teams the Chiefs faced in the top 25 percent of the NFL in time of possession were the 49ers and the Bengals, who gave them fits last week but failed to hit the magic number of carries, rushing the ball just 17 times.
What is that magic number, you ask? It’s 26.
The Chiefs are 16-3 including the postseason but were just 5-3 against opponents that ran the ball more than 25 times, and even the wins were less than sterling. They lost to the lowly Colts (Week 3), the Bills (Week 6) and the Bengals (Week 13) when those teams exceeded that total. They barely beat the suspect Titans at home in overtime — despite Tennessee playing with raw rookie Malik Willis at quarterback and hardly pretending to throw the ball — and needed a wild fourth-quarter comeback and overtime to beat the tanking Texans in Week 15, with playoff seeding on the line, after trailing much of the game.
Kansas City doesn’t love defending the QB in the running game
Hurts gave me pause with his lack of accuracy on some of his easiest throws in the NFC championship game, but I tend to think it’s not because of lingering shoulder issues, because he still used his incredibly strong trunk and core to push people around with the ball in his hands. And the Chiefs’ defense is good for giving up at least one long run whenever it faces a mobile quarterback. If this game is as close as many expect it to be, one play could be the difference.
The past five times this Kansas City defense faced a quarterback who could motor some, there were issues. Joe Burrow had a 14-yard scamper last week and a long of 16 in their previous meeting. Trevor Lawrence ran three times for 26 yards in the divisional round and had an 18-yard rush in their previous meeting. The Broncos and Russell Wilson faced Kansas City twice late in the season; Wilson had a long of 16 in one game and 19 in the other. Willis — maybe the closest approximation to Hurts the Chiefs faced, even without a hint of downfield passing intent — carried eight times for 40 yards with a long of 17. Josh Allen had a 16-yard run against them, and Kyler Murray had a 21-yard rush way back in Week 1 but just five total runs as the Chiefs destroyed the hapless Cardinals.
Even if Hurts is shaky throwing the ball in his first Super Bowl, the Eagles can lean into the option game and run-pass options to keep the clock moving. Again, if you think this game will be close, consider that in the Eagles’ seven one-score games, only once did Hurts not run at least 15 times (Week 18 against the Giants, his first game back from a shoulder injury). In those other six close games, he ran 98 times for 493 yards — 5.0 per carry — with eight rushing touchdowns.
11 personnel is a problem for the Chiefs
One reason the Bengals have been such a challenge for the Chiefs: They play almost exclusively in one personnel package, with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back on the field. (Only the Rams use the 11 personnel package more.) The grouping allows Burrow to spread the ball around to his weapons against a suspect Kansas City secondary. The Eagles rank seventh in usage of 11 personnel (regular season and playoffs) at 70.2 percent, but unlike the pass-reliant Bengals, Philadelphia has one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the NFL out of this grouping.
Hurts ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating out of 11 personnel (99.2), with 18 touchdowns to six interceptions, and was second in yards per attempt. The Eagles are almost always in the shotgun in this formation — overall they are in the gun 89 percent of the time — while the Chiefs rank 29th in opponent passer rating out of the gun vs. sixth when the passer is under center.
The Chiefs have allowed 56 passing touchdowns while defending 11 personnel the past two years (playoffs included) — 12 more than any other team. (The average is 36.) They rank 25th in opponent passer rating against the package (93.8) and 24th in opponent completion percentage (65.6 percent).
The Eagles have the NFL’s second-most rushes out of 11 personnel in the past two years, including the playoffs (the Bengals are third), but the Eagles rank fourth in yards per carry (5.44) while the Bengals are 27th. Philadelphia has 36 rushing touchdowns out of this formation in that span, 12 more than the Bengals, who are second. (The NFL average is 13.) The Chiefs’ defense ranks just 17th in yards per carry allowed against 11 personnel in that span (4.86), and, again, it hasn’t seen anything like the Eagles’ multifaceted running game.