With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ upset loss on Monday night, the Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) are now one win away from locking up the AFC’s No. 1 seed and the first-round playoff bye week that comes with it. The defending Super Bowl champions will have a strong chance to do that with the reeling Atlanta Falcons (4-10), losers of three straight and three of the most improbable defeats this season, coming into town this Sunday.
On Monday, Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris confirmed a notable change involving RB Todd Gurley, demoting the two-time All-Pro playmaker in favor of 2018 fourth-rounder Ito Smith.
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Ito Smith Now Falcons’ ‘Lead Dog Runner’
While Morris’ public declaration make the move official, the transition has been evident for the better part of the last month.
After Gurley missed the team’s Week 12 contest versus the Las Vegas Raiders due to lingering knee issues following at least 15 touches in each of the first nine games, the 26-year-old has been out-touched by Smith 29 to 20 in the last three games.
“His role has changed,” Morris said on Monday, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “His role had changed the one week due to injury when I made him the third-down back and the red zone back. And his role has evolved into that. Probably a little bit more than just some of the things he did when he was hurt that day. It’s definitely changed. Ito’s definitely our lead dog runner.”
Will Smith Change Chiefs’ Defensive Plans?
Since Week 12, Smith has been the more productive runner with 102 yards on 25 carries, while Gurley has averaged a mediocre 2.2 average yards per carry on 15 totes over that span, including minus-one yards on a single carry during last week’s division loss to Tampa Bay.
“Ito’s played so well,” Morris continued. “When he’s gotten opportunities, he’s made yards. He’s made hay. He’s made some of the runs look a little bit better. He’s actually gone out there and had a little bit better production when it comes to running the football. So he’s been the runner the last couple of weeks. We put him in that role a little more and more as he’s been growing. (Against the Buccaneers), it was a clear cut and defined role for Todd and a clear cut and defined role for all of them. It’s all been talked about with them personally and we’ll move forward that way. Whatever it takes to get a win.”
Gurley, who led his position with 54 touchdowns from 2017-19 with 15 more scores than the next closest running back (via NFLonCBS), has quickly fallen from grace over the last year after parting ways with the Los Angeles Rams just one season into a four-year, $57.5 million extension signed in 2018.
It’s unlikely the backfield swap changes much for Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his troops. Through Week 15, Atlanta’s ariel attack (fourth-best in the NFL) has far outpaced its ground game (28th), 273.4 passing yards to 93.9 rushing yards.
The Chiefs’ secondary could catch a break should fellow two-time All-Pro WR Julio Jones miss his third consecutive game with a hamstring injury. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Jones has already been deemed a game-time decision for Week 16 after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection earlier in the month to accelerate his healing.
Chris Licata is an NFL contributor covering the Kansas City Chiefs from enemy territory in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @Chris__Licata or join the Heavy on Chiefs Facebook community for the latest out of Chiefs Kingdom!